Can the 49ers Handle the Pressure?

It's boom-or-bust time in the Bay. Super Bowl or start over. Can they handle the sky-high expectations?
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterSANTA CLARA, Calif.July 24, 2019

The man you expect to do all the talking has not changed. Richard Sherman still enters a room with swagger other players only dream of—forget that torn Achilles, forget the losingest season of his career, forget age.

Sherman makes it clear—in seconds—he's as fearless as ever.

Tell him that many assumed he came to the Bay Area to die, and he laughs. Those critics, he kindly points out, are the same fools who counted him out as a rookie. Sherman won't fade away like other past legends in funky colors. No, he kicks his right leg up onto a table inside 49ers HQ and lounges back.

"I know what I bring," he says. "If people understood what I was built of, there wouldn't be a lot of questions."

And that, he snipes, is "s--t they don't make no more."

The plan is to play four more seasons, and why? Why continue to sacrifice a body that's been beaten and bloodied and broken when a first-ballot bust awaits Sherman in Canton? One singular obsession: "Winning. Winning. More winning. More rings. I can help this team win another championship."

And here's the thing in Santa Clara: Everybody here has this attitude. This swagger. This fearlessness. A team that's won only 17 games across the past four seasons refuses to dilute its takes in drivel. There's veteran fullback Kyle Juszczyk, saying the Super Bowl "absolutely seems real" before rattling off a slew of new faces who can make it happen and assuring the hunger is palpable. "There's a fire in peoples' stomachs of, 'No more bulls--t. We need to do this now.'"

The man running the defense, linebacker Fred Warner, knows the heat is on.

"You have to win football games in this league or everyone's going to lose their job," he says. "Everyone's replaceable. So it's gotten to that point where everyone's been in the system long enough to where everyone's a vet. You have new guys in the system, but the sense of urgency to win football games is at an all-time high. I feel it.

"We all feel it."

So this season is Super Bowl or bust? He doesn't blink.

"My opinion: I think it is," Warner says. "If you're content with just winning the division, that's great, but the goal is that Lombardi. So people around this building have been talking about the 'Quest for Six.'"

The man running the offense is thrilled his team is thinking this way, because, as Jimmy Garoppolo puts it, "If you don't have that on your mind, you have no chance of getting there."

That energy comes right from the top, from their boss, head coach Kyle Shanahan. In April, the first day all of the players returned to Santa Clara after last season's 4-12 buzzkill, Shanahan was blunt. He told everyone the time for culture-changing had passed. It was time to win. Now.

After all, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are entering their third year together, the unofficial moment of reckoning for all regimes, and this is a duo that passed on Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky and, thus, the chance at building an insta-dynasty.

They've whiffed on Reuben Foster, and others.

Whispers of internal strife could get louder with more losing, and more losing could force San Francisco to hit eject yet again.

Everyone can feel the pressure.

Yet in the face of pressure, they're thinking Super Bowl. Because to them, the stars have aligned.

The GM sees a well-oiled machine of an organization. The player this regime took third overall in 2017 (Solomon Thomas), ahead of those three quarterbacks, is himself again after his life—forget football career—was in peril last year. The Niners believe they've found their quarterback, blowing up Garoppolo's grinning mug on the side of the stadium with the words "Faithful Now" to the right of Joe Montana and "Faithful Then." And, no question, Sherman is changing the ethos of this team.

To Sherman, it's simple.

There's no pressure when you know you're going to kick someone's ass.

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 16: Richard Sherman #25 of the San Francisco 49ers fires up the team on the field prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi's Stadium on December 16, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Seahawks
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

"If you don't believe you're going to win it, why play?" Sherman asks. "What the f--k is the point of playing if you don't think you're going to win it? Like, there's no point. Why go out there if, 'How do you think you guys will do?' 'Oh, I think we'll be middle of the road.' Like, what the f--k are you going to play for in the middle of the road?"

It's not that teams are afraid to talk like this, he explains. "Humans" are afraid to "think" like this.

Especially in the NFL, where speaking out of line often sends you to the principal's office privately and gets you reprimanded, not celebrated, publicly.

"That's why they always say, 'Be humble. Show humility. Never guarantee wins.' Well, goddamnit..." Sherman says, banging the table, "I think I'm going to win. I don't think I'm going to lose. Some people see things differently. Some people are like, 'Man, just let it happen.' Some people are like, 'Well, I called the shot. I plan on making it.'"

Pressure is mounting.

The 49ers are calling their shot. 

Moving from fan to fan, autograph to autograph, Lynch is a rockstar politician with soaring approval ratings this scorching June day. He stops to speak to a crowd on a platform that overlooks the practice field, including one older fan donning a hat made out of the 49ers' five Super Bowl trophies. Lynch knows it's on him to deliver No. 6.

He promises everyone he's working hard to make it happen, steps into his office and cannot stop smiling. Everywhere Lynch looks, there are signs of the culture he's building—a culture steeped in this franchise's tradition of excellence. A culture he believes has this dormant dynasty on the verge of a reawakening.

In the huge family portrait behind his desk. Lynch calls his wife a "saint" for greenlighting his swapping a cushy broadcasting gig for a job spiked with enough stress to destroy any family. From day one, Lynch and Shanahan made sure this franchise would value and include family.

In the row of books on a shelf to his right. Or actually missing from it right now. Shanahan still hasn't returned one of Lynch's favorites. During their second week on the job together, Lynch loaned the coach Bill Walsh's epic Finding the Winning Edge—the one that can cost north of $400 because only 36,000 copies were printed—and Shanahan still hasn't returned it. No sweat. Lynch plucks a different Walsh book from the shelf and flips through pages covered in blue markings. This book, Lynch notes, is loaded with wisdom on what to look for in a quarterback. 

In the famous Vince Lombardi "What It Takes to Be Number One" quote framed on a wall. And the painting of Lynch himself, as a Bronco, lurching over a receiver after a crushing hit. And "The Catch" illustrated on a ball.

But what really gives Lynch confidence that the good times are about to roll isn't visible: the team depth chart behind a curtain in the back of the room.

"When I opened that thing up," Lynch says, "Gosh, it used to feel like, 'Man, there's a lot of holes.'"

Not anymore. Expectations are high. Super Bowl-high.

"And that's what's most important," Lynch says. "Not how people see us. How we see ourselves. We have to go do it, but we have great confidence that we're capable of doing that."

Right here, Lynch could make just about anyone believe. A manic desire to clutch that trophy again brought the former Bucs and Broncos great to this seat to begin with. Through his eight years as a color analyst at Fox, he took regular "inventory" of his life—What am I doing? Where do I want to be in five years?—and couldn't shake a lingering "I love what I'm doing, but..." itch. The opportunity to restore a storied franchise to greatness was too perfect.

No question, the No. 1 challenge is adjusting to that helpless feeling on game day. Letting go. John Elway and Ozzie Newsome, two other former players who have run teams, told Lynch this takes time to get used to. But Lynch now feels like he can start to let go because of that depth chart and because of what he calls a seamless "synergy" between the personnel and coaching staffs.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

There have been rumblings of friction—rumblings that all the pressure might be leading to a schism between Lynch and Shanahan. In late April, B/R's Matt Miller was told by sources in the team's scouting and coaching staff that "the two aren't in lockstep as far as the vision of the offseason and the future of the franchise." But no one B/R spoke to for this story had seen signs of that schism, and Lynch is quick to dismiss it, saying, "Don't believe the hype" and then detailing how the opportunity to work with Shanahan was a reason he took the job. Back when he was at Fox, Lynch's scheduled 10-minute convos with the then-Falcons offensive coordinator turned into hour-plus marathons.

They "stimulate" each other's minds, Lynch says. Shanahan is the offensive savant, and he knows defense.

That's swell and all in theory, but who's in charge? Lynch brushes that off, too. He and Shanahan don't always agree on players, but Lynch insists they "challenge each other" to reach a conclusion.

"I can tell you with confidence," Lynch says, "that we've never made a decision here where we both haven't been all-in by the time we made it. If I feel really strongly about a player and he's not quite there, that's my job to get him there or we move on. And vice versa. We enjoy being around each other."

Of course, both of their fates were inevitably tied to who they handpicked at QB.

Passing on Mahomes (and Watson and Trubisky) in 2017 for a defensive lineman who has four sacks in 30 games may have been a fireable offense in itself. Any of the three might have turned the 49ers into a superteam overnight. Like the L.A. Rams, the team the Niners must overcome in their own division. Lynch, too, could have handed out the blank checks with a QB on a rookie deal. Looking back, he assures he did travel both to Texas Tech to see Mahomes and Clemson to see Watson—"we loved those guys"—but says San Francisco was also forecasting the QB market years in advance in deciding to focus on another position in that draft. Lynch knew there'd be free agents available (ahem, Kirk Cousins), and that Garoppolo could be available via trade.

Then Bill Belichick called Shanahan, and six months after that 2017 draft, the 49ers agreed to send a 2018 second-round pick (which the Pats have since turned into a hoard of assets) for Garoppolo. By the end of the 2017 season, Garoppolo had become the 49ers' starter, gone 5-0 in the role and earned a five-year, $137.5 million extension. It all seemed to be working out perfectly...until Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3 of the 2018 season.

This is when you hear a tick of urgency in Lynch's voice.

He loves Garoppolo's "rare" throwing ability and how he makes everyone around him better. But even this eternal optimist taps the brakes.

"He needs to play," Lynch says. "I don't care how talented you are, you're going to go through growing pains playing that position in this league."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Growing pains so often send guys in Lynch's shoes back to the broadcast booth, too. The grind of scouting. Emotion clouding decision-making. A flat inability to evaluate. NFL players rarely make great GMs for many reasons, but there's no room for negativity in this room. Lynch makes clear he's trying to master his deficiencies and believes his experience on the field gives him an edge.

He knows what makes players tick. He can handle that rising pressure.

"There's guys who never played that made tremendous GMs," Lynch says, "but I believe that there are certain things to understand if you never played. ... You can't have thin skin in this role—I think even more so than as a player. You're going to take it because not everyone is going to agree with you.

"But I love the challenge of it, and that's something that playing really teaches you. The guys that are successful, that's what they do. They say, 'OK, what's in my control? And how can I find a way to get better at that each and every day?'"

And, honestly, he doesn't like that word: pressure. Lynch repeats this is an "opportunity," a "blessing," and that this season will be the breakthrough.

"I feel really good," he says, "that great things are going to happen here."

He may be right.

He may be wrong.

A gale of roaring cheers and high-fives swept through the draft room announcing to everyone on April 27, 2017, that the San Francisco 49ers were back. When Lynch and Shanahan followed their pick of Thomas at No. 3 overall by trading up to select Reuben Foster with the 31st pick, one former 49ers staffer recalls an "explosion." If not for off-field concerns, the Alabama linebacker would've been second or third on their draft board.

To them, this was a damn coup.

So from there, GM and coach watched over Foster, this source says, "like he was their son." They did everything in their power to keep him under control, leading some on staff to think they were too close to Foster. That they blurred the lines of an employer/employee relationship. Once, Lynch brought Foster right into draft meetings to study draft prospects with scouts. As the staffer recalls, "I'm looking around like, 'What the f--k is going on right now? This is not normal.'"

Of course, the pick proved to be disastrous. Foster is now gone.

Lynch is a walking TED Talk, but these 49ers could always free-fall in the other direction. Regardless of whether there's friction between Lynch and Shanahan, no one can deny three years' worth of questionable moves. And through it all, the former staffer says the current scouting staff is feeling increasingly marginalized. Where Lynch sees "synergy," others see an imbalance. With Shanahan wielding so much control, coaches are far, far more empowered on draft day. As the staffer puts it, it is literally the scouts' jobs to study prospects two years at a time, so "to see your work not valued as highly is demoralizing."

He adds, "Voices are being heard, but they're not the right voices."

Start with the first pick in 2017: Thomas. Maybe Lynch and Shanahan were hesitant to gamble on a QB because doing so instantly would've put them on the clock. Maybe the fact that Lynch took a class at Stanford with Thomas clouded his judgment—everyone agrees on Thomas' outstanding character. Emotion could've interfered. The more heartless the GM, we're all schooled, the better. Belichick, the unquestioned GOAT, is notoriously ruthless.

Either way, a handful of 49ers scouts who watched Thomas in person several times never viewed him as a top-five pick, and the former staffer cannot recall one serious conversation about taking a quarterback.

Elsewhere, running back Joe Williams wasn't even on the draft board that same year, and scouts ripped him to shreds for quitting on his team in college. But Shanahan loved him, so the 49ers picked him in the fourth round. Be it Tarvarius Moore (third round, 95th overall in 2018) or Ahkello Witherspoon (third round, 66th overall in 2017) or Kentavius Street (fourth round, 128th overall in 2018) or C.J. Beathard (third round, 104th overall in 2017), this was a common trend. Coaches on staff simply had a greater say in who the 49ers selected. Their voices, their highlight cut-ups have carried more weight.

Some scouts, feeling powerless, are considering leaving when their contracts expire.

Granted, this isn't a new phenomenon. Coaches, by definition, feel as though they can coach up players and thus will often gravitate toward prospects with jaw-dropping size, speed and measurables, whereas many scouts would rather trust what hours and hours of tape tell them. Under ex-GM Trent Baalke, if the coaches and scouts differed sharply on a prospect, an open discussion was had. Here, that hasn't always been the case. Even this spring, at No. 2 overall, some scouts wanted the team to at least consider Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, but the choice was Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa all the way.

And to scouts everywhere, it can be difficult to see the likes of Lynch, Elway and Mike Mayock get GM jobs.

Says one NFC scout on the Lynch hire: "It's hard for guys putting in that work, working up the ranks, moving between teams to elevate your position—and being away from your family, really for all that time—and then to have someone come in who's never really done any of that before. It's kind of disheartening to see some guy can just walk right in and take the top job that I've been working a decade-and-a-half for. It's kind of like, Well, what's the point?"

The 49ers clearly valued a polished voice for the organization. Lynch is comfortable being front and center, a role Baalke did not fully embrace. And after a run of dysfunction, that means something here. Even if no one's sure who'd fall on the sword if things go south.

After last season's injury-induced disaster, the strength and conditioning staff served as a sacrificial lamb. If this season is the same, higher-up heads will roll.

On the other hand...

"If they win," the former Niners staffer says, "none of it matters."

And the coaches have hit on picks, too.

Josie Lepe/Associated Press

George Kittle, the 146th overall pick in 2017, may be the closest thing there is to Rob Gronkowski in this league. (Shanahan pinpointed him early in the draft process.) Warner, the 70th overall pick in 2018, had 124 tackles as a rookie, which soothed the sting of the Foster fiasco. (Linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans hit it off with Warner at the combine.)

From Sherman (three years, $27.1 million) to Dee Ford (five years, $85.5 million) to Kwon Alexander (four years, $54 million) to Thomas and Bosa, Lynch has ponied up for a defense in his vision. And maybe the confidence in knowing your coach has ID'd you as part of the solution translates to something. It sure injects belief.

Warner casually says that his goal is go down as the best linebacker in league history, and he wants all 11 starters on his side of the ball thinking the same way. "Dominant is the word I use to describe us," he adds. "I feel like we have everything."

The sentiment is contagious. Right down to the most neglected position on the roster these last three years: wide receiver. While multiple NFC scouts rip Garoppolo's receiving corps, calling projected No. 1 Dante Pettis no more than a No. 3 and saying it makes no sense to pour millions into running back while trying to get by on the cheap at receiver, Pettis himself also doesn't hold back.

"Keep thinking that," says Pettis, an eclectic 23-year-old with pink streaks in his hair and a cat peeking around a flower on his T-shirt. "If they want to look at our team and say, 'They don't have a No. 1 receiver,' OK, cool. Don't focus on anybody. Just play defense normally. And we'll pick you apart. I'm completely fine with that."

If the Warners and Pettises prove the 49ers right, maybe a few unhappy scouts are just necessary collateral damage. Only time will tell if this structure proves to be more dynasty or house of cards.

Compared to those roars for Foster, the reaction to the Thomas pick was, well, more of a muted applause.

But Lynch believed then, and Lynch believes now.

A GM treating a player like a son may not be such a bad thing, either.

A storm was brewing and no one knew.

Not Mom. Not Dad. Not any of his closest friends.

Thomas was imploding, yet he didn't want to burden those closest to him, so he suppressed this storm within deep, deep and even deeper down inside of him. That way, nobody would know just how much his sister's suicide was tearing him apart at the seams.

On Jan. 23, 2018, Ella Thomas shot herself in the chest, and all her brother Solomon felt was anger, pure anger, because he and Ella were so unbelievably close.

If anybody could've prevented this—he kept telling himself—it was him. Nobody else knew the depths of her depression. They were each other's "safe haven," he says, each other's "best friend." Sports. Politics. Girls. Guys. No topic was off-limits, and if one sibling was holding anything back, the other always knew. Ella saw the good in people. Captivated people. Poured everything she could into every conversation and, one day, planned on opening a facility for girls who've been sexually assaulted.

Ella wanted to help others who endured the anxiety and depression she did.

She wanted to have a real impact on peoples' lives.

Unfortunately, her own depression worsened. Whenever she'd fall into her "dark place," Thomas explains, she'd take medications, and those meds quit working after a week or two. There was little rhyme or reason to what doctors prescribed Ella—doctors would go "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" with pills—and Ella became a different person. When the anxiety attacks peaked, she felt like she was going to die.

Thomas was the person to call, always. Her lifeline.

Josie Lepe/Associated Press

Two weeks after his rookie season ended, Thomas thought Ella was in a good place. He had helped her get an internship in Dallas, and on the night of Jan. 22, 2018, she sounded calm while asking her brother if they could grab lunch the next day.

The next morning, she was dead.

"There is nothing in my heart, my energy, my life that makes me believe that was planned," Thomas says. "That was definitely an impulse decision."

Anger mounted, guilt mounted and the storm raged within Thomas, who was overwhelmed by "How is this not on me?" dread. By August, the anger was replaced by something much worse: sadness.

An emptiness. Depression.

Thomas never suffered depression before. Once he slipped into his own darkness, it felt like quicksand. Nothing at work mattered. Not games, not practice. A self-described "energizer bunny" in the weight room his entire life, a man "built of passion," Thomas now aimlessly glided through life. Day to day. He tried talking himself into being excited about football, but it wouldn't work. Did I lose my love of football? he asked himself repeatedly. That wasn't it. He loved football.

So six games into the 2018 season, Thomas asked himself, OK, what did I lose? The answer was his passion for life.

Everything felt pointless.

"I just had nothing there," Thomas says. "I was like, 'I really don't care about this. I really don't care about life anymore.'"

And Lynch knew. Lynch, the one who took that class with Thomas, who drafted Thomas, who knew Thomas the person, could tell he had transformed into somebody else when no one else could. So that week in the cafeteria, the 49ers GM pulled Thomas aside to ask if he wanted help, if he wanted to see a therapist, and that's when it hit him. He couldn't do this alone.

For most of this conversation with B/R, Thomas speaks rapidly and rhythmically, his mind and voice revved uniformly to warp speed from his sister to depression in general ("There's a chemical imbalance in your brain that you cannot fix") to his own plummet to...this specific week that changed his life. On the spot, his words slow to a crawl and he stares at the ground in trance.

"I was about to break," Thomas says. "And that week I was about to break is when John came up to me."

When you say "break," what do you mean?

"I didn't want to be here anymore. I don't know. I don't know exactly what I mean by that."

As in, stepping away from football?

"Football. Life. I don't know. I legit didn't. … That conversation probably saved my life, to be honest. I was in a really dark, dark place then."

Are we talking the same thoughts Ella had?

"Yeah. Yeah. ... I was going through it. But yeah..."

Thomas appears to be drifting back into his "dark place" and stops talking. He won't delve any further.

From that day forward, he spent time with a therapist daily, then weekly, and gradually became himself again. One tactic that worked? Entering a room to cry and scream at the top of his lungs. He unleashed the storm within.

"She really helped me understand to own my emotions and be confident in them and that I'm feeling this way for a reason," Thomas says.

On the field, he was lighter on his feet. ("I wasn't stuck in sand anymore.") Off the field, he spilled his emotions to the entire team, telling them all to honor their emotions, to deal with their non-football stress openly, whether that meant reading a book, talking to a therapist, anything. The mind, he told them, must be healthy above all else. And in December, one letter from a nine-year-old named Tony Hood helped him turn the corner. Tony lost his own father a month before—"You're not alone," he told Thomas in the letter, ending with "Want to be buddies?" Thomas flew Tony and his family out for the Seahawks game and gave them all a huge hug.

At that moment, Thomas realized he could truly make a difference in people's lives. Exactly as Ella intended.

"After that, I really dedicated my life," he says. "This is a passion of mine, and it really built me back up to being me again. I look at every day as an opportunity to impact someone's life but also make myself the best Solomon I can be.

"I have to share her and do what she would want to do."

There are moments Ella's death still hurts, but Thomas can now cope with those moments.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Now, his resurgence can be the 49ers' resurgence.

He's himself again, curious as ever, learning about art and fashion and traveling to understand different cultures—"I love knowing why. Why are people the way they are?" And he's ready to perform like the third pick in the draft, alongside Ford and Bosa and DeForest Buckner on a loaded defensive line under new position coach Kris Kocurek.

Lynch, of course, played in the secondary of some historically great defenses in Tampa Bay—but he knows it all started up front. With pressure. "We've tried to build a front that is a force to be reckoned with each and every week," Lynch says. "We're confident that we've done that."

So when the rumors swirled this past spring that the Niners were looking to trade Thomas, Lynch quickly invited him to his office, looked him in the eye again and promised he wasn't going anywhere. Lynch believes in his first-ever draft pick. And communication, to him, is a pillar of this organization.


Thomas is thankful for that.

"I'm here," he says. "I'm me again."

His words, once again, slice like a knife.

His perspective, like old times, is certified fresh.

One other (extremely) critical piece to the 49ers' puzzle wasn't himself last year, either: Sherman.

Hood up, triceps popping in this sweatshirt, a year-plus removed from his torn Achilles, he sits in the same chair Thomas was a half-hour earlier and announces that yes, he is again Richard Sherman, and yes, these 49ers are "100 percent" a contender.

He doesn't give a damn who hears him, because Sherman believes this isn't bluster. That's why he doesn't like the word "swagger"—swagger can imply you're a poser, a caricature, insecure. And Sherman has forever injected unparalleled...let's call it...audacity into his teams through diligence away from the cameras. That's how you truly intimidate and, quite literally, scare quarterbacks into ignoring half the field.

That's how he built a Legion of Boom from scratch.

That's how he plans to win. Again. Here.

Sherman gets the whole "one game at a time" pledge of allegiance recited through all 32 NFL cities every interview, every week. To him, the true competitor can call their shot because they've prepared for that shot.

You believe it, he stresses.

"It's not really a swagger as much as I've put a lot of hours into this," Sherman says. "And I'm very confident the work I put in is going to show. It's like a guy shooting 10,000, 15,000 shots. And then you ask him to shoot one and he's like, 'I'm going to make this one because I put the work in.' You know what I mean?' It's not like, 'I just woke up out of bed. I feel good about this shot. I'm going to shoot it.' ... He could easily be humble and say, 'I just think it's the right time, the right place.' Or the guy can say, 'I put the time in. I'm going to show 'em Sunday. I'm going to win.'"

Sherman didn't come here to rot and wither and limp into retirement. Long ago, a coach told him the worst three words in football are "I got it," and he never forgot that. He sharpened his own career into a personal "quest for perfection." Sherman believes he's never had a perfect practice, never had a perfect game, and anything that gets in the way of his quest? Fuel. Nobody in the league is better at finding new reservoirs of fuel than Sherman.

Josie Lepe/Associated Press

He believes that his quest can become the 49ers' quest, that he can make everyone here believe and change the mindset of the entire team.

Quarterbacks are fuel. That game-within-the-game chess match. He breaks them down, one by one. From Tom Brady and greatness ("He plays well in moments that are very critical") to Aaron Rodgers and autonomy ("You don't just call your own plays for all this time and then say, 'I'm going to call what you call...' The moment that doesn't yield success, you go back to what yielded success") to Philip Rivers and bad luck ("People always fold up on him") to Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson and Kirk Cousins. These are the quarterbacks that are special to him. "Even when you hit them in the face and they're tasting their own blood," Sherman says, "they don't fold."

His son is fuel. That's what gets him up in the morning. He wants four-year-old Rayden to see Dad playing well.

Legacy is fuel. He wants to forever be known as "a guy who's dominant," as the undisputed best cornerback of his era.

And this era itself is fuel. More asteroids dropped on his side of the ball this offseason. A league apparently determined to make players like him disappear will always keep the fire within lit. The fact that teams can now challenge pass interference, that covering receivers will now be dissected in slow motion is "insane" to Sherman. "At some point, they're going to tell us, 'Hey, we don't need you out here,'" he says. "They're going to play on air and see who can score the most points." Five, 10 years from now? "It's going to be flag."

Sherman's pissed. Every defensive player in the NFL is pissed.

But no, the 49ers will not relent, because Sherman won't allow it. He'll make sure they fight such absurdity one way and one way only. That's how you substantively change a team's mindset.

"Every day, you play with a chip on your shoulder," Sherman says. "You don't concern yourself with, Oh, man. They're maybe going to flag this or do this.' ... You play hard, you play intense, you play physical, you let the chips fall where they may.

"If you have to make them call a thousand flags, make them call a thousand flags."

That's what Sherman's defense in Seattle did.

The way it all ended up north is fuel, too. He even thinks the Legion of Boom's bludgeoning success was a reason the NFL has reached new extremes. Seattle won despite it all, and the NFL couldn't stand it. Then Seattle gave up on the Boom itself. And on him. With one torn Achilles, Sherman was shown the door.

He insists and re-insists he never took it personally, because to Sherman, it's no different than someone getting fired by Walmart and then getting hired by Target. This is a job. Nothing is permanent. Even then, however, he lets a smile slip. It doesn't hurt to play Seattle twice per year now.

"It works out," he says. "It works out well for us."

Seattle supplied a drop of fuel that soon turned into more than he ever imagined.

Somehow, Sherman spun the torn Achilles, the brutal recoiling of a tendon up his leg, into his greatest source of fuel yet. He mentally turned every day, every set of calf raises, every conditioning drill into a new challenge.

"There's always two ways to look at adversity. Why me? or Yeah, I'm glad it happened to me because it gave me another challenge, and I needed another opportunity, I needed another mountain to climb ..." Sherman says. "Any time you go through something you have no control over, it really brings you back down to the screws and the base foundation of why you do it, why you play the game."

And that, of course, is winning. Winning. And more winning.

The injury crystallized this like never before. In the process, the 49ers keep morphing into a team in Sherman's image.

This new generation of players is softer, he's noticed, so Sherman harps on toughness, on intensity. Over time, his work ethic and his attitude will become contagious, and these 49ers can cut against the grain of this devolving NFL. All of the signs are already there against what he calls Shanahan's "clusterf--k" of an offense. To him, this defense can be dominant. This defense can punch offenses in the mouth and, who knows, even force a QB or two to actually throw the ball his direction.

He's gotten those opportunities in practice. Garoppolo isn't afraid to test the old man.

Of course, Sherman also couldn't mention Garoppolo alongside all those other QBs.

The slight hiccup in Lynch's optimism is Sherman's hiccup—because Garoppolo frankly has not tasted his own blood yet. He likes the arm, the accuracy, the command.

"But," Sherman cautions, "you have to watch him do it."

And the time is now.

They couldn't be any more different. In every conceivable way.

Garoppolo was handed one of the richest contracts in NFL history after seven career starts. Sherman was a 154th overall pick and didn't cash in until he asserted himself as the best corner in football.

Garoppolo was spotted kissing an Instagram model and then weeks later having dinner with an adult-film star last offseason. Sherman tied the knot with his wife in Punta Canta in the Dominican Republic. 

Garoppolo won't be found opining on politics or Roger Goodell while turning his Twitter account into a stream of unapologetic commentary on NCAA hypocrisy, per Starting Quarterback PC policy. Sherman doesn't have to abide by any such policy.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 9: Richard Sherman #25 and Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers get ready to talk the field prior to the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Viki
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Yet strip all of this away—zero in on exactly what drives Sherman—and it's as if Garoppolo is his long-lost brother. Through January, February and March, when there was absolutely nothing going on, Garoppolo was at the facility. For 12 hours a day. Prompting the likes of his fullback Juszczyk to shout, "I don't even know what you're doing!" Both the face of the 49ers offense and defense independently point to Draymond Green's epic quote on "greatness" from the NBA Finals.

They're both confident as hell because both intend to back up every word.

The quarterback who intimated to B/R a year ago that he believes he's better than Tom Brady hasn't changed his opinion one win, two losses and a torn ACL later. The franchise is on his back. He's the one who determines whether these 49ers sink or swim. So, hell yeah, Garoppolo still feels the same way.

"If you don't have that mindset, you don't have a chance to be that good," Garoppolo says. "You'll never get there. I've always had confidence, but it's from the stuff you do in the offseason. ... You don't get that confidence from just showing up and going through the drills. You have to put in the extra work."

We can only take his word for it. Garoppolo's been a five-year tease. A mystery.

The quarterback admits there was a period of raw dejection when his 2018 season ended so prematurely, but rather than lament Why me?, he spun this into a Sherman-like positive. He rehabbed hard with running back Jerick McKinnon, who also tore an ACL. And with Kyle Shanahan busy preparing the other QBs through a failed season, he worked with Kyle's dad. He watched film with two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan through December.

Once the season ended, he was in Kyle's ear again.

"He's so advanced in how he sees defenses and how he predicts," Garoppolo says. "I'm trying to get on the same level."

Adds Juszczyk, "I don't like to overuse the word 'mastermind' or 'offensive genius,' but this guy really is that."

Shanahan targets a specific weak link and attacks. Take, for instance, San Francisco's 44-point eruption against the Jaguars' No. 2-ranked defense in 2017. Shanahan knew if he ran to the left for a couple plays, he'd get an overaggressive Telvin Smith to bite, bite and haphazardly bite again some more, thus allowing Juszczyk to leak free up the sideline on a route. He was right. Smith bit hard and—"boom," Juszczyk says, snapping his fingers—the fullback was wide-open for a 44-yard gain.

It was a brief moment of magic, a fleeting glimpse of what Garoppolo and Shanahan can do together.

Essentially what the L.A. Rams have been doing for two years now.

Told that the coach-QB duo these two must slay in their own division already has something special, that long before Jared Goff took a snap in Sean McVay's offense, he was fielding X's and O's questions via text at a Chick-fil-A—that those two are always "on," always scheming—Garoppolo doesn't hesitate. These two are building something special, too. Garoppolo has been at the facility as much as possible because, in his words, there's always something to learn.

Now it's time to play, time to see if these two can deliver.

Garoppolo is sick and tired of learning—from Brady, from Josh McDaniels, from the Shanahans, from the sidelines. It's why he felt like a kid playing Pop Warner football for the first time through OTAs, constantly asking receivers like Pettis what they were thinking on specific routes. He may be the hungriest starting QB in the league. After months upon months of jamming knowledge into his head, he finally applied it all to the field. Says Garoppolo, beaming, "You make a throw and say, 'Damn, I've been working on that one for a long time.'"

So where there's hesitation, there's also hope. A ton of hope.

Juszczyk says the way the ball comes off Garoppolo's hand is "just different." He puts it wherever he wants. The time behind the scenes with Shanahan has started to manifest itself in practice. Garoppolo is telling players to run a route a few inches wider here or step on a cornerback's toes a bit more there, the fullback explains. Juszczyk believes Garoppolo is the rare QB who'll flip those two or three plays that change a game.

Because of that confidence. Because he expects to make those plays.

"You could feel it," Juszczyk says. "He knows he's a talented guy. He knows he just needed the opportunity."

Adds Warner, "Some guys just have that 'it' factor, and Jimmy's one of them. ... He has everything to be one of the top quarterbacks in this league."

The expectations are soaring again in the Bay Area.

Nobody will be caught yammering on about process and culture anymore because here, the stakes are clear.

If Garoppolo goes down again or if he proves to be nothing but hype—one scout cautions, "They treat him as a god, but I don't think he's that good"—the 49ers will crumble and people will get fired. Sherman may change everyone's attitude, but quarterbacks can still avoid him like the plague. Solomon Thomas could be Thomas again and still be a bust. Lynch and Shanahan may be the best of pals, but they chose Garoppolo. Together. If he fails, perhaps their relationship will fracture. If he fails, maybe Garoppolo himself will even get scapegoated and the 49ers will pounce on the escape clause in his contract in 2020.

So much hangs in the balance.

"I put so much pressure on myself to perform and play at a high level," Garoppolo says, "that all that stuff is noise on the outside.

"We have to prove it to ourselves first."

And that's the overwhelming sentiment—that there's really only one option. With that square jawline and soap-opera tan and perfectly coiffed hair, all uncertainty solidifies into certainty. Garoppolo merely smiles again as if he knows how this story ends.

With the 49ers taking and then making their shot.


Tyler Dunne covers NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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