SANTA CLARA — John Lynch said last year that trying to tackle Barry Sanders — as he had to do twice a year while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — could break a defender’s will. For the first four seasons of Lynch’s career, Sanders got the best of him.
Early in the 1997 season, Sanders lined up on first-and-10 ready to take the handoff at his own 20-yard line in Detroit. A hop skip to his right, and he left Lynch — then a Buccaneers safety — on the ground as he rushed for an 80-yard touchdown to give the Detroit Lions a 7-3 lead.
Sixteen weeks later, the Bucs and the Lions faced each other for a third time, this time in the Wild Card game. On first-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 38 in the third quarter, Lynch finally stuck Sanders for one of the biggest hits of his career, stopping him for two yards.
That’s the hit San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh — then 16 — remembers. It’s one of the reasons Saleh thinks Lynch — now his boss as the 49ers general manager — belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for which he was named a finalist on Thursday.
“Back in the day when it was cool to knock people in the head, that was John. He was awesome,” Saleh said. “John was a guy who, just from being a little kid and watching him, he was phenomenal with just, he was everywhere. He just showed up everywhere and he brought pain to offensive players and made you love football.”
Lynch wasn’t made available on Thursday to talk about being a finalist — it’s his fifth time in five years — but his exploits are well-known in the locker room.
Last week, rookie defensive back D.J. Reed said he’d watched Lynch’s highlight videos on YouTube, and couldn’t believe how hard Lynch hit, and how hard players were allowed to hit during his heyday, from 1993 to 2008. Things have changed with the new helmet-lowering rule, passed in March.
Lynch, in May, was asked on the Rich Eisen Show about the new lowering-the-helmet rule passed by the NFL’s competition committee. His answer was careful — safety is paramount, he said — but it was difficult for one of the hardest hitters the game has ever seen to toe the line.
“As a player, you always knew when someone was out of line in terms of the way they were playing the game,” Lynch told Eisen. “As we continue to learn things, yes, we have to address this, but we have to also know that we play a physical sport, and that’s part of the allure of it. People sign up knowing that.”
There were 51 helmet-lowering penalties called in the first two weeks of the preseason — 1.54 per game. After the NFL issued a clarification, saying that inadvertent or incidental contact would not result in a penalty — which was the initial intent of the framers of the rule, anyway — calls went down drastically. In the next two weeks, there were 20 such penalties in 32 games.
In 16 games during Week 1 of the regular season, just one penalty was called under the new rule.
“I don’t think it’s been refined,” said 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who has made no secret about his disdain for the new rule. “I think they understand that there’s no calling that. You can call it on just about every play where somebody catches or has the football and lowers his head.”
Sherman had one play in particular on his mind.
“In our game, [Vikings quarterback] Kirk Cousins was running the football, lowered his helmet and technically, by the rule of the law, you could have called it there,” Sherman said. “You could have called leading with his helmet, imitating contact with the crown of his helmet, but you don’t call it there because, what the heck are you talking about? It’s football. This is a football game. You can’t lead your body with anything else but your head.”
It’s why, as good as Lynch was — nine Pro Bowls in the span of 11 seasons, three straight All-Pro seasons and the captaincy of the Buccaneers 2002 Super Bowl team — Sherman doubts he’d be able to make the kind of impact he made, in today’s NFL. Lynch’s hard hitting — more than his 26 career interceptions and 13 sacks in 15 seasons — and how he impacted the game are what got him to this point in the process.
“I remember that if he played right now, he wouldn’t be able to play,” Sherman said. “I mean, he was a great player. He was smart, but he was an enforcer. Those were the days when football was actually a sport where you could be physical. Now, if he hits somebody with even half the power that he was hitting them with, he’d be kicked out of the league. He’d be banned. That’s sad.”
San Francisco Injury Notes
- Safety Adrian Colbert (hamstring), guard Joshua Garnett (toe), wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (quadricep), guard Mike Person (foot), linebacker Malcolm Smith (hamstring) did not practice on Thursday. Colbert, however, did run on a side field.
- Offensive lineman Erik Magnuson (hamstring), safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder), cornerback K’Waun Williams (rib) and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (ankle) were limited in practice.
- Sherman said of the dearth of defensive backs due to injury: “Last game was the perfect example of how things can go astray really quickly. When we lost both guards, we lost ‘Quise, guys had to step in and be ready to play. That’s football. Football is a 100-percent injury rate game. I don’t think anybody who’s played more than one game can go out there and say, ‘Hey, man, I feel great.'”
- Kyle Shanahan said on KNBR Thursday that Najee Toran would start at right guard after injuries to Garnett and Person against the Vikings. Toran was on the practice squad, but got first-team reps on Wednesday. Toran, signed as an undrafted free agent in May, played in 31 games (24 starts) in four years at UCLA. In 2017, he started all 13 games and earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors.