SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Even when the San Francisco 49ers were making their extended post season runs under the previous coaching regime, there weren't players in the locker room providing movie-like speeches to rally the troops.
No, the 49ers were a team of quiet leaders by example. Sure, Patrick Willis gave inspired pep talks on the field during the majority of his career. But players like NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin preferred to lead quietly and were generally more understated. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick would rather lead through his preparation, not his voice.
Now, with San Francisco facing an enormous amount of adversity early in the season, after getting outscored 90-25 in consecutive road blowouts, their leaders of 2015 were a little more vocal as the team prepped for its biggest test to do date: the 3-0 Green Bay Packers.
"Just the point of, you get in these rough patches, there’s one way to go. You either pull together or you fraction off," first-year head coach Jim Tomsula said.
A brand new coaching staff, accompanied by new schemes and techniques, has colored a rough beginning to the season after handling the Vikings in the season opener by 17 points.
After two blowouts, the 49ers enter Sunday with the NFL's worst scoring offense and the second-worst scoring defense.
Are the effects of the transition to the new staff and new roster here to stay? Or will the team find a way to improve and play competitive football going forward? How they play against the Packers could spell everything out.
Or, as Tomsula put it, Sunday's game could indicate whether or not the 49ers are pulling together, or fractioning off.
Watching the team's 47-7 loss to the Cardinals, it was clear the locker room leaders were frustrated with the dismal performance. A television shot of the team's sideline caught Boldin in an animated discussion with Tomsula. Additionally, Bowman was seen on the field with his palms in the air on a couple occasions, as if to ask, 'How can this be happening?'
"My frustration was with us as a team," Boldin said. "We didn’t play the way that we’re capable of playing. We didn’t execute well. We just didn’t look like ourselves. For me, that’s where the frustration comes in. You work your butt off in practice all week. To go out and to lay an egg, basically, I don’t think anybody was satisfied with that performance.
"...I don’t think guys really respond to the ‘rah-rah.’ You come out and you work your butt off. That’s the only way you get out of slumps, that’s the only way you get out of droughts. You come, work hard and let it carry over to the playing field."
Bowman finds himself in a unique situation. Not only is he coming back from 19-month absence `following a career-altering knee injury, but he returned to a team in transition without a number of familiar faces. Gone are Willis and Justin Smith, who played beside and in front of Bowman, helping him become a first-team All-Pro in three straight seasons.
Bowman is balancing his comeback with an expanded leadership role on a defense with six new starters, that's clearly not playing at the level he's used to. Bowman's defenses finished in the top three in scoring during each of his All-Pro seasons from 2011 to 2013.
"You put so much work into preparing throughout the week. When it doesn’t go your way, you get frustrated a little bit," Bowman said. "I play with a lot of emotion. Whens something’s not going well, you might be able to see it."
New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini should be familiar with adversity. He has a 33-47 record as a head coach. He said this week he spoke to Bowman about what he expects from leaders.
"What you’re always looking for is it’s easy to lead in those moments where everybody is high-fiving you and giving you lots of love," Mangini said. "Leaders are really revealed in those toughest moments, in the darkest moments when you’re not getting any of those things that you work so hard for. That’s where true leadership comes up. And, those are conversations that you have with guys, not just like Bo, but everybody because it applies to all of us. We’re tested in the dark times. It’s easy to do anything when things are going well.”
With that, Sunday's game provides the 49ers an opportunity to turn the tide. An unlikely win over the Packers could turn a team spiraling downwards into a confident bunch. And with a trip to play the New York Giants next week, San Francisco would have a real chance at starting 3-2, keeping them in the race early in the season.
To be sure, giving San Francisco any chance after its performance the last two weeks seems like an insane proposition. But crazier things have happened.
Just last week, a winless Eagles team, that many left for dead, beat the Jets on the road, a team many considered one of the best in the AFC. The Packers are traveling on a short week after beating the Chiefs on Monday Night Football. Head coach Mike McCarthy cancelled a padded practice Thursday because of the quick turnaround. Green Bay has 11 players on their injury report, including starting receiver Davante Adams (ankle) and safety Morgan Burnett, who are iffy to play.
Subscribers to the theory of, 'It's not who you play, it's when you play them,' might circle back to the 49ers against the Packers this week. Two terrible loses have a tendency to galvanize competent NFL teams. However, no one is entirely sure if this San Francisco outfit qualifies. But the team is returning home, where it had its best performance of the young season.
"I think (playing at home) will have a huge impact on us, helping us get back on track," Bowman said. "We’ve lost two away games and we’ve won here. That’s a positive we looked at. We definitely want to feed off our fans and come out there ready to play."
That is, if the locker room hasn't fractioned off.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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