Coach Kyle Shanahan couldn’t go into the 49ers’ game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday without addressing the elephant in the locker room.
Talented linebacker Reuben Foster, a first-round draft pick in 2017, was released hours earlier after being arrested on charges of domestic violence at the team’s hotel Saturday night. Shanahan had to address the situation to ensure his team wasn’t playing after being blindsided by the news.
“I know that can be a distraction, everyone coming in seeing it,” Shanahan said following his team’s 27-9 loss. “But it’s only a distraction if you let it be. And we got a job to do. We got to go out there and do this. I care about Reuben just like all those guys do. But there’s responsibilities here that we all have to live by, and if anyone wanted to talk more about it, they could come talk to me in my locker room.”
Shanahan indicated Foster was under a strict code of conduct following his tumultuous offseason that included getting charged with felony domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, Elissa Ennis, who was also the alleged victim in Saturday’s incident. Those charges from the first arrest last February were dropped in May after Ennis testified her initial claims were based on lies in retaliation for their breakup.
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But Saturday’s arrest violated the agreement Foster had with the organization, and it was the final moment in a string of missteps since Foster joined San Francisco as one of the most promising prospects of his draft class.
“I knew what we had told Reuben and he didn’t do what we asked him to do. As soon as he did that, I knew the decision that was going to be made,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan made it clear last spring there would be a zero-tolerance policy; if any player hit a spouse or significant other, he would be off the team. He acknowledged that statement again after Sunday’s game, but also indicated Foster’s release didn’t come because he presumed Foster’s guilt.
“Too many things have happened and we’ve tried to help him out a lot,” he said. “And I know he has been trying, too. But this was a mess-up that it doesn’t matter whether he did or not.”
According to a Hillsborough County criminal report affidavit, Ennis alleged Foster pushed her “in the chest area” and slapped her on the left side of her face.
He was arrested last February for marijuana possession in Alabama, and authorities found a loaded assault rifle on his bathroom floor during the incident with Ennis last February in Los Gatos, Calif. Foster began this season on a two-game suspension by the NFL for violating the personal-conduct and substance-abuse policies.
Shanahan said Foster wouldn’t have played Sunday, regardless, as he continued to deal with a lingering hamstring injury suffered Oct. 28 against the Arizona Cardinals. But it was clear a cloud hovered over the team and it led to a lifeless effort at Raymond James Stadium.
“Super disappointed,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “But we had to show up this morning and play a football game. ... Really sad, sad situation.”
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman had taken Foster under his wing. He attended Foster’s preliminary trial last spring to show support despite only knowing the linebacker in passing as a division opponent. The team put Sherman’s locker next to Foster’s, presumably to facilitate Sherman’s mentorship role.
Sherman acknowledged what general manager John Lynch said before the game: Foster was making progress in his effort to gain the organization’s trust. But the team had to act decisively following the recent accusations.
“I think the organization has handled the situation as best they could. Obviously, been patient and deliberate, and trusting and understanding, of who Reuben is, what kind of heart he has,” Sherman said. “But it’s just a really compromising situation to put a team in repeatedly. You understand the decision that the organization had to make after repeated offenses.”
Said Shanahan: “The number one rule is you got to protect the team. He’s put us in a bad light too much.”
Foster, 24, was released on $2,000 bail Sunday, while his former team was playing.
Shanahan said he’ll have deeper discussions with his players Monday after the team returns to the Bay Area. And with five games left, it will provide Shanahan with another bout of adversity in a lost season that included franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sustaining a season-ending left knee injury.
Staley, the team’s longest-tenured player, was clearly frustrated.
“I’ve always had good interactions with Reuben,” he said. “It just (ticks) me off that we’re sitting here talking about this after a game. I wish we could talk about football.”