SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers sure do travel well, and it’s hardly by accident.
Just like everything else in Jim Harbaugh’s structured system, the team has trained for the challenges of leaving town for long hauls to the East Coast and across the pond.
The third-year coach took his team for weeklong stays in Youngstown, Ohio, between East Coast games in each of the past two seasons — so, this Nashville to London trek San Francisco is enduring now shouldn’t be so bad.
“It’s no big deal. You hop on the plane,” defensive lineman Justin Smith said matter-of-factly. “You either fly east or west. We’ll make it. You deal with what is in front of you I guess. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
The NFC champion Niners (5-2) beat the Tennessee Titans on Sunday for their fourth straight victory, then flew straight to London for the week before facing the winless Jaguars on Sunday at Wembley Stadium in Jacksonville’s home game as part of the NFL’s International Series. Then, it’s time for some recovery with the bye week.
San Francisco also played in Great Britain on Oct. 31, 2010, beating the Denver Broncos 24-16 before a sellout crowd of 83,941 at Wembley — 5,352 miles from team headquarters. The 49ers faced Arizona in Mexico City in 2005.
“We have done it before,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “This is our second trip to London, and we also went to Youngstown for that week, too. Everybody here is used to the long trips, and I think it is beneficial. Everybody gets to spend a lot of time together as a team. We are just all excited to get over, and we basically just pack more clothes than usual.”
Perhaps those trips to Youngstown were good preparation. Not much different from destination training camps, just during the season.
“I don’t think it hurts,” punter Andy Lee said. “It will be fun to hang out with some of the guys and see London a little bit. It was fun going there last time. The first couple of days are a little rough with the jet lag, but I don’t know if it’s any different from being here or being somewhere else.”
Since Harbaugh arrived from nearby Stanford in 2011, his players have been open to his ideas for operating a franchise, and it’s hard to argue when the team was so close to a Super Bowl championship last season before losing 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers stayed in eastern Ohio and practiced at Youngstown State in late September last year between a loss at Minnesota and a 34-0 road rout of the New York Jets the next week. In 2011, San Francisco rallied from a 20-0 deficit to stun the Eagles 24-23 in Philadelphia a week after a win in Cincinnati and practice in Youngstown.
“Right now, it’s a matter of, same way we treated those Youngstown trips, back-to-back East Coast games that we played in 2011 and 2012, and that’s concentrating on taking care of our business today and handling that,” Harbaugh said.
This year, the Niners will have traveled an NFL-high 32,948 miles by the end of the regular season. Only San Diego (26,932) and Oakland (26,240) will join San Francisco in surpassing 25,000 miles in the air.
Safety Donte Whitner might have a head start on all things London. He already got a preview of the work week at Wembley when he took a scouting trip to the UK this past summer ahead of training camp.
“I think you have to make it as normal as possible. Although you are out of your elements, you have to try to stick to your schedule,” Whitner said. “You have to continue to do the things that you have done up to this point. It’s a task because we are going across seas. For myself and a lot of the guys, I think we will try to stick to our routines as much as possible.”
Ever the pragmatist, quarterback Colin Kaepernick won’t let several time zones throw him off his game.
“Whether we’re in Youngstown, London or here, it really doesn’t change my relationship with my teammates. So, that’s not really a factor,” Kaepernick said. “It’s just the fact that you’re always together. We’re always together here as well, but you’re sleeping in the same hotel instead.”
For those players with families, this can be a tough extended road trip. Still, many players see the benefits, too.
“It also brings guys together,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “We’re closer, spending time away from your normal activities and getting used to just being around basically your family outside of your family for a whole week. We’re used to traveling and performing when we have to travel like this. A lot of people make that as an excuse when you have to go to the East Coast.”