SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The narrative about the 49ers has shifted considerably. Dismantling Dallas, Jacksonville and Philadelphia, the last two on the road, vaulted San Francisco to Super Bowl favorites. Expectations are at an all-time high for this core. Their underdog card has been revoked. They are now the hunted.
This is where Deebo Samuel shines.
His value to the 49ers was made obvious when a shoulder injury knocked him out of the Week 6 game in Cleveland and San Francisco lost that game and the next two he missed. Since returning, he’s scored five total touchdowns in four games while averaging 12.2 yards per touch, and the 49ers are 4-0 and have outscored their opponents by 85 points.
But part of his contribution is psychological, spiritual even. Deebo embodies the moxie of this team, the supreme confidence percolating behind the collection of mostly nice-guy smiles and humble words. It takes some arrogance to claim a throne, a noted brashness to dare this level of greatness.
“When you get Deebo talking stuff,” Dre Greenlaw said, “you know it’s gon’ be a good night. That’s what we love. That’s what we love about him. He don’t talk stuff all the time. But when he talks it, he’s ready to go. And so are we.”
Getting to the top is one thing. Staying there, which a Super Bowl championship requires, is quite another. But that’s all good for these 49ers. Because part of this team’s personality wants that pressure. And Samuel is a master at stoking that spirit. He is the voice in the consciousness of the 49ers that not only welcomes such pressure but speaks it into existence.
Samuel is their resident truthteller. The blunt persona. The candid alter ego. The scold in the scarlet and gold. He says what they mean, and they mean what he says. And now that the target is on their back, now that they’ve been identified as bullies of the league, the 49ers could use the swag to maintain their edge.
To be sure, Samuel doesn’t put it in them. The 49ers are this good because they have it. Up and down the roster. But Deebo is the flagbearer of that spirit. The face peering out of the window of the truck steamrolling towards a title.
“I don’t think he ever crosses the line either,” George Kittle said. “He just says what’s on his mind. I don’t think he’s ever very personal with anything. He just says what’s on his mind. And I’m OK with that. Especially when he backs it up with the work every single day, and he backs it up with his play on the field. I love that. It does elevate us. It does bring us this swagger.”
Kittle, who is a magnetic personality himself, said he loves the variety Samuel brings to their mix. The beauty of football is the unifying of people. The chemistry of Greenlaw and Fred Warner, the telepathy of Brock Purdy and Brandon Aiyuk. The brotherhood of an offensive line. The chemistry is at its best when everyone can be themselves and be a benefit to the whole.
And when you look at what’s ahead, Samuel’s personality looks even more pivotal.
It works so well for these 49ers because before he says a word, his play speaks loudly. His aura yells between the lines.
Of the 19 players listed for Incredible YAC per NFL’s Next Generation Stats, Samuel is the only player listed twice. Both came against Philadelphia. His 46-yard touchdown had an expected YAC of 7 yards, he got 47. His 48-yard touchdown had an expected YAC of 1 yard, and he got 43. On his 12-yard touchdown run, he hit 20.45 miles per hour. His combination of size and speed and aggressiveness is unmatched in the NFL.
DEEBO BREAKS A TACKLE AND GOES ALL THE WAY
— NFL (@NFL) December 3, 2023
“The physicality he plays with,” Christian McCaffrey said. “The want to get more yards. He’s got something that a lot of receivers don’t have in this league. That constant toughness, that willingness to put his shoulder down and continue to fight for more yards and break tackles.”
And because he knows who he is, and what he can do, Samuel has no problem verbalizing as much. Samuel talks with the expectation of fulfilling his prophecies. Kittle said he believed Deebo would be the same no matter where he played. But this locker room has the added benefit of players who share in Samuel’s conviction even if they don’t say it. He’s probably emboldened by the knowledge he’s got a locker room built with the mindset to have his back.
Sunday’s game against Seattle is the 49ers’ first test in this new reality. The national media is all over them. The rest of the league understands the juggernaut they represent. Not making the Super Bowl would be a failure at this point. And now they get their rivals.
It’s difficult to beat a team twice, let alone in three weeks. And the Seahawks haven’t beaten the 49ers since 2021 and were bounced from the playoffs by San Francisco last year.
What does it take to keep a rival in its place? What does it take to absorb everyone’s best shot? Deebo knows the way. And they’ll follow his bravado. Whether he’s trolling Jalen Ramsey. Or calling James Bradberry trash. Or taunting the opposing fans.
He puts his name on the line, and everyone behind him, to cash the proverbial check he wrote. And they love it.
“I gotta back him up,” said Deommodore Lenoir, the 49ers’ versatile cornerback. “That’s just my character. I’m with it, too. If he says he’s trash, then he’s trash. Then I say he’s trash, too. That’s just how I roll. And we’ve got a lot of guys who roll that way. We gon’ stand behind whatever he say, and we gon’ help him expose what he’s trying to say.”
That’s the essence of Deebo’s cachet. The 49ers follow him. Just like they do when they make their epic entrance to games. The Boombox blaring — lately it’s been NBA YoungBoy’s “Father” — and the energy bubbling. Deebo’s the first one out. No helmet, like most of his teammates. He wants you to see him. No hiding.
His presence. His impact. His belief. It’s enormous for the 49ers. And they need all of it now, in this life as the hunted.
(Photo: Terrell Lloyd via AP)