SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Richard Sherman put his fists up, readying himself for the counter-moves of his diminutive foe.
Fellow cornerback, K’Waun Williams — all 5-foot-9, 185 pounds of him — remained light on his feet, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, refusing to be outmaneuvered by the veteran locker room leader.
The pair of 49ers defensive backs returned playful jabs in a rapid succession, like volleys over a net. Soon, their friendly game of fisticuffs gives way to wisecracks and more jokes.
The intermittent sound of a basketball ricocheting off an elevated rim can be heard on the other end of the expansive space, while players take turns getting their tired muscles stretched by an athletic trainer in the center of the room.
The mood is light on this Friday afternoon, the vibe completely chill. There is no uptightness, no tension. No inclination of the epic challenge that awaits them: facing the Green Bay Packers (8-2) on “Sunday Night Football.”
There are plenty of factors in the 49ers’ turnaround: More experience, more veteran savvy, an assortment of disruptive pass rushers, exceptional coaching, and a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo. But there is another easily overlooked factor that’s just as integral to the team’s best start since 1990.
“I think Kyle [Shanahan] says it best all the time: It’s just a bunch of weirdos,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said, smiling. “We’ve got a bunch of weirdos with a whole bunch of different personalities. Guys who are very business-like, but know how to have fun. I think that’s really what it is. We enjoy being around each other, but we also enjoy playing football.”
These aren’t the same 49ers who, a year ago, lost their starting quarterback to an ACL injury and stumbled toward a disappointing 4-12 finish. This isn’t the same defense that recorded a league-low seven takeaways. And this isn’t the same squad that blew a seven-point, fourth-quarter lead the last time San Francisco faced the Packers.
Just ask Aaron Rodgers.
The future Hall of Famer was asked what the difference is with this year’s 49ers defense vs. last year, and Rodgers simply said: “Pass rush. It’s definitely pass rush.”
Bolstered by the acquisition of former Chiefs edge rusher Dee Ford and the second-overall NFL draft selection of Nick Bosa, the 49ers (9-1) boast the No. 2 overall defense in the NFL (behind the New England Patriots), the top-ranked passing defense, and have the third-most takeaways in the league (22).
“Oh, they’re incredible,” Sherman said of the 49ers’ formidable defensive front, which also features Arik Armstead (team-high eight sacks) and DeForest Buckner. “They’re really talented, they’re disciplined, they work hard. They put it on tape, week in and week out. Individually, each of them is really tough to deal with and collectively, they have a chemistry about them that’s hard to find.”
San Francisco is currently tied with the Patriots for the best record in the NFL, but inside the 49ers locker room, guys are well aware that the naysayers still exist.
“We’re having a really good season right now at 9-1, but obviously people still have doubts,” Buckner said. “It’s all good. That’s all outside talk and we know what we’re capable of, and we believe in each other and what we’re capable of. So at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
“If you’re trying to prove something to them, you’ll fail every time,” said Sherman, who also downplayed the notion that Sunday will feel like a playoff atmosphere. “At the end of the day, we’re not worried about that. Cause s- - -, those were the same people saying we were going to go 3-13 this year. We’re not worried about opinions. You’re worried about the guys in this room, the guys in this building who believe and who play hard.”
They’re a motley crew of characters, comprised of personalities that are as diverse as their ranging set of skills. But it’s the bonds between them that strengthen their resolve and their commitment to play for one another.
It’s what pushed George Kittle to play through agonizing ankle and knee pain against Arizona, and what pushes the tight end to want to suit up Sunday against the Packers.
“If it was a normal person, I’d probably make him doubtful [for the game], but Kittle’s different than most people,” Shanahan said. “He won’t allow me to rule him out too early because he keeps telling me he’s going to surprise me by game day.
“…Watch how he plays and watch how he walks around. I think we’re all a little different, but he’s unique and you see it on the field. He has a personality where he goes 100 miles per hour in whatever he does. That’s probably why he’s going to have a WWE career after this.”
It’s what made Sanders play through a rib injury when “I shouldn’t have been out there,” he admitted.
Sanders arrived last month, courtesy of a trade from the Denver Broncos. But it didn’t take the receiver long to become like the other full-fledged freaks in the 49ers locker room.
“Everybody [on this team is a weirdo]. I’m telling you,” the former Bronco said, stressing the endearing nature of the term. “‘Weirdo’ is a good thing. Like, Kittle has a ‘Joker’ tattoo on his sleeve — like, that’s the mindset.
“We’re about whatever,” Sanders said, smiling again. “And we’re willing to do whatever we’ve got to do in order to try to get a win. And that’s why I love this locker room.”
Fun is the operative word here in the 49ers’ inner sanctum. And it’s that levity — intertwined with a hefty dose of talent that has made all of the difference.
And there’s plenty of confidence to be found in Santa Clara.
"We know how good we are and the things that we need to clean up, in all aspects of the game,” Buckner said. “So everybody’s looking forward to the challenge.
“Obviously we’ve got a bad taste from last year, letting that one slip away. But the week was approached like any other week, just handling business, making sure everybody’s on their details and not making it too personal. Because when you make things personal, you try to do things that are out of character. And when you do things out of character, you end up losing.”
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