By Akshat Jain
LAS VEGAS – Fred Warner believes momentum shifts during a game are a real thing.
While the 49ers were on the rising side of the tide in the NFC Championship game against the Lions, erasing a 17-point first half deficit in an 8-minute stretch in the third quarter enroute to booking a spot in the Super Bowl, they were on the opposite end of a similar rally in Super Bowl 2020, when the Chiefs came back from a 20-10 hole in the fourth quarter to win the championship. However, as Warner prepares to face the Chiefs in the Super Bowl for the second time in four years, this time as a team-captain and the leader of the defense, he dismissed the notion of looking back in the past. Instead, he preached to his teammates the importance of preparation and staying focused, stressing the need to develop a “Next play, best play” mentality to have the best result possible.
“He has been telling us just to continue to work hard, watch film, have good practices, and just keep building,” said Jalen Graham, a rookie linebacker and special teams player. “And Sunday, we will play the best three hours of football we can and handle business the way we’ve been doing all year.”
Describing Warner as the pulse of this team, 49ers’ first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has leaned on his star linebacker throughout the year to get his message across effectively to the rest of the players, pointing out that the players respond well when the messaging comes from their leader, given it is a bit more piercing. Speaking at the 49ers’ team hotel, Wilks specified how Warner has led by example the last couple weeks in practice, getting the younger players ready to seize the moment come Sunday.
“Fred’s message to the younger guys is to leave it all on the field,” Wilks said. “To seize the moment, we have to be prepared, and he’s been getting those guys to do that in practice – running to the ball, great communication, making sure that we’re all on the same page. And they have responded well.”
After being selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, Warner, who relied on veteran players in the lead-up to his first Super Bowl his sophomore year, has embraced his role in ensuring the young linebacker room understands the significance of the challenge they face on Sunday.
“Back in the 2020 Super Bowl, I was blessed to be around a lot of great veterans like Richard Sherman and Joe Staley who had me fully prepared for the moment as a young second-year player,” Warner said. “This time around, being that veteran, and knowing that we have to play our best game to have a chance to win it all, just been reiterating to the guys to stay focused and making sure we’re preparing as hard as we can.”
As the 49ers’ all-time leader in playoff tackles, Warner has consistently been the tone-setter for the 49ers’ defense. Having missed only one game in the past six years, he takes great pride in his ability to be always available, pointing to his preparation and how he takes care of his body.
Curtis Robinson, who has been with the 49ers for the past three years, playing linebacker and on special teams, mentioned how Warner’s discipline and work ethic pushes the other linebackers to raise their own standards lest they not live up to the standard that he has set in the room for the last six years.
“The work that he puts in each year, both mentally and physically, from the moment the offseason begins to the last game of the year, it’s second to none,” Curtis said. “That’s why so many guys look up to him. It’s made me want to elevate my game to try to get as close to that level as possible.”
As the 49ers’ defense gears up to face a Chiefs offense with Patrick Mahomes compiling five touchdowns and zero turnovers in the past two games, it is not just the younger players that are looking to Warner for inspiration. Defensive linemen Arik Armstead, who has seen Warner progress throughout his career, expressed faith in his fellow team captain’s leadership style, and is confident they can count on the all-pro linebacker on Sunday.
“Fred is the ultimate leader,” Armstead said. “He is vocal and leads by example, bringing a lot of energy to the locker room. He has been there for us the whole time. He’s a special person and a special player that really gets us all going.”