Sher­man show­ing young 49ers how to fight, and that could mean big things in 2019

The Tribune (SLO) - - Sports Classified­s - BY DI­ETER KURTENBACH

Richard Sher­man has played in count­less big games in his Hall of Fame ca­reer. He’s been an im­pact player in two Su­per Bowls, 12 play­off games, and all of the big, im­por­tant con­tests that led to those post­sea­son show­downs.

In com­par­i­son to those games, Sun­day’s con­test be­tween the 49ers and Bears was wholly unim­por­tant. After all, the 49ers haven’t been in the play­off hunt for months, lead­ing some fans to ac­tively root­ing for the team to lose, just so the Niners can land a bet­ter draft pick.

It would have been easy to for­give Sher­man if he had coasted Sun­day – if the vet­eran had taken the day off or took it easy on his sur­gi­cally re­paired Achilles Ten­don in the penul­ti­mate game of a lost sea­son.

In­stead, Sher­man turned in an­other ster­ling per­for­mance on the field, and when a skir­mish broke out along the Bears side­line in the fourth quar­ter, he put him­self in the mid­dle of the fray, com­ing to the de­fense of rookie safety Mar­cell Har­ris by throw­ing open­handed hay­mak­ers and earn­ing him­self an ejec­tion from the con­test.

“They were push­ing and shov­ing and grab­bing and punch­ing on him,” Sher­man said. “It was their whole side­line against one of my team­mates. … As a leader, you can’t let them do your team­mate like that.”

“It didn’t have to get there, but once it did, you have to make a de­ci­sion,” Sher­man con­tin­ued. “That sets a stan­dard.”

Mid­dle-school teach­ers and paci­fists might dis­agree, but Sher­man’s will­ing­ness to jump into the fray is a per­fect ex­am­ple of why the 49ers signed the for­mer All-Pro this past sea­son.

And how the 49ers’ young de­fense has re­sponded to Sher­man’s les­sons – the vast ma­jor­ity of which are non-vi­o­lent – in re­cent weeks por­tends good things for the team in 2019.

It would be easy to brush off Sher­man’s ac- tions as a “hot­head” do­ing hot­head stuff, or a vet­eran try­ing to get him­self some hot wa­ter in the shower through an early exit. Some might even see his open-handed punches (“vet move,” he joked) as a craven at­tempt to so­licit a col­umn like this, where his virtues as a leader are ex­tolled.

But his team­mates sure picked up what Un­cle Sherm was lay­ing down. To the young, im­pres­sion­able mem­bers of the 49ers’ de­fense, the vast ma­jor­ity of which are yet to play a truly im­por­tant NFL game, Sher­man putting him­self in the mid­dle of that fra­cas meant some­thing.

“Him be­ing there, for our team­mates – that was big,” Har­ris said. “I ap­pre­ci­ate him for that.”

There was an All-Pro safety com­ing to the de­fense of a rookie six­thround draft pick, who clearly com­mit­ted a foul on the play (the sever­ity of the foul is di­rectly cor­re­lated with your root­ing in­ter­est in the game). The one guy who would have been eas­ily ex­cused for stay­ing out of a melee was in the cen­ter of it.

Sher­man is right, that sets a stan­dard.

A stan­dard that not only that the Niners should have each other’s backs, but also that they’ll scrap any­time, any­where – metaphor­i­cally and lit­er­ally, too. And yes, even in a game that’s ef­fec­tively mean­ing­less.

The Niners re­sponded to Sher­man’s ejec­tion with an­other heavy-handed (or should I say open-handed?) metaphor later in the fourth quar­ter. After Allen Robin­son made a first­down catch that would have won the game for the Bears after the two-minute warn­ing, rookie cor­ner­back Tavar­i­ous Moore punched out the ball from be­hind – the 49ers’ re­cov­ered the fum­ble and game Nick Mul­lens and their of­fense a chance to win the con­test.

And while Mul­lens didn’t come through (a big win for the draft-con­scious crowd), Niners fans who watched Sun­day’s game can’t be blamed for feel­ing op­ti­mistic.

Win­ning is a habit and tank­ing is for losers. And this team – de­spite the

score­line of Sun­day’s game – is show­ing that they have no in­ter­est in tank­ing. They’re build­ing the right habits.

Since the Niners were blown out by the Sea­hawks in Seat­tle in Week 13, they’ve faced three play­off-con­tend­ing teams and have looked like equals in all three con­tests.

Mul­lens has been a big fac­tor – it’s dif­fi­cult to state how much of an up­grade he is over firstchoic­e backup quar­ter­back C.J. Beathard – but I’d ar­gue the de­fense has been even more im­por­tant to the Niners’ late-sea­son surge.

Three weeks ago, the Niners’ de­fense broke the Bron­cos’ play­off dreams by hold­ing them to 14 points. Then, they beat Rus­sell Wil­son and the Sea­hawks – a team that had dropped 43 on them two weeks ear­lier – by lim­it­ing them to 23 points. Sun­day, they took on one of the most cre­ative and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous of­fenses in the NFL and they only al­lowed two touch­downs, giv­ing their of­fense a chance to win the game in the fi­nal 112 sec­onds of the con­test.

De­spite a prodi­gious amount of in­juries and equally stag­ger­ing youth, the Niners’ de­fense has looked solid down the stretch.

“It came to the point of the sea­son where guys had to come to­gether,” Moore said. “I think we were all on the same page – no more ar­gu­ing, com­plain­ing, or any­thing like that. We just had to buckle down and get it done.”

Niners coach Kyle Shana­han cred­its con­ti­nu­ity, par­tic­u­larly at the safety and line­backer po­si­tion (of those four play­ers, three are rook­ies and the other, line­backer Eli­jah Lee, is a se­cond-year player who had zero de­fen­sive tack­les in his rookie year).

Sher­man, the old man of the bunch at 30 (three years older than the next old­est starter, nick­el­back K’Waun Wil­liams), be­lieves that the Niners young de­fend­ers – par­tic­u­larly the pup­pies in the sec­ondary – are keep­ing things sim­ple.

“I prom­ise you, it’s just guys play­ing sound,” said Sher­man. “When you don’t know too much, then you know enough to be lined up, in your spot, and to do what your coach told you to do.”

But for­give me if I can’t help but think that Sher­man – and the ex­am­ple of hon­est pro­fes­sion­al­ism that he sets on a day-in, day-out ba­sis – has been a big fac­tor, too. This is the time of year when guys on play­off-elim­i­nated teams start phon­ing in their per­for­mances. But not Sher­man, and, by proxy, not this Niners’ de­fense.

It’s not what peo­ple want to hear, but here’s the truth: foot­ball is a vi­o­lent game and de­fend­ers need to play with down­right un­healthy lev­els of ag­gres­sion. Ear­lier this sea­son, the Niners’ de­fend­ers weren’t play­ing with the req­ui­site fire. They are now. Thank Sher­man for that.

When Sher­man signed with the Niners this past off­sea­son, both he and the team’s coaches were can­did about him be­ing a coach on the field. As we head into the sea­son’s fi­nal week, I have to say: he’s done one a hell of a coach­ing job. And as a bonus, this coach can lock down one side of the field and throw hands in a fight.

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