49ers' locker-room culture endures through losing, winning seasons

49ers' locker-room culture endures through losing, winning seasons

SANTA CLARA — On Nov. 12, during Week 10 of the 2018 NFL season, the 49ers headed into their second Monday Night Football matchup of the year to face the New York Giants at Levi’s Stadium. At the time, their record was 2-7. 

Flash forward one year to November 11, 2019, where in Week 10 the 49ers again, will play in their second Monday Night game of the season. This time they will host the division rival Seattle Seahawks, and enter with an unblemished 8-0 record. 

You’d think the locker room would have a completely different vibe just a year removed from entering mid-November with the fate of the season already decided.

Surprising to most outside 49ers headquarters, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Yes, players are happier now that they are on the winning side of things, but remarkably through the last two seasons of futility for the 49ers, is that the locker room lacked the typical despondent nature of a losing team.

This is not to say that the 49ers enjoyed losing, because they definitely did not. What is different is that there was never a feeling of total despair or infighting. There was always hope and they always had each other’s back. 

Kyle Juszczyk believes that the uncommon attitude is due in large part to the roster that general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have been able to assemble. How consistent the locker room has been over the past three years with strikingly different records is not lost on the fullback. 

“It is really weird,” Juszczyk said. “I was literally talking to my wife about that yesterday, about how even when we were losing it wasn’t totally miserable. And I just thought if we had those records in Baltimore, I would have been miserable.  

“I think it’s a testament to the culture that Kyle and John have built and when you win it just amplifies things."

If you read between the lines on many of the player interviews during the week and after games, you get a sense of the unique characteristics of the 49ers locker room. It’s not because all 63 players have the same beliefs or like the same foods, because they don’t. After all, not too many people can love Panda Express as much as George Kittle.

They do, however, share a common bond over a passion for the game of football. 

The most obvious hint about the 49ers locker room might have been from Emmanuel Sanders, the newest member of the tribe. He spoke about what he experienced just five days after his arrival in Santa Clara, following the team's blowout win over the Carolina Panthers. 

“All week the energy has been so positive here,” Sanders said. “This locker room is just amazing with a great group of players, and great personalities around here. I showed up today expecting the same results in personality. 

“I will never forget going out into the tunnel with these guys. Everybody was laughing and smiling, I was like, ‘Man this is football, this is fun.’ I am blessed to be here.”

Juszczyk believes Sanders’ remarks carry even more weight as proof of what a special situation the 49ers are fortunate to be a part of. The wide receiver has been in two locker rooms and joining a team midseason could be akin to switching schools halfway through a semester.

“It’s a much more closely knit locker form than I’ve ever experienced,” Juszczyk said. “I thought it was really cool hearing what Emmanuel Sanders had to say the past couple of weeks when he came in. 

“His comment about coming out of the tunnel with us and going out onto the field for the first time, everyone smiling and happy to play football. It’s so cool to have an outsiders' perspective come in and let the people know about that, because it’s a young team. A lot of the guys have only experienced this. 

“Guys that have been in other locker rooms, and get to see it, it’s like ‘Wow.’ You really appreciate it. It reassures what we already know, that we are a close group.” 

“It’s very unique,” Sanders said of San Francisco's locker room after the team’s 28-25 win over the Cardinals. “When I first got here, obviously to start a season undefeated 8-0, you’ve got to have a special locker room. You’ve got to have a special group of guys and I didn’t know what to expect when I first got here. Coming into this locker room and seeing the guys, I really loved it.”

Center Weston Richburg is normally pretty soft-spoken in the locker room, but when asked what it is that sets the 49ers locker room apart, you can sense the intensity as his eyes light up. Richburg, who spent his first four seasons with the Giants, knows what the grass is like on the other side of the fence. 

“It’s really cool,” Richburg said of the 49ers locker room. “I’m very conscious of it and I’m very appreciative of it because it’s extremely rare. This is my sixth year, but I’ve never had this, it’s very rare. It’s different, but it’s awesome, I love it. 

“It starts from the top with the Yorks. They shake my hand after every game. That doesn’t happen everywhere. And then John gets the right people in here and then Kyle. The coaching staff is phenomenal. They care about putting the players in the best position to play well. We feed off that. It’s going well for us right now.” 

Even though Mike McGlinchey’s only NFL locker room experience is with the 49ers, he knows he is in an extraordinary situation. 

"I don’t know if it necessarily surprised me, but it is definitely something that I cherish having,” McGlinchey said. “You hear the horror stories when you’re in college, especially the rookie treatment when you’re the first-round guy. But we had none of that here, and we hit the ground running.

“I’ve been very fortunate. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation and now, on top of it, we are one of the best teams in the NFL. It’s special here and it’s hard to imagine somewhere else being better.” 

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Whether a player has been in the 49ers locker room since the beginning of the Shanahan and Lynch era or for 10 days, they recognize what they have and appreciate it. They won’t remain undefeated on the field forever, but a loss will not cause this locker room to waver.

They’ve been through too much together to allow that. 

How Patriots trading Jimmy Garoppolo earlier would've affected 49ers


How Patriots trading Jimmy Garoppolo earlier would've affected 49ers

The New England Patriots' ideal Tom Brady successor is the franchise quarterback for Brady's childhood team.

The Patriots dealt Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round draft pick in 2017, to coach Bill Belichick's reported chagrin. He envisioned Garoppolo leading the Patriots into another decade of dominance, but owner Robert Kraft ordered Belichick to trade Garoppolo and keep Brady, ESPN's Seth Wickersham reported in 2018.

Neither Brady nor Garoppolo will be in New England when the 2020 season starts, as the former signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that's still weird to type and say out loud) as a free agent last month. The Patriots' QB depth chart currently consists of Jarrett Stidham and former 49er Brian Hoyer, which doesn't exactly inspire dynasty-building confidence.

That left NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry to wonder if the Patriots would've been better off trading Garoppolo sooner, when then-Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson stopped just shy of holding a neon sign over his head indicating he would trade the No. 12 pick before that year's draft for Garoppolo.

"On its face, making that move made sense for both sides," Perry wrote Friday. "The Browns were desperate for a competent quarterback. They were flush with picks. The Patriots, meanwhile, didn't have a first or a second-rounder that spring. For them, trading Garoppolo with a year left on his contract represented an opportunity to bolster their 2017 rookie haul with a top-15 talent."

The ripple effects, as Perry noted would've been far-reaching.

Jackson would've had his quarterback of the future, and thus the Browns might not have drafted Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall -- or even had the pick -- in 2018. The 49ers, who Kyle Shanahan admitted were focused enough on acquiring Kirk Cousins as a free agent in 2018 that they passed on Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft, then likely would've gone all-in on Cousins. The Patriots, then, could've drafted Deshaun Watson at No. 12 overall -- the same pick the Houston Texans used after acquiring it from the Browns -- as Brady's successor.

Thankfully for fans sick of New England winning titles, that didn't happen. It's also fair to wonder if any of the teams involved other than the Patriots actually were better off.

Acquiring Garoppolo could've saved Jackson's job in the short-term, but the Browns didn't become a team who failed to meet lofty expectations until after Jackson's firing. The 49ers, had they signed Cousins to the same contract he signed with the Vikings in 2018, would've had more flexibility in the first season but less in the second when compared to Garoppolo's extension. Neither Cousins nor Garoppolo is a clear upgrade over the other, and it's not like you can guarantee Cousins wouldn't have torn his ACL in 2018, either.

[RELATED: Kittle's 49ers rise didn't shock fellow Iowa star Hanks at all]

The Patriots can (and surely will) kick themselves all they want for not maximizing Garoppolo's trade return, but the Browns might not view a hypothetical Garoppolo deal with the same regret since that still would've meant not picking Watson.

The 49ers, assuming they still signed Cousins, surely would've been happy either way.

George Kittle's 49ers rise didn't shock fellow Iowa star Merton Hanks

George Kittle's 49ers rise didn't shock fellow Iowa star Merton Hanks

Tight end George Kittle already is the 49ers’ best fifth-round draft pick since 1991.

Kittle has picked up two Pro Bowl selections and a First-Team All-Pro award in his first three NFL seasons. The 49ers have not experienced that kind of success from a player in the fifth round since the selection of defensive back Merton Hanks, a four-time Pro Bowl player and starter on the 49ers’ Super Bowl champion team in the 1994 season.

Kittle, like Hanks, played college ball at Iowa.

“I think that’s a great symmetry,” Hanks said this week on The 49ers Insider Podcast.

“The 49ers do pretty well with fifth-round draft picks from the University of Iowa. We tend to knock it out of the park a little bit there.”

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Hanks, who now works as senior associate commissioner of Conference USA, described himself as a first-round talent who fell in the draft due to a bad performance at the NFL Scouting Combine. He apparently scared teams with his reported time of 4.77 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

Kittle had an impressive combine. He had all the measurables, but he did not post great numbers as a pass-catcher during his four-year college career. In 25 games over four seasons, Kittle caught just 48 passes for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns.

In his first 45 regular-season games with the 49ers, Kittle has 216 catches for 2,945 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“I can’t say I’m surprised at all,” said Hanks, who referred to Iowa as “Tight Ends U."

[RELATED: How ex-49er Merton Hanks channeled 'Sesame Street' in iconic dance]

Iowa produced two tight ends in the first round of the 2019 draft: T.J. Hockenson, chosen No. 8 overall by the Detroit Lions, and Noah Fant, whom the Denver Broncos picked at No. 20.

“Coach (Kirk) Ferentz had NFL ties," Hanks added. "He understands the NFL game and what tight ends have to do to be successful, not only on the collegiate level, but the NFL level.”