SANTA CLARA - Joe Staley has been here for one major turnaround, the Jim Harbaugh phenomenon that saw the 49ers rebound from eight consecutive seasons of non-winning football to back-to-back-to-back appearances in the conference championship game. So Staley had some perspective when he addressed reporters after the Niners’ 31-21 victory against the New York Giants at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of wins with this franchise over the 11 years that I’ve been here,” he said. “And this win felt just as good as winning the NFC championship.”
Come again? This was not a victory that will carry the 49ers to the playoffs, or even boost them out of last place in the NFC West. If the Niners eventually win another title and someone chronicles it in a book, there will not be a chapter devoted to Nov. 12, 2017. This was not a game that invoked a Gatorade shower in its aftermath; when it ended, one of the 49ers players shook some water out of a 20-ounce plastic bottle onto the heads of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
But it was worth something. It really was. Going from four wins to five, or from eight wins to nine, is a steppingstone. Going from zero wins to one, when you have been losing since early September, is a life experience.
And no, this doesn’t mean the 49ers are a good team now. They are 1-9 for a reason. Their receiving corps is a collage clipped from leftover magazine articles, their defense is frequently a missed tackle waiting to happen, their interior offensive line can be a sieve. But give these guys credit. Even as they bumbled their way through a winless first half of the season, they never lacked fight.
“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 — it’s tough,” Shanahan said after his first win as a head coach. “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.”
Louis Murphy didn’t know what to expect when he rejoined the 49ers last week. He had been with the team in training camp and the preseason, but was cut on Sept. 1. The Niners brought him back after a wave of injuries at wide receiver, including No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon’s season-ending neck fracture. Murphy was surprised at the positive atmosphere that greeted him.
“I didn’t know if the locker room was gonna be down, or dejected,” said Murphy, an eight-year veteran who used to play for the Raiders. “But when I came back, man, it didn’t seem like an 0-9 team.”
Staley has seen that demeanor. It’s why he was feeling emotional as he stood in front of his locker Sunday.
“That’s why I’m so proud of this football team,” he said. “Guys don’t quit. And we have a really close locker room. Much, much closer than the last couple years, and much closer than Harbaugh’s last year.”
Granted, those are low bars to clear. The atmosphere here declined in 2014 as Harbaugh feuded with CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke. And things scarcely got better as the 49ers cycled through goofy Jim Tomsula and personality-averse Chip Kelly in 2015 and 2016. But it’s a tribute to Shanahan and Lynch that, despite a lack of success on the field, these Niners haven’t stopped fighting.