SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Reuben Foster has been on the San Francisco 49ers’ injury report each of the last three weeks with a shoulder. He hasn’t missed so much as a practice, much less a game, since his two-game, season-opening suspension ended.
Still, though, the last time the San Francisco 49ers met the Arizona Cardinals, Foster tried to tackle David Johnson with his right arm hanging dead at his side. On Sunday, against the Los Angeles Rams, Foster tried in vain to stop a Todd Gurley touchdown reception, but walked off shaking his right arm.
“It don’t go numb,” Foster said. “It’s a sharp pain that goes on and off.”
With no turnovers forced this season, on a 49ers team that has a -15 turnover differential, Foster is experiencing more than what Robert Saleh calls a sophomore slump. It’s not clear exactly when or how he aggravated a shoulder he’s had issues with since college, but he won’t come out, and San Francisco has yet to take him out. In fact, Saleh said, on Wednesday, Foster had his best practice this year.
“His feet looked fast. He looked explosive out of his break. He looked faster than he’s been in practice,” Saleh said. “Great intent and focus. It was just an all-around package. The expectation now, he’s got to back it up. He’s got to stack days. When you practice at 50-percent, you play at 50-percent.”
On Thursday, Foster favored his right shoulder, hitting with his left. This season, he’s not improved on the promise he showed as a rookie, when even after missing six games, he finished just five back of the team tackles lead. Since returning from his two-game suspension to start the season, Foster has played in 96.6 percent of San Francisco’s 326 defensive snaps, and made 28 tackles in five games. Rookie Fred Warner has played every one of 474 defensive snaps this season, and has made 58 tackles in seven games.
“For a second-year player, and it goes throughout the league, it’s just my opinion, I think the second-year player is the hardest year for a player in general,” Saleh said. “When they come in as rookies, you have kids who come in and they don’t know anything. They’re just locked in on their coach, they’re trying as hard as they can, they want to make a great first impression, they’re out there balling, they know nothing about anything and they’re just running and hitting.
“When they get into their second year they’ve got social media, they’ve got a bank full of money, they’ve got family, they’ve got entourage, they’ve got a whole bunch of stuff outside, along with what they perceive as more knowledge of football. So, they forget what made them great as rookies in the first place.”
Foster had more to deal with than most this offseason, with a drug charge, a weapons charge and a domestic violence charge (dismissed) bringing down a two-game suspension from the NFL to start the season. Talks with DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman have helped him get over some of the typical sophomore issues.
“It’s very helpful,” Foster said. “I’m down on myself because of injury, but I have to maintain that the storm won’t weather for longer. These guys are uplifting me, really, and I really appreciate Sherm and D-Fo and all the players, really, just giving me that mentality and giving me that boost, saying ‘It’s OK, and thanking you for doing what you’re doing.'”
Still, the mental toll from that — especially with the support of veterans like Sherman — doesn’t seem to quite match the toll his physical problems have taken.
Ever since college, Foster has had issues with his right shoulder. He had surgery on his right rotator cuff just before the NFL Draft, a surgery multiple teams said didn’t take, according to ESPN.
His shoulders were why he was available for the 49ers with the 31st overall pick in 2017. While rehab forced him to be limited in offseason workouts to just one-on-one drills, he was ready to go for camp. The shoulder didn’t factor into the six games he missed as a rookie. He missed five games that season due to an ankle sprain, and then missed more time with a rib injury. Now, though, it seems to have resurfaced.
“He’s going through some stuff, obviously,” Saleh said. “But, it’s not going to stop him from playing. He’s a fighter. He wants to be great. It’s very, very important to him. So, whatever ailment he may have it’s not going to stop him from being on the football field. It might trigger here and there, but he’s not coming off. It’s something he’s just going to have to deal with.”
There are times, Saleh admitted, where he wants to take Foster out because of the arm, but he has not.
“I want to stay out there the whole time,” Foster said. “I listen to my coaches and trainers and whatever they decide, for me, they know what’s best.”
Saleh chalked the injury up to the violence with which Foster plays, a violence the 49ers need on a struggling defense.
“I think because of the way he hits and the way he plays, it’s always going to be a part of his game,” Saleh said. “He’s always going to get dinged up. But, at the same time, he’s got such a great mindset that he will fight through all of that stuff. He does want to play and he’s got a tremendous mindset. So, there will be days when he’s fresh and he’s running and hitting, but there’s some days where he’s going to hit somebody so hard that he kind of hurts himself. I don’t think it’s going to stop him. But, at the same time, I’m really not concerned with Reuben and him being an injury guy. He plays the game so hard and so violently that sometimes accidents happen. But, he’ll stand up, he’ll play the next play.”
Foster said that he’s had an MRI on the shoulder, and that “everything was good,” and just needed maintenance.
“This is something I can really play with, focus in,” Foster said. “All I’ve got to do is get my treatment. They’re really dialed in on body maintenance, really. The plays and everything, they’re going to come, but me getting healthy, getting myself healthy to do what’s best for my team, is really what I’m focusing on.”
A hanging, dead arm, though, is not exactly conducive to proper form tackling.
“I guess so,” Foster said. “You’ve got to use your shoulders for a lot of things, getting off blocks and whatever, but I’ve just got to have the right mindset of going into the game and doing what’s best for my team, really, and go hard for my team … I’m not going to let a shoulder hold me back. I’m going to rehab, listen to the coaches, listen to the trainers and see what I need to do to maintain my body and do my best for the team.”