SANTA CLARA — Through all the turbulence of this 2016 season, the 49ers locker room has been Chip Kelly’s safe haven.
There were hugs and a few tears shed Sunday between the head coach and his players, after San Francisco wrapped up its worst season in 13 years. The 49ers legitimately loved Kelly, a complete 180 degree turn from his days in Philadelphia.
One by one, the 49ers three biggest teams leaders — Torrey Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Joe Staley — stood up and faced the music after a Week 17 loss and a 2-14 season. Minutes earlier, Kelly went through the motions of a postgame press conference, legitimately acting as if his firing was not imminent.
For as staunchly as these players defended Kelly in his final days, and as much as they’ll miss his relaxed style of coaching, there was no outspoken bitterness from the players on Jed York’s decision to fire the head coach after just one season.
“He’s a good dude, man, but I understand the business side of it,” Smith said, who has missed the last three games with a concussion. “I think he’s a good coach, I think he’s a better person. But that’s how this business goes. Plenty of good people are in tough spots. When we lose and have a season like we had, changes are made, or can be made. That’s coaches to players to all of us. We’re all apart of the problem.”
In a clever PR tactic, the 49ers opened the locker room and had Bowman speak right away, while other younger players — who were more likely to mouth-off — snuck out the back door. Bowman carried a similar message to Smith, and was asked if the locker room was upset that Kelly would be leaving.
“I’m sure they are,” Bowman said. “We’ve stuck together throughout this whole season. Going to work, being who we are every single day. Chip’s stayed focused. (He) never mentioned anything like this was coming up. He was being a complete professional is really what’s taken place throughout this season.
“To be going through so many (coaches) in such a short time, it’s tough. So you have to be a professional and understand that’s a part of this lifestyle.”
Staley said he heard of all the reports the night before the game. He also remembers walking into the locker room earlier this month and barely recognizing half of the faces because of all the injuries.
The left tackle admirably pointed the finger at himself for some of the failures of this season.
“Me personally, there has to be more leadership,” Staley said. “There’s got to be more accountability. Meeting rooms, on-field, those are things that I, being a veteran player, being the oldest guy on this team, that I have to focus in on this offseason and do a better job being a leader, being vocal, step out of my comfort zone a little bit. That’s something I’ll focus on and do better for this football team.”
Smith left us with this parting note:
“It’s not my position to say it’s too many changes,” Smith said. “I think it’s one of them things where you try to get it right. Like in terms of receivers, myself, like the team is going to try and get a receiver, that’s doing it right. That’s how the business goes, it’s not just the 49ers.”
“It’s a bummer,” Staley said. “Really this whole season has been a bummer.”
These are the 49ers three leaders: A 32-year-old left tackle, a wrecking-ball middle linebacker recovering from an Achilles tear, and a wide receiver who has underachieved since signing in free agency.
They’ll need other veterans to help remove the Tomsula-Kelly culture in 2017.