It will happen Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, when the entire San Francisco 49ers team squeezes into a circle around Nick Bosa on the UNLV practice field, after the last practice of this season and a day before the most important game most of them will ever play.
They will have waited for this moment — of course, the 49ers are in feverish anticipation of the Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium; but for the players and staffers, the competitive crescendo begins on the practice field the day before, when their quietest superstar gets ready to talk. No microphone, no podium, no cameras, just him.
His teammates will settle down and try to get as close to Bosa as possible, because he will not raise his voice, throw his fist into the air or stomp his feet. He will not shout, because Bosa isn’t a shouter. He will not offer his teammates a cheery pep talk or bore them with a dissertation. He won’t always focus only on football. He might refer to a novel or historical tome he’s read lately. He might quote Christian McCaffrey, Trent Williams or Fred Warner, and tie it together with his own theme. He will speak from his heart, as he’s done for most of the past two seasons on these moments after the team’s final walk-through, and he will, if he keeps to his usual pace, be as brief as possible.
“A few minutes,” Bosa told me late last week. “Maybe five minutes. Not even (that long), mostly.”
But those precious minutes, his teammates and other 49ers principals suggest, are some of the most important in the 49ers’ preparation for any game. And for Super Bowl LVIII against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, a rematch of the 49ers’ bitter loss in this game four years ago, when Bosa was a rookie? Bosa’s teammates and the coaching staff anticipate his words almost as much as they wait for Kyle Shanahan’s overall coaching message. Sometimes Bosa’s talk is even more important to set the tone for the final 24 hours.
And Bosa knows this. When he first got this assignment as a random choice from Shanahan early in the 2022 season, he half-jokes that it was “traumatic” thinking about the responsibility to make a difference in front of all of his teammates that did not involve chasing a quarterback or wiping out a running play. Maybe that first speech was great, maybe it wasn’t. But Shanahan last week noted that the 49ers won that first game, and it’s been Bosa’s job ever since, all the way up through this momentous weekend and the last speech of the season.
“I’ve got a lot of thinking to do on that,” Bosa said. “But I have started thinking a little bit.”
How does he go about putting these talks together?
“I hear a nugget from a coach or from Fred or whoever,” Bosa said. “A conversation I have with Christian at lunch or whatever it may be. Something I see online or wherever. And sometimes I’ll think of something before the week starts and then Kyle’ll say something similar in his meetings. And then I’ll be, like, all right, I have to talk about the correlation there.”
Yes, it’s a bit surprising to hear all this coming from such a naturally reserved person who rarely if ever raises his voice even in the heat of play — Bosa’s terse, low-decibel, droll commentary among the crunches and bellows is a highlight of all 49ers mic’d-up, in-game videos. But maybe it’s not so surprising given Bosa’s earned standing in the locker room and understanding that Bosa — at 26, finishing his fifth NFL season and a year removed from his 2022 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award — isn’t the same reserved 21-year-old who arrived as the No. 2 pick of the draft in 2019.
He has things to say that he wants his teammates to hear. He has more than earned the right to say them. And Saturdays after walk-through are his time.
“I remember (former assistant general manager) Adam Peters a couple years ago … he came up to me the night before a game and he said, ‘John, you should be so proud of Nick,’” Bosa’s father, John Bosa, said in a telephone interview. “He said, ‘Those Saturday speeches are just awesome.’ And for Adam to say that, and (49ers general manager) John Lynch has said that … it’s pretty cool.
“Yeah, it did surprise me in the beginning. But then when he starts to really give me kind of the topics of what he hits upon, I think they’re really good. … He takes it very seriously, that he’s going to have a message.”
At first, maybe Bosa’s teammates were struck by the novelty of Bosa speaking in such an official capacity, rather than, say, Warner or George Kittle or any of the other more public-facing stars on this team. But these days …
“He used to tell me that was the most nervous he’d be throughout the whole week,” Shanahan said last week. “He’d start getting nervous about it on Wednesdays. I think earlier this year he thanked me. He was like, ‘Hey, thanks for doing that, by the way. I’ve gotten better at it. I’m not as nervous anymore.’ He is really good at it.”
It’s meaningful because Bosa is such a great player. It’s most significant because he’s such an essential person in that locker room. When he talks, everybody in the franchise wants to hear every syllable.
“It seems like they do,” Bosa said with a small smile. “Everybody runs out and kind of gets close, ’cause I don’t speak that loud.”
Bosa doesn’t give out the details of past talks, though he’ll offer general themes to reporters before and afterward. He’s already made public declarations in recent days about the urgency of this moment and how his teammates, even if they think they’re playing hard, can’t let up for a single play in the Super Bowl. And Bosa isn’t the only veteran of the 2019 team to bring up painful memories of the 20-10 lead in Super Bowl LIV and the Chiefs’ 21-0 avalanche in the final half of the final quarter.
Psst: Some players are still quite committed to keeping this stuff as secret as possible.
“How do you know about that?” Charvarius Ward responded last week when I asked him about the Bosa speeches.
Well, your teammates talk about them all the time and Bosa himself is talking about the responsibility.
“They’re pretty good speeches, man,” Ward said. “Bosa’s the Defensive Player of the Year, so when he talks, you listen. He does a pretty good job of motivating us and having us locked in for the game.”
There’s just something about Bosa that touches the innermost spirit of this team. They don’t talk about the essence of it much to outsiders because it means so much to insiders.
“I think it’s the substance of what he says, and his teammates really look forward (to the talks),” Lynch said last week. “We all do. Because it gives us a little direction. And Kyle does a great job. But then it’s Bosa Time. And Bosa gets up there, he doesn’t ever not deliver on Saturdays. It’s must-see viewing. It’s really become an important part of who we are. There’s a great pressure on him.
“It’s interesting, he’s a really well-read guy. He reads a lot of books that talk about a lot of different things. He pulls from that. He pulls from his gut. He pulls from his experiences, and it’s pretty special what he provides for us.”
What are some of his general themes? Embrace the moment. Understand that things might get difficult and unpredictable. And embrace that, too. The hard and unknown part is the most important part.
“Sometimes I talk about the game,” said Bosa. “Sometimes I talk about completely random stuff, things that I’ve read about.”
All this ties directly to the 49ers’ surprising struggles in their two NFC playoff games, falling behind in both before rallying back to beat Green Bay and Detroit. In fact, it did overlap with the mood at halftime of the NFC Championship Game, when, by Bosa’s recounting, he laid down on a heating pad and started telling everybody on defense that 24-7 wasn’t a desperate deficit, that they needed a stop or two and the 49ers’ offense would perk up, that the secondary just had to take away Lions quarterback Jared Goff’s first read and the pass rush would come through. And they would win. Which, basically, is exactly what happened.
I asked him: Does it hit you that your words have meaning with your teammates specifically during the toughest times?
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Bosa said. “Well, I guess if you asked me five years ago it would. But it doesn’t surprise me because you’re such a kid when you come into the league and you become a man. And who knows what kind of man I was going to become?
“I’m not fully developed, but I’ve become a lot more mature and a lot more thoughtful about things. So it makes sense.”
Bosa was voted as one of the 49ers’ six captains in 2022, but he didn’t get named this season because he was away from the team in a contract dispute when the 49ers took the vote. Accidentally or not, Bosa’s absence created room for a necessary add: That’s how Brock Purdy got his first captain’s nod without moving out any of the other five holdover captains. And Bosa’s authority on this team, of course, wasn’t affected.
The holdout, though, had its own effects. Bosa missed all of training camp and the preseason and only agreed to his five-year, $170 million extension on the Wednesday before the Sept. 10 opener in Pittsburgh. The immediate result: Bosa played well throughout the season, but he only had 1.5 sacks in the first five games. They were all 49ers victories, but that pretty much guaranteed that Bosa wasn’t going to come close to his 2022 league-leading total of 18.5 sacks or even his 15.5 back in 2021. Fighting continuous double-teams and chip blocks, Bosa finished with 10.5 sacks in the regular season.
“It got a little frustrating on the stat sheet, but he had a great year,” John Bosa said. “And I will say … he has said that missing camp and missing those reps against (Williams) in camp — because that’s iron sharpening iron, right, that’s to me the best left tackle and the best edge rusher practicing against each other. And he has said that did impact him a little bit in the beginning of the year.”
Bosa hasn’t talked about it much, but last week he agreed that the holdout and the splash of money right at the start of the season could’ve thrown him off a little. He’s proud of the season he put together, but the statistics just weren’t the same as the previous two seasons. Also, he said staying away from his teammates for all of training camp and preseason was even more stressful than he expected.
“It was brutal,” Bosa said. “I never really had time to think about it ’cause I got thrust right into the season and never looked back. But it was extremely tough, way more stressful than I thought. I didn’t think it would go down as far as it did and I’m happy it’s completely out of the way.
“Even the beginning of the season I was kind of putting too much pressure on myself and not necessarily trusting the fact that I earned this and kinda thinking like I need to keep earning it. Which, of course, I do. But I got it for a reason.”
No, the 49ers aren’t complaining about paying Bosa an average of $34 million a year through the 2028 season. They’re paying him (and many others) at the top of his position because the 49ers crave a Super Bowl title. They got to this game four years ago, when Bosa was a rookie, but they let it go. Here they are again, with Bosa and the core group of this team right in the middle of their primes.
And the veterans of this team are making sure everybody on the team understands the weight of this moment.
“I relayed the story that when Dan (Marino) and I were teammates,” said John Bosa, who played for the Dolphins from 1987-1989, “one of Marino’s great regrets is that when he was at the Super Bowl (against the dynastic 49ers in January 1985) and they lost, he felt, aw, I’ll be back next year, no worries. And didn’t take it as seriously. He took the game seriously, but felt like, aw, we’ll be back.
“So I told Nick (before Super Bowl LIV), hey, you’re very fortunate as a rookie to be playing in this game. But you can’t ever count on getting back, so let’s finish the job. And they didn’t that year. I think moving forward to prove himself as a player first and then work himself into feeling comfortable being a leader, I think that’s why he’s respected now. Because he’s not a guy who talks just to be heard or talks to hear himself talk. When he has something to say, it’s usually pretty thoughtful and pretty pertinent to the situation.
“And now that he is kind of the veteran, with a lot of those guys, with the Trents and Freds and guys who’ve been around, I think it’s important even for some of the older guys who’ve been on other teams, who may not have been through the experiences that these guys have had. Heartbreak against the Rams, heartbreak against Philly (in the previous two NFC Championship Games). That all hardens you, but it’s also experiences that you can relay to guys and make sure that they understand the moment and how big the moment is and to be serious about it.”
Also, John Bosa can’t help but see the difference between the current situations of Nick and his older brother Joey, who has played eight standout seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers but won only a single playoff game in that time. And John Bosa is quite pleased that the Chargers have just hired Jim Harbaugh to try to get this team many more postseason victories and maybe get closer to his younger brother.
“Joey, it’s an exciting time for him,” John Bosa said. “I don’t know where everything is going to work out this year, but Joey is obviously excited that the Chargers have actually hired a great football coach. And that has not been the case for eight years. It’s been a bit sad to watch Nick in an organization that’s pretty awesome and to have Joey have eight years of frustration. So that race, maybe it’ll change next year.”
Bosa’s message works after games, too. At least it does for the media and fans, who have come to expect context and credibility from him, win or lose. And it’s especially important after losses, from someone who isn’t afraid to say things that might bother some people throughout the league or aren’t quite pre-approved by Shanahan or the rest of the team.
Bosa doesn’t repeat himself. He doesn’t spout cliches. He says what’s on his mind, often in very succinct ways. So Bosa has become a go-to quote in the 49ers’ locker room, officially acknowledged when he won this season’s Garry Niver Award, voted on by 49ers beat writers, for cooperation with the media. The previous recent winners — Kyle Juszczyk, Trent Williams, Jimmy Garoppolo, Richard Sherman and Joe Staley — are a list of the most credible players in recent 49ers history. (Kittle and Warner somehow haven’t won the award in their careers, another example of the depth of perspective and charisma in the 49ers locker room.)
Was winning this award another surprise moment in your career, Nick?
“Yeah, a little bit,” Bosa said. “But I think you guys appreciate honesty, and I knew that. … I think it’s cool. I think it’s the only way I know how to be, so I don’t think about it too much. I kind of enjoy speaking my mind and telling you guys how I feel.
“And sometimes it gets me in trouble, but not too much.”
Oh, like when you said before the big game against the Philadelphia Eagles in early December that the 49ers’ defense just had to keep Jalen Hurts in the pocket and make him throw, and then you beat the Eagles largely by doing exactly that and then said the 49ers just issued “the blueprint” for beating the Eagles?
“Woooo,” Bosa said ruefully, shaking his head. “That was a close call. But it worked out.”
It came true, though, judging by the Eagles’ late-season plunge and early playoff exit.
“It did,” Bosa said. “It’s just the NFL, you can’t be saying s— like that. You don’t know what’s going to come back and bite you. But it did kind of pan out.”
The words mattered. They came true. Even if Bosa was slightly uncomfortable with the potential repercussions, he said the thing he was thinking, and he was not wrong. Is that a model for his Saturday talks? Almost certainly, in his own unique way.
Lynch has a unique reference for any outsider who wants to get an idea of Bosa Time: Multi-platform 49ers commentator and fan Steph Sanchez’s hilarious and apparently very accurate renditions of what she guesses Bosa’s speeches are like.
“Steph Sanchez who does that deal … it’s pretty close,” Lynch said with a chuckle. “It is uncanny how similar that is.”
— Steph Sanchez (@Steph49K) September 21, 2022
Bosa’s working on it. He’s listening to his teammates, he’s thinking about outside sources, he’s contemplating the entire season the 49ers have played, with one more game left. He will figure it out, just like he’s figured it out for most of two seasons now.
“I really don’t remember the first time,” Bosa said. “It was a couple years ago. But sometimes when I don’t have something to say or necessarily something scripted, it flows a lot better and … it’s more genuine. And then when I had a week to think about it, sometimes I go up there freaking out and try and recite something and it would never be good.
“This year has been the best for me, because I’ve just been throughout the week talking to guys and hearing things and then just kind of piecing together something in my mind. And just going in with an outline or a thought process and then just letting it flow.”
It will happen in a few days, on the eve of this landmark game, spoken at regular volume, with all his teammates leaning in to listen. They will remember everything Nick Bosa says in that moment. And if they win the Super Bowl a day later, they will likely remember every word for as long as they live. Just a bit of pressure on Bosa for this one. Yes, he loves it.
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(Top photo of Nick Bosa before the 49ers’ Christmas Day game against the Baltimore Ravens: Ryan Kang / Getty Images)