Do 49ers have 'IT' factor this season?

SANTA CLARA - The 49ers have “it,” strictly lower case.

“It” has indefinable, intangible qualities that matter greatly to a football team. When Steve Young was a player, he always used to say the 49ers had uppercase “IT,” which helped them win five Super Bowls. For Young, “IT” had something to do with the highest standards of play and conduct and self belief. It was the stuff of champions. Young's 49ers had “IT” with capital letters. They may even have had it in neon lights.

The current 49ers, to their credit, have lower case “it.” They are working toward the big “I” and the big “T.”

“I think we have ‘it' so far,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “Any team that finds a way to win consistently, no matter how or what type of win it is, usually people start to say that (team has “it”). But that has nothing to do with this week and going forward.”

The 49ers still must prove they have big-time “IT,” even though they're 9-1. Because “IT” doesn't come from winning games in September and October. “IT” comes from winning big games down the stretch and in the playoffs. And the 49ers have many important games left to play. Their next three opponents - the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints - each are 8-2.

Those teams have “it,” too.

Here are five reasons the 49ers should feel confident heading into the toughest stretch of their season, as they strive for uppercase “IT.”

They're resilient.

Earlier in the season, the 49ers didn't have to be resilient. They destroyed teams. Beat them up and took away their will to compete.

Then, the 49ers lost an emotional, grueling, overtime game on a Monday night to the division rival Seattle Seahawks. Afterward, people wondered how the 49ers would respond to their first defeat.

They responded well.

Not right away. They fell behind 16-0 to the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday. But then, the 49ers came all the way back and won 36-26. And the week before against the Seahawks, the 49ers trailed 21-10, then came back and forced overtime. And they would have won had their rookie backup replacement kicker, Chase McLaughlin, made a 47-yard field goal.

Even when the 49ers lose, they almost win.

“We lost a lot here (the past two seasons),” Shanahan said, “but we were in a lot of close games.”

Meaning the Niners feel comfortable in close games. They don't have to blow out everyone. As a guy across the bay used to say, “Just win, baby.”

Jimmy Garoppolo plays with confidence.

He's a big reason the 49ers win so many close games. His career record is 17-3.

He's not a perfect quarterback. In fact, he still plays like a rookie at times, which is to be expected - he has started fewer than two full seasons' worth of games. Like a rookie, he doesn't always make the right decisions. He has thrown 18 interceptions in 18 career starts with the 49ers. This season, he has committed 14 turnovers - fourth most in the NFL among quarterbacks.

“Jimmy doesn't seem to be affected by it,” Shanahan said. “He doesn't go into a shell. He still gives us a chance to win.”

More than a chance. Garoppolo usually finds a way to win. Last week after throwing an interception late in the fourth quarter, he got the ball back and led a game-winning touchdown drive. Made it look easy.

“I try to move on as quickly as possible,” Garoppolo said. “Take it for what it is. You made a mistake or a bad throw, whatever it was, and just move on.”

He doesn't have a shred of self-doubt.

Mike McGlinchey has played poorly and should improve.

The 49ers are a run-first team. That's their identity.

The past three games, the 49ers have had an identity crisis. They've averaged just 2.9 yards per carry, partially because opponents have loaded up the box to take away the 49ers' rushing attack.

“If I were a D-coordinator, I would do the same thing,” Garoppolo said.

Losing George Kittle to a knee injury certainly has downgraded the 49ers' run game - he was one of their best blockers.

But right tackle Mike McGlinchey has downgraded the run game, too. Last season, he was an excellent run blocker - the 49ers frequently ran for big gains behind him. But against the Cardinals, he was a liability.

“We needed to block better up front, starting with me,” McGlinchey said. “I had a couple of opportunities early in the game that would have opened up the doors for our run game that I personally missed. We're going to have to get better. We will be better and it's going to start this week against Green Bay.”

McGlinchey injured his knee Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns, and the 49ers said the injury would take four to six weeks to heal. McGlinchey missed only four games, so it's possible he came back too soon. He looked rusty or injured or both against the Cardinals. As the season goes on, he should recover and improve, which bodes well for the 49ers' identity.

The 49ers have a quality replacement for George Kittle while he's injured.

Well, maybe “replacement” is too strong of a word.

“It's impossible to replace Kittle,” McGlinchey explained. “He is not only the best tight end in the league, but he is a top-three-to-five player in this league regardless of position. When he gets back healthy, I'm sure he'll give us a big boost both in the run and pass game.”

Until then, the 49ers have Ross Dwelley. Most football fans hadn't heard of him until recently. He was an undrafted free agent from the University of San Diego in 2018. Now, he's Kittle's understudy, and the 49ers' starting tight end until Kittle returns.

“All you've seen is Ross progress and get better,” McGlinchey said. “Ross is a great, great player. He would be a starter on other teams. He has found ways to make plays in the run game (as a blocker), and he had two touchdown catches against Arizona when we needed them. He has done a great job making our offense continue to go.”

Dwelley was the 49ers' primary fullback for four weeks while Kyle Juszczyk was out with an injured knee. During that time, Dwelley earned the team's trust and respect.

“Dwelley has as sure hands as anyone I've been around,” Shanahan said. “He is a guy the quarterback doesn't mind going to. I know I've got a lot of confidence in him, also.”

Dwelley has two touchdown catches - the same number as Kittle. Go figure.

Ahkello Witherspoon should return to the starting lineup.

Before Ahkello Witherspoon sprained his foot Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was by far the 49ers' best defensive back. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Unlike McGlinchey, who rushed back from his knee injury, Witherspoon has worked back slowly. The 49ers have been patient with him, because his backup, Emmanuel Moseley, has played at a Pro Bowl level, too.

Witherspoon technically was healthy against the Cardinals but didn't start. He came off the bench. “Ahkello wasn't able to get a full week of practice in,” Shanahan explained. “We weren't going to throw Ahkello out there without covering a receiver at full speed in about seven weeks unless he could get three full days of practice in.”

This week, Witherspoon seems on track to get three full days of practice. He practiced fully on Wednesday, meaning he should practice fully the rest of the week unless he has a setback.

Getting Witherspoon back will only make the defense better. When healthy and in shape, he can cover the best receivers in the league. He has “it.” So do the 49ers. Now they want “IT.”

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