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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As a player whose decorated NFL career has been fueled by a turbulent temperament and a boulder on his shoulder, Richard Sherman understands the nature of rivalry and respects the power of a pugnacious pregame persona.
Yet Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers’ ninth-year cornerback, also views the NFL as a fraternity, and there are certain rituals he considers sacrosanct. When Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns’ brash second-year quarterback, refused to shake Sherman’s hand at midfield just before the coin toss that preceded Monday night’s game at Levi’s Stadium, it triggered him — and many of his Niners teammates — in a profound way.
It would be an exaggeration to cite Mayfield’s snub of Sherman and fellow captain DeForest Buckner as the driving force behind the 49ers’ 31-3 beatdown of the Browns in front of 70,042 fans and a “Monday Night Football” audience, but it was a topic of discussion among the Niners before, during and after the game. And Sherman, who intercepted a Mayfield pass less than two minutes into the first quarter — setting the stage for the quarterback’s long, miserable night — was eager to elaborate when he and I spoke alone at his locker about 20 minutes after the carnage was complete.
“What’s amazing, and annoying, was him not shaking hands at the beginning,” Sherman said. “That’s some college s—. It’s ridiculous. We’re all trying to get psyched up, but shaking hands with your opponent — that’s NFL etiquette. And when you pull bush league stuff, that’s disrespectful to the game. And believe me, that’s gonna get us fired up.”
On a night when San Francisco (4-0) registered its first signature victory of the season, retained its status as the NFC’s lone undefeated team and remained in first place in the NFC West heading into next Sunday’s divisional road clash with the defending conference champion Los Angeles Rams, the Niners’ disdain for Mayfield was palpable.
From rookie pass rusher Nick Bosa’s mocking gestures (more on that later) to Sherman’s and Buckner’s postgame comments, it was clear that this game felt personal from the start. And the 49ers’ defense caused misery for Mayfield (8 for 22, 100 yards) from beginning to end, sacking him four times, causing a pair of fumbles (one of which San Francisco recovered) and intercepting him twice.
To Sherman, Mayfield’s unaccomplished performance reinforced another of the cornerback’s complaints about the handshake snub.
“Respect the game,” Sherman said, referencing Mayfield’s pregame behavior. “You can have rivals, but pay your respect in that moment — especially when you’re young.
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