LAS VEGAS — You could see Deebo Samuel sitting at his locker, his black skullcap pulled down to his piercing stare, the one that often says so much more than his words. You could see him being so intense, so focused, so amped, that he’s shaking.
When 49ers owner Jed York revealed what general manager John Lynch shared with him, of Deebo at halftime of the NFC Championship Game, San Francisco fans could probably picture the scene. Certainly, Samuel’s message to Lynch in that moment, with the 49ers down 17 at the half to the Detroit Lions, sounds like an utterance from Deebo, whose spirit fuels the 49ers.
“(Deebo told Lynch,) ‘Just tell Kyle to get me the damn ball,’” York said on the “Up & Adams” show. “That’s who Deebo is. He’s just ready to take over a game at any point.”
Special will be required of the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. Beating Patrick Mahomes, this Kansas City Chiefs defense, cresting the mountain they’ve been scaling for five years — extraordinary is in order.
It’s what kept them from the Lombardi Trophy the last time they were in the Super Bowl, in the form of Mahomes. The bar for excellence required has been established. Who from the 49ers will meet it?
Their options are why they’re here. Christian McCaffrey, the newly minted Offensive Player of the Year. Brock Purdy’s entire career thus far is improbable, and one more such performance would fit his story. Who’d be surprised if Nick Bosa or Fred Warner or George Kittle or Brandon Aiyuk were spectacular enough to shift the outcome in San Francisco’s favor? Winning, in all likelihood, demands someone comes out of this a 49ers legend.
Samuel not only fits the mold, he wants it to be him.
“He’s lightning in a bottle,” offensive tackle Trent Williams said of Deebo. “Any time he touches the ball, he can go to the crib. Don’t matter if it’s preseason or Super Bowl. Any game. In any game, you’ve got 19 and you can get him the ball, most likely he’s gon’ make something happen.”
Also, Samuel is due.
He scored eight touchdowns in a four-week stretch, including three in a Week 13 win in Philadelphia that was critical in their ascent to the NFC’s No. 1 seed. It was peak Deebo, mashing on the gas to accelerate the 49ers.
But he has only one touchdown over the last five games, including the postseason — and that was against a listless Washington squad in Week 17. He’s been dealing with a shoulder injury this postseason, which knocked him out early in the divisional round. He played through it in the NFC Championship Game and has had two weeks to heal.
In many ways, Deebo has been grooming himself for big moments. He’s felt the weight of them before, worked through them and embraced them. He’s fought through injuries his whole career. He’s played two positions. He’s found a way to make an impact despite not being traditionally polished as a receiver. So much of what makes Deebo spectacular is his fortitude.
Thursday, he was talking about mental health and the value of his support system girding him.
“My support system is through the roof,” Samuel said. “This game is really, really hard. And I don’t think people understand the mental part of this game. … The pressure is like — I don’t think people understand the amount of pressure you go out here with to try to win games, and how much we installed, and how almost perfect you have to be in this game. And it kind of takes a toll on your brain a little bit. And you’ve just gotta understand the purpose of what you’re doing.”
Spoken like a man who said he nearly quit football years ago. A man who — back in South Carolina, where he grew up and went to college — would go home and break down because his body was warring against his drive.
Spoken like a man who’s had his heart transformed by the birth of his son, and finds all the motivation he needs in the eyes of 3-year-old Tyshun.
Spoken like a man who has measured the weight of expectation, counted the cost of being great, and wanted it still.
The 49ers need that level of special. They need that version of Deebo.
“The moment is for him,” Aiyuk said. “He’s one of those guys.”
Samuel’s value to the 49ers offense has become abundantly clear this season. This wasn’t his banner year, like 2021, when he set career-highs in yards from scrimmage (1,771) and touchdowns (14). But his impact was at peak levels. Even when he’s not racking up the yards and scoring touchdowns, his presence must be accounted for, and that factors greatly into how a defense reacts.
The smart money is on the Chiefs looking to take away McCaffrey. He’s the priority of the 49ers offense, even more than Purdy. McCaffrey’s success activates the 49ers’ cache of offensive weapons and makes every defense vulnerable. Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City’s defensive coordinator, is reputed for his scheming in big games and is expected to take away the 49ers’ strengths.
Which means the 49ers’ chances just might come down to their strength being stronger.
The last time they were here, when Samuel was a rookie, the game came down to the 49ers needing to make a play. They couldn’t do it. They were outscored 21-0 in the fourth quarter. The Super Bowl slipped through their fingers.
It very well could come down to that again. A close game, late. Everybody is locked in. Who’s going to make the play? Experts and pundits are almost unanimously picking the Chiefs because Mahomes thrives in those moments.
The 49ers have a quarterback who can get the ball to their playmakers. Who can make something happen when the 49ers need it most? Who on San Francisco can make something out of nothing? The 49ers have several options. Still, you know Deebo wants it to be him.
“Because it’s no gimmick,” Williams said. “You’ve got to go tackle him. You’ve got to be fast enough to catch him, and you’ve got to be strong enough to get him to the ground. That don’t change. It ain’t like we’re hitting trick plays. It’s mano-a-mano. You’ve got to take him down. That’s who he is.”
Christian McCaffrey, Kyle Juszczyk and Bobby Turner — a precise 49ers fit
(Top photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)