Sport: Kyle Shanahan’s warning to improving 49ers: Don’t get fat and happy

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His name is Uncle Keith, and he shows up in Santa Clara around this time each year, serving as a cautionary tale designed to keep the San Francisco 49ers from getting fat and happy.

Uncle Keith, a recurring character cited in team meetings by coach Kyle Shanahan, is the ubiquitous family member who rolls in from out of town hell-bent on soaking up the holiday spirit. He’s ready to eat, drink and be merry, and he’s as hard to bring down as Deebo Samuel on a sideline sprint to the end zone.

“Uncle Keith, he wants to stay up late and talk about a bunch of stuff that doesn’t even matter,” says linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who, as a fourth-year player, knows Shanahan’s speech almost by heart. “Uncle Keith wants to dig into that turkey and drink a couple of beers. Uncle Keith’s on vacation, but you’re not. He needs to know that you have a bedtime, because he wants to keep going and going.”

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Everybody’s got an Uncle Keith.”

It’s not just the Thanksgiving holiday that makes Uncle Keith especially relevant right now. If ever an NFL team were in danger of feeling full of itself and letting down its collective guard, it’s the 49ers, who are riding high after a magnifico performance in Mexico City—and beginning a stretch of three consecutive home games, while coming off a short week and facing a seemingly overmatched opponent.

The Niners (6-4), tied with Seattle atop the NFC West, will try to extend their winning streak to four by defeating the New Orleans Saints (4-7) at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, something they are favored to do by more than a touchdown.

For a team that demonstrated an uncanny ability to thrive under duress a year ago, as evidenced by a second-half run that ended just short of a Super Bowl appearance, this is a test of whether Shanahan’s players can handle prosperity and avoid inevitable letdowns.

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Predictably, the vibe in a lively and borderline ebullient locker room Wednesday carried a conviction that they’re up to the challenge.

“There’s no fat and happy here,” insisted George Kittle, whose two-touchdown performance in last Monday night’s 38-10 trashing of the Arizona Cardinals reintroduced the animated tight end to a national audience.

Is anyone else worried that the Niners might coast off their recent success and take the Saints, and perhaps future opponents, for granted?

“F--- no!” Greenlaw insists. “That not it, at all. Our expectation is that we’re supposed to go out there and do what we do, no matter how good or bad things are going.

“We’re going out there to kick ass. That’s our mindset. We can’t wait to get back on the field. You’ve got to think like that in order to be on this team. If anything, we turn it up.”

The problem is, we’ve seen the 49ers flail when they aren’t turnt up — as evidenced by their slow starts last season (3-5) and in 2022 (3-4). It’s not hard to access this year’s regrettable efforts: The blown leads in the season-opening defeat to the Chicago Bears and the Week 3 debacle against the Denver Broncos; the beatdown by the Falcons in Atlanta; getting boat-raced at Levi’s by the Kansas City Chiefs.

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The Niners aren’t one of those teams that relies on individual acts of greatness to bail them out of rough patches. They have to keep their edge, or their vulnerability becomes obvious. Because Shanahan’s offense depends upon a collective precision, and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ scheme relies on players swarming to the ball, it only takes a few lackadaisical links to impair the whole operation.

If even a few 49ers start feeling themselves in the wake of their recent run, a faceplant could follow.

“Yeah, no doubt,” says defensive end Nick Bosa, who leads the NFC with 10.5 sacks. “You’ve got to bring it every week, ‘cause if you let up at all, a team like this can beat you.”

Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who also had two scoring receptions against the Cardinals, concedes that it’s a possibility.

“Of course (it’s a concern) — that’s a natural thing to do,” he says. “You always want to ride the high. But just as fast as it comes together, that’s as fast as it can fall apart.

“The thing is, the line between being desperate and being happy with ourselves is so thin. I still feel like that desperate mindset is when we play our best football. We still feel like that every week. And we should.”

The 2021 Niners channeled that mindset into an NFC Championship Game appearance, albeit with very little margin for error. To Greenlaw, that remains the standard.

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“I’m saying we’re desperate,” he says. “We’re trying to go all the way. We know the potential we have. Everything’s intensified. We’ve got to keep that momentum going. We’ve got to play like we’re 3-5. That’s how we get to where we need to go.”

Says Kittle: “We’ve lost games that we weren’t supposed to lose already. Now, we’re on a little bit of a roll. Jimmy (Garoppolo) is playing well; the receivers are starting to feel it; the line’s playing great; and our defense has shut out the other team in the second half three games in a row. So, I think we’re going to build on that.”

Kittle’s assessment is accurate: The 49ers are currently living their best lives and playing their best ball of 2022.

That’s precisely why a sluggish effort against the Saints seems so plausible, and why Shanahan’s players should be vigilant about repelling overconfident thoughts — just as they are urged to resist the temptations triggered by a certain mythical house guest.

“That’s football,” safety Talanoa Hufanga says. “Every week, you’ve gotta prepare the same, regardless of whether it’s prime time, in a different country, or whatever. You’ve got to show up and play your game. ‘Cause if you don’t, bad things will happen.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been rooted in the Bay Area since the immortal line in the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band,” courtesy of lyricist Robert Hunter: When life looks like Easy Street there is danger at your door.

Or, perhaps, it’s just Uncle Keith knocking?

Michael Silver is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @MikeSilver

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