The happiest 1-9 team in the NFL, perhaps in the history of the NFL, resides in Santa Clara.
Why such good vibrations amid what threatens to be the lousiest season in 72 years of 49ers football? For starters, the team is coming off its lone win, is the healthiest it’s been since the start of the season and feels like it’s just taken a huge step toward solving its most important roster spot, quarterback, for the next few years.
But what stands out most about this year’s 49ers is that they’ve been in that same joyful mindspace throughout the season. Practices universally have pep. The locker room generally exudes optimism. The coaching staff is even-keeled and positive.
The only time that lapsed was the second half of Week 7 as the Dallas Cowboys shoved them around the field and some of the players lost their composure on the sideline. It’s no coincidence that the guy who did the most huffing and puffing that afternoon, cornerback Rashard Robinson, later was shipped off to the New York Jets.
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The 49ers were back to their hopeful, assured selves the following week in Philadelphia, and they played far better.
You can dismiss all that optimism as the result of youth. The 49ers have both a young roster – no other team has as many rookies logging as many snaps – and a young coaching staff. Head coach Kyle Shanahan, 37, is two years older than his kicker, Robbie Gould.
But maybe the best example of the 49ers’ youthful enthusiasm is one of their rare 30-somethings, Joe Staley. The team’s veteran left tackle and the longest tenured 49er had – still has – a broken eye socket heading into the Week 10 game against the New York Giants. He could have sat out through the bye week and longer. No one would have batted an, ahem, eye.
But he played against the Giants and, despite being on a team with 28 players who are 25 or younger, was the most animated of the bunch after the win.
General manager John Lynch noted that following his injury Staley was pressing team doctors on when he could return.
“A lot of guys could just say, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to take the rest of this year to kind of (relax),’ and that’s not him at all,” Lynch said. “Guys like that – people look to. We have a young team, so when a guy like that steps up like that and plays the way he did, and you see the excitement and how excited he is, I think that’s a big deal for us.”
Said Staley after the Giants game: “I’ve been part of a lot of wins with this franchise over the 11 years I’ve been here. This win felt just as good as winning the NFC championship.”
As good as going to the Super Bowl? Are Staley and the 49ers self-delusional? Of course. Every team has a touch of that. It’s a necessity. A team’s eyes have to be bigger than its stomach to survive in the NFL.
The 49ers are still flawed. They still have holes all over the roster. They are still going to struggle over the next six games and, because of their inexperience, are bound to sputter at times next year, too.
But there’s a confidence that they are being built the right way, that Lynch and Shanahan have sniffed out the mopers, complainers and non-tough guys and are methodically replacing them.
This season always has been about establishing the right attitude, not about wins and losses. The 49ers feel like that’s being done.
And for that, at least, they can be happy.