SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After halting practice a second time because of a fight Tuesday, coach Kyle Shanahan called on his team to regroup.
He quickly spoke a few chosen words about what had just happened. Beneath the anger was a simple message about how Shanahan wants his team to play.
Physical? Absolutely. Hard? Sure. Irritant? Sure.
But Shanahan wants the Niners to draw the line to throw punches, which happened twice this Tuesday practice — namely between star middle linebacker Fred Warner and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
“I want everyone to challenge each other,” Shanahan said Friday. “I don’t care how much bullshit they talk to each other; I don’t care how close they fight. They can do whatever they want to be as intense as they want and get the best out of each other, that which often happens that way and it’s the same thing on the pitch.
“But once you throw a punch you get sent off or you get a penalty, and we’re proud of that, I want people to be irritating, I want people to get as close to it as possible. I want people to be right on the line where they are about to pass out, but you can’t pass out on the football pitch or you cost your team dearly.”
The problem this week for Shanahan’s team was that it happened on the practice field between teammates. It was the hottest day of this camp and a longer, fully padded session, factors which several players believe contributed to the situation. And while fights are common at every training camp, this one happened between two players who are expected to play a big role this season.
The biggest fight – between Warner and Aiyuk – began when a late hit from Warner landed receiver Marcus Johnson in concussion protocol.
Something was already brewing between Warner and Aiyuk, with Aiyuk telling the media days before, in a semi-joking manner, that Warner was “boring” and his insistence on continuing to tear the ball up and tag guys after the end. games was “irritating.”
Warner replied that he believed Aiyuk was ready to take the next step in his career and was doing what he could to help take his game to the next level.
“Specifically with Brandon, I chose him,” Warner said. “I think he’s ready to take the next step to play at an elite level. I’ve been following him a bit…because I know how much he has in him. And I know if I harass him a bit, he’ll getting sick of that and starting to sort it out…He started to really get that mindset of knowing he’s a guy and he’s capable. I’m trying to get the best out of him. “
On Friday, Shanahan said he’s okay with his players pushing each other, and he trusts them to do it the right way. But incidents like Tuesday’s must come to a natural stopping point.
“I love his intensity,” Shanahan said. “I don’t think you have to fight to be intense, though. Fights are fights but then they lead to other things. I think that’s why we have a guy in protocol because he has unnecessarily shot someone that led to the big fight and then we had a bunch of haymakers and stuff thrown in there, just breaking your hands.”
The Niners completed the rest of Tuesday’s practice and all of Wednesday’s practice without further incident. In the meantime, Shanahan hammered home the fact that his team can be physical without resorting to fighting.
“I think our team is pretty solid,” Shanahan said. “I think we’re pretty physical. I think if we probably voted who would be the most physical team on tape last year, I think we’d win most of that, and we didn’t participate only one fight last year. So I don’t think it totally relates to toughness.”