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