SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the longest-tenured member of the San Francisco 49ers, left tackle Joe Staley has been around for plenty of good times and plenty of bad, but none of the bad had approached what Staley felt through the first nine weeks of this season, as the Niners set a franchise record for futility.
The frustration of being in the middle of the worst start in team history came rushing out of Staley as he stood before the team -- along with veteran defensive end Elvis Dumervil and fullback Kyle Juszczyk -- on Saturday night. Coach Kyle Shanahan asked the veteran trio to speak and relay to their younger teammates just how difficult it is to win in the NFL.
Even in this, his 11th season, Staley felt like a teenager delivering a speech to his high school class.
"I get nervous," Staley said. "Just kind of spoke from the heart. Told them what I’m telling you guys right now. All you guys are wondering what it takes to win in the NFL? What does it take to be great, to be good players? I’ve seen great players, I’ve seen great coaching staffs, I’ve seen not-so-great players, not-so-great coaching staffs. What we have here, what we’re building here, it might not seem to the outside as amazing. Trust me when I say that we’re really, really close. I think it’s a confidence, a belief that we have to have every single Sunday that what we’re doing is good enough, what we’re doing is what we can do to win games."
For the first time this season, that message -- a message Shanahan has attempted to imprint on his players since he arrived in February -- was finally validated. On their 10th try, the Niners got Shanahan his first win as a head coach and did the same for new general manager John Lynch. The 31-21 win over the New York Giants sparked a wild celebration that began with safety Eric Reid dumping some water bottles on Shanahan and Lynch on the sideline and ended with a giant wet area in the middle of the locker room from the additional water and Gatorade that was poured out in the ensuing euphoria.
"When you lose nine in a row, you learn to savor the moments and enjoy these," Shanahan said. "It was tough work for us to get our first win, and we got it. I think the guys knew how much it meant to me, and I knew how much it meant to them. I think we’re a pretty close team, and I think we’ve gotten closer through adversity. I hope this can make us better through adversity also.”
After the 49ers beat the Los Angeles Rams last year on Christmas Eve, many -- myself included -- believed it was a meaningless win that would ultimately harm the long-term future of the franchise. As it turned out, that victory cost the Niners the No. 1 overall pick and a shot at edge rusher Myles Garrett, a player who certainly would look good in a Niners uniform right now.
This win, however, isn't the same as that one. That one was harmful because it was a directionless team dealing with a coach and general manager not on the same page, and it was inevitable that change was coming. This year's Niners also could undoubtedly use a high draft pick, either to find a difference-maker or to make a trade to stockpile more picks.
But more than lofty draft position, this Niners team needed a win. There's no way to measure confidence or culture or the intangible things that get stirred into the pot in an effort to forge a winner, but if losing becomes the standard, then losing becomes standard. For a young roster such as San Francisco's, there's a real danger in starting a new regime with nothing but defeats.
That isn't to say one win against an opponent as dismal as the Giants is the cure to anything or that it's going to be the turning point in the Niners' rebuild. It's just to point out that somewhere along the line, young players have to learn how to win. And, as the saying goes, there ain't nothin' to it but to do it.
"You lose nine games in a row, especially some of the tough ways we did it, and then feeling like you’re getting more banged up as it went along," Shanahan said. "It’s tough. It’s tough work. It’s a lot easier when you just check out and point fingers at people and blame it on someone else. That’s not what our guys did. I do think we have some special people in our building. I think it’s tested the character that we have, and I do believe that we will be stronger for it. It’s stuff I talk about every Monday, and it usually leads throughout the week that it’s very hard to find out about other people or about yourself until you see how you handle adversity, and I’ve been very impressed with a lot of guys in that locker room and our coaching staff, how they’ve handled this.”
Sure, Sunday's win might cost the Niners a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft, though that isn't certain. Either way, that isn't as big of a deal now, with Jimmy Garoppolo in town and the Niners not necessarily in the market to draft a quarterback at the top.
More importantly, the 49ers -- both young and old -- got to experience that winning feeling, some for the first time ever and some for the first time in a long time. They got to see how hard it is to put a tally in the win column and enjoy the spoils that go with it.
It was the same message Staley delivered on Saturday night, fully realized.
"This win felt just as good as winning the NFC championship," Staley said. "I mean, it was unbelievable. I know how close this team is. On the outside, looking in, 0-9 record coming into today’s game, young team, everybody doesn’t really see what we see in the locker room. We understand, I understand how close we are. No one’s ever wavered, no one’s ever pointed fingers. We’ve all just kind of buckled down. That’s a tribute to Kyle and the leadership group that he brought in with the front office and his coaching staff... I think we really got something special here. I know the record doesn’t say it, but I’m really excited about it."