© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
MIAMI — Super Bowl week is heavy on the frills and light on normalcy. Swarms of media, many from national or international outlets, ask players — who, at podium sessions, are locked in for 50-minute-to-hour-long sessions — often bizarre questions. The farcical nature of the event lends itself to players tending to loosen up a bit, or occasionally add a little extra to their media interactions.
That’s not the case for Jimmie Ward, whose demeanor is at an almost constant level. Whether it’s the years of being criticized for injuries, feeling like he’s had fair-weather friends, or not knowing whether he’d return to the 49ers, Ward’s often to the point in his responses. He’s not often short or abrasive with the media, but he tends to cut through the clutter and fluff that are innate in some players’ answers.
Ward said Monday he only gave his Super Bowl tickets to “the people who I felt like who grabbed my back.”
"I've been in college at NIU, I've been in high school. There's not many people that came to watch those games. There's not many people that came and bought my jersey… I gave it to the people who I felt like who grabbed my back."
— KNBR (@KNBR) January 28, 2020
Ward can be counted on for quips as much as insight, exemplified best by an interaction with a reporter after the 49ers’ Week 15, last-second loss to the Atlanta Falcons, when Julio Jones caught 13 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
“What was the game plan on Julio [Jones] today?” the reporter asked. “Obviously, he tore you guys up.”
“Oh, well, thank you for that,” Ward said. “Really just dominate the run, and force them to pass. Make them one-dimensional.”
Jones was the only player besides New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook to catch more than two touchdown passes in a game against the 49ers this season, and one of six to have more than 100 yards. Among both groups, he was the only player to win the game.
Ward has arguably been the most crucial part of the 49ers’ top-ranked secondary (NFL best 169.2 passing yards allowed per game, 7th-best 83.0 passer rating allowed) outside of Richard Sherman. His impact was evident when he replaced second-year safety Tarvarius Moore, who took some dreadful and inexperience-driven angles on wide receivers.
But for as important as Ward has been, Sunday could be his last game as a San Francisco 49ers player. He was re-signed to a one-year, $4.5 million contract after playing out his fifth-year team option in 2018.
After his career was nearly derailed by injuries, there’s no question Ward will look for financial security in his next contract, coming off his first season playing (and starting) in more than 10 games (13), and at a near All-Pro level. He’s well aware that much of his future, and desire to stay in San Francisco, isn’t dependent on him.
The 49ers have impending, likely monumental extensions for both George Kittle and DeForest Buckner coming over the next two seasons, and Arik Armstead will become a free agent if he’s not franchise tagged. There’s not likely to be a massive pool of money to spend for a team that’s only projected to have $23.4 million in cap space per OverTheCap, assuming they cut both Jerick McKinnon and Marquise Goodwin ($15.19 million without those cuts).
When Ward hits free agency this offseason, there won’t be much certainty about his destination. It’s part of why Ward had maybe the most tempered reaction to the 49ers’ NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers.
“It feels great. It’s bittersweet right now,” Ward told KNBR Then. “I’m happy, my team’s happy, but right now, we still got one more game, so the season is not done yet until we finished that last game. I understand we did something big that we haven’t did in a lot of years but if we’re going to make it this far, I want to win the whole thing so that’s why I said it’s bittersweet.”
On Tuesday, when I asked about his reaction to finding out Robert Saleh wouldn’t get the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job, it was the same feeling: “bittersweet.”
“Man, it was it was a bittersweet,” Ward said. “It’s cool that he gets to stay here another year, and I know he wanted to get that job somewhere to be a head coach because that’s a promotion for him, but at the same time it’s bittersweet for me because I might not be here next year, so it’s cool I might get to be coached by you again but at the same time I don’t know. Business is business.”
Ward made it clear his intent to remain in Santa Clara, but his guess as to whether that happens is as good as yours.
“I don’t know [if I’ll be back], really. I love the 49ers organization. I’ve been here for six years, they’ve treated me well. I think there’s respect for both sides but like at the end of the day, it’s business and that’s the money part of things, so I have no clue, but I’d love to be here.”