MIAMI — Robert Saleh slowly rotated the two rubber bracelets on his right wrist, and over the next several minutes, offered a window into his soul and the heartbeat of his players.
At a near-empty table inside a South Florida hotel ballroom this week, the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator took his time unveiling the secret behind the league’s most disruptive, destructive and dominant force this season.
The acronyms tell the story of a talented unit that was challenged to be the best version of itself by its head coach, Kyle Shanahan. The letters also are a reminder that all-out effort and commitment — both on and off the field — are daily requirements inside the 49ers’ building. Not just the expectation on Sundays.
“These are our core principles. What we try to be,” Saleh told Yahoo Sports, as he leaned in and pointed to the first set of acronyms on his bracelets. “No. 1 is: ‘All gas, no brake.’
“On the surface level, people think about effort, but it’s more than that. We always talk about how it’s our way of life — the way you train, the way you study, the way you treat your wife, your girlfriend, your children, your friends. The way you go about your every day life. You wake up in the morning, step on the gas and don’t let go.”
Saleh then rotated the rubber bracelet again.
“This right here is, ‘Always attacking’ the ball,” he said. “We’re a ball-hawking defense, we’re trying to create as many takeaways and explosive plays as possible.
“And this one right here,” Saleh said, shifting the bracelet again, “is ‘Extreme Violence.’
“People think about violence and hitting people, but it’s more than that. It’s violence off the ball, it’s violence out of your break, it’s violence with your hand placement, it’s violence with your feet. As a corner, ‘Am I being violent enough with my read techniques?’”
The bracelets — one black with yellow lettering, the other a red and yellow combination — have arrived every offseason since 2017, Saleh’s first season with the team. Each year, the team orders a new shipment that is delivered to the facility right before the start of OTAs.
All of their defensive players have them. As does Shanahan.
“Sherm uses it as something to tie his hair,” Saleh said with laugh, referring to their star cornerback Richard Sherman.
Saleh had ordered a new batch of the same bracelets before the start of the 2018 season. But this past spring, he made a tweak: He had “Take It Personal” — the only phrase currently written out in full — etched into the bracelets.
“Everything in life is personal,” he said. “And if you don’t take life personal, you always shortchange yourself. So, just the mindset of taking everything personal — your effort, the way you attack the ball, the way you live your life — just take it all personal.”
That message was borne out of a particularly crushing Week 13 defeat in 2018. Shanahan seized the opportunity to make it a teachable moment in the midst of another trying season.
San Francisco flew to Seattle as the clear underdog behind an inexperienced backup quarterback and, in the end, were pushed around for four quarters. The 49ers lost 43-16.
“The Seahawks beat the brakes off us,” Saleh said of that Dec. 2 loss.
Two weeks later — and on their home turf — the 49ers faced Seattle again. At the time, the Seahawks were poised to clinch a playoff berth against a San Francisco squad that was scuffling at 3-10. Instead, the 49ers pulled off a 26-23 upset in overtime on a Robbie Gould field goal.
“Kyle made mention that that week was different for us on defense because he felt like it was very personal,” Saleh said. "And he made the challenge that we should do that every day. And he’s right. When it’s more personal, it’s more important and you find a way.
“That’s what makes Sherm special — everything’s personal,” he joked. “So if you can find a way to take it on a personal level, it’s amazing what the human mind and body can achieve.”
Clearly, the message was received.
The 49ers’ ferocious front has harassed opponents all season long (See: Aaron Rodgers — twice — and Kirk Cousins) and stifled some of the game’s best running backs, like Dalvin Cook. Over the past few years, San Francisco has stockpiled defensive talent via the draft, midseason trades and offseason free-agent signings. And, as a result, the 49ers now boast playmakers at every position — speedy, cerebral, trash-talking guys who exhibit the type of physicality and grit that Saleh and Shanahan demand.
So many thought the so-called “gauntlet” between Weeks 14-16 — games against Green Bay, Baltimore and New Orleans — would derail the 49ers’ hot start and expose them as a team not built for prime time. But that stretch only strengthened San Francisco’s resolve and its case for being the best team in the NFC West, and possibly the entire league.
This Sunday, they’ll face their biggest test of the season: Containing Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City’s potent offense in Super Bowl LIV.
But the next opponent matters little to a team that has felt slighted all season.
This is personal.
For San Francisco, it has to be.
The latest mantra added to their bracelets in April is a reminder to be great in preparation for their latest obstacle.
Before the first game of their 2019 season, players, coaches and staffers were given military coins as well. The message behind the keepsake?
“The same,” Saleh said. “It’s all the same. Just written on a coin.”
The defensive coordinator then lamented that he’d still have his military coin if it hadn’t been stolen from his car.
“It’s an epidemic in the Bay area, people are smashing out windows and grabbing bags,” he said, before giving a stern warning to “never leave a bag” behind in a vehicle.
Saleh described parking his car a short distance from the entrance of a Starbucks, pointing to a column about 30 feet away from his table to illustrate the close proximity. “My car was right there,” he said.
“I’m getting a coffee and someone taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, your car just got broken into.’ And I just see this dude get into a Mercedes and speeding off. A Mercedes!” Saleh said, incredulously. “So it’s gone.”
He insisted he has made peace with the disappearance of a prized possession. For a moment, though, his face can’t mask his disappointment.
But, as he often reminds his players, the past can’t be changed. All that matters is the present.
The intention behind the coins, and their bracelets, won’t be forgotten by Saleh any time soon. There’s still much more to play for on Sunday.
One more opportunity to step on the gas and never let up.
One more opportunity to attack at will.
One more opportunity for the 49ers defense to be as violent as possible.
As Saleh sat at the white-clothed table inside the ballroom of their Super Bowl week hotel, his thoughts turned to the thief from that fateful day.
He smiled and said: “Hopefully he made good use of it.”
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