Why the San Francisco 49ers’ defining trait is mental toughness – San Francisco 49ers Blog- ESPN – ESPN

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  • wagoner nick

    Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer


    • Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
    • Previously covered University of Missouri football
    • Member of Pro Football Writers of America

GREEN BAY, Wis. — When the Green Bay Packers jumped out to a quick lead and just about everything that could go wrong did, the San Francisco 49ers barely batted an eye.

“There was a calmness, honestly,” said quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who helped the Niners to a 13-10 victory in the NFC divisional round Saturday. ” … Even when they had the lead, I felt like we were in control of the game as crazy as that sounds. You could feel it on the sidelines and we were waiting for that one play to spark us.”

Of course they were. For all the talk about identities and the Niners’ desire to be the more bruising team in any game they play, their defining trait is a mental toughness that somehow exceeds the physical kind.

This is a team that lost four straight games early in the season. A team that was 3-5 after a blowout loss to an injury-riddled, junior varsity version of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 9. A team that failed to put away multiple games because of a flurry of self-inflicted mistakes. A team that trailed the Los Angeles Rams by 17 in a win-or-go-home Week 18 game before rallying to win in overtime.

At every turn, it would have been easy for the 49ers to relent and call it a season. Instead, these Niners seem to take pleasure in the elevated blood pressure they create for their faithful fans as they deliver harrowing victory after harrowing victory.

“It was only a matter of time before things started clicking, and we have been in some really tough games but we’re not standing here with a win if we didn’t go through what we did in LA against the Rams,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “I think going through that kind of win and taking it in to Dallas [in the wild-card round], winning that game and then obviously here [in Green Bay]. It’s all kind of just a storybook.”

Saturday’s win might have been the most dramatic chapter yet. On a night when the offense was snowed under, the Niners’ defense limited Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the worst QBR of his playoff career (19.3) and held Green Bay to a lone field goal on nine possessions following an opening-drive touchdown.

Then, as has so often happened in the second half of the season, the Niners got significant contributions from the place it’s least expected. This time, it was special teams coming up with a blocked field goal, a big kickoff returns to setup a field goal, a blocked punt for a touchdown and another Robbie Gould field goal for the to win.

All of this against a Packers team that was arguably the best in football all season while managing wind chills at kickoff of zero degrees and a second-half snow shower.

In San Francisco’s locker room, the result was expected. It’s almost never pretty but the results have been.

“I feel like we are under pressure every week,” free safety Jimmie Ward said. “If we don’t win, people call us trash. If we do win, we didn’t win the style, the way that y’all wanted us to win. So, at the end of the day, we can’t please everybody but a win is a win.”

Where does this Goonies-esque “never say die” attitude come from? Ward points to the work the team puts in during the offseason and training camp plus the lingering memories of Super Bowl LIV slipping away to the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter.

Warner believes it starts with the type of players the franchise looks to add — “guys who love football.”

This isn’t a coincidence. When Shanahan arrived in 2017, he told ESPN a story about how as a redshirt freshman he skipped a final at the University of Texas so he could participate in a December scrimmage for redshirt players.

Seven of Shanahan’s teammates took the final. Shanahan was there for football first and never pretended otherwise. It’s the same love of the game he now seeks in every player the 49ers acquire.

“Our team has been through so many different situations this year that we just never overreact to anything,” Shanahan said. “We just keep playing football. We have a bunch of guys on that team that I just like to call ‘true football players.’ They really enjoy it. They enjoy watching it. They enjoy practicing. And they love playing. Those guys, they just don’t get discouraged. They don’t get frustrated at the other side of the ball. Guys just keep working and trying to have each other’s backs.”

Legendary boxer Mike Tyson famously said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The 2021 Niners’ plan seems to be to stand in the middle of the ring, dare the opponent to punch them in the mouth and then come back swinging harder than ever. It’s a sort of football rope-a-dope that borders on insanity but is just crazy enough to work.

It’s got them one more victory away from the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. They’ll be underdogs the rest of the way — first in the NFC Championship Game against the Rams — which is fine by them.

Because to know where they’re going, these 49ers never forget where they’ve already been.

“Some of the stuff that we have went through this year that I don’t ever want to happen, but I think that is kind of what has made us who we are,” Shanahan said. “And I think that’s why we are the team we are right now. That is why we are still standing.”