SANTA CLARA — At first, it wasn’t clear what Nick Bosa was doing.
After recording his second sack of the day, the rookie edge rusher began waving his arms, back and forth, before mimicking an enthusiastic flag plant into Levi’s Stadium’s turf.
“I think everybody knows what that was for,” Bosa told reporters after the game, a dominant 31-3 win over the Cleveland Browns back in October. “I just wanted to get payback. He had it coming.”
“He” was Baker Mayfield, and “payback” was redemption for a grudge held since September 2017, when then-Sooners quarterback Mayfield swung and planted an Oklahoma flag into the Ohio State logo at midfield following a win that propelled his team toward the College Football Playoff.
Bosa, the Ohio State defensive star who watched while walking away from defeat, wanted to make clear that he did not forget it. The San Francisco 49ers’ second overall pick circled the Cleveland matchup on his calendar and prepared the sack celebration in advance, making an extra effort to taunt the frazzled second-year quarterback in domination’s wake.
Bosa’s redemption celebration occurred in just the third game of his young career. It was a coming out party, of sorts, teeing off a season that lathered up a Rookie of the Year nomination.
In another sense, it was an early look at the young star’s standout demeanor.
Bosa went there
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Bosa’s made his mark with an innate ability to put up blinders and zero in on his target: the quarterback. It’s a task that requires he not look back. Yet Bosa thrives, too, on an ability to reflect and introspect. The rookie can already summon competitive demons and be motivationally self-critical without plummeting into an emotional spiral.
“You can just look at him, he has a demeanor where he is quiet and reserved, other times he is relaxed,” 49ers running back Matt Breida, Bosa’s locker room neighbor, said. “You can’t tell it on the outside, but we can tell the difference.”
That moment against Mayfield and the Browns began a breakout first half for the 49ers defensive line and Bosa in particular. Through the eight-game win streak, Bosa racked up seven sacks, an interception, 13 quarterback hits and 21 total tackles. Through the season’s end, the 22-year-old collected 80 quarterback pressures — the most ever by a rookie in the league, per Pro Football Focus — with nine total sacks, 47 tackles (32 solo) and 27 quarterback hits.
Tight end Garrett Celek has seen a handful of rookie classes waltz through the 49ers’ facility since 2012. He knew from watching Bosa take on offensive linemen Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey in training camp that his team found something spectacular.
“In one-on-ones you could tell he had a lot of confidence in his abilities,” Celek said.
Celek watched injured from the sideline, but he could already envision how Bosa might bring to life the 49ers’ new wide-nine technique, a rigorous defensive scheme Bosa was drafted to help enact in 2019. The tight end knows how potent this scheme — which lines edge rushers wide and angled on toward the quarterback, far from the tight end’s outside shoulder — can be with that power on the edge.
“It really takes us out of the equation in the run game,” Celek said. “Because we’re going to get short knifed, you just have to scheme against it. It’s not my favorite defense to go against, for sure.”
With injuries to fellow defensive linemen along the way (particularly Dee Ford), the rookie experienced his first taste of NFL-level opposing double teams. Bosa, and the 49ers’ defense operating at a historic pace, started to slow. Eye-popping statistics quantifying the unit’s dominance faded. But waning numbers couldn’t qualify Bosa’s persistent impact on all 802 of the snaps he saw.
Bosa has made one thing clear: Any accolades earned in his first year come with his own expectation to best them.
“I don’t think anybody who is always content with their performance will be a great player,” Bosa said on Thursday. “So I’m going to continue to be hard on myself.”
Take the 49ers’ 26-22 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, decided on a last-second Julio Jones touchdown reception that just barely broke the plane. The loss didn’t necessarily come down to a poor defensive showing — defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s crew kept the Falcons’ offense to 290 total yards, 89 rushing.
But Bosa, who had one sack and two total tackles, let the loss fall on him.
“I know I let all of them down,” Bosa told reporters after the game that December night. “Because I didn’t win my rushes. I did the wrong things on a couple plays and I just needed to be more of an impact player.”
“I feel like as players we are our hardest critics, you get criticisms from your coaches and everyone else,” 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said on Thursday. “But I feel like as a player, if you really care about your craft, you have to be your hardest critic.”
Perhaps it’s not uncommon to hear a player, after a loss, turn the criticism back on himself. But for a rookie? Teammates say it’s indicative of an undaunted nature, zoned in on the path he must run to be the best.
“Sometimes I forget he’s a rookie because he acts like a pro,” Buckner said. “It’s just really good to see that young guy who understands the preparation it takes every week.”
“Just very, not to himself but in the zone,” Breida said. “Especially on game days. He definitely goes through all the situations on the field and goes through a lot of details but that’s Bosa.”
Bosa’s rapid growth — his splash into the national spotlight — has come a long way from his introduction to the league.
Before the 2019 NFL Draft, where Bosa was presumed to come off the board early, controversial Tweets — including one that called former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick a “clown” — were unearthed from his account. Those posts were scrubbed, but stained the second-overall-pick’s San Francisco arrival.
Perhaps the opinions he shared online still don’t sit right with football fans, or 49ers fans in particular. But Bosa didn’t necessarily hide from the controversy, apologizing and explaining at his introductory press conference that he hoped being in the Bay Area might help him mature.
“I’m going to grow as a person,” Bosa said in the April press conference. “I’m going to be on my own. I’m going to grow up.”
Since those remarks, questions about his integrity have all but faded into the football.
“It’s pretty easy,” Bosa said of swallowing the controversy. “Nobody really has brought that up for a year.”
Bosa’s made a huge swing in his first 10 months as a 49er. The rookie showed few growing pains and made clear that he would challenge himself to exceed being a pleasant surprise, instead pushing to be a high-impact performer.
The playoffs — where the 49ers will face the Minnesota Vikings Saturday in the divisional round — will be his next stage.
“I’m happy about a lot of things and I’m not so happy about other things,” Bosa said at his locker. “There are ups and downs, but I mean, we obviously ended up in a great place and I’m happy to be here. All our goals are in front of us so, we put ourselves in a great position.”