How San Francisco changed it culture and got back to being successful. From Sports Illustrated Monday Morning QB:
HOW SAN FRANCISCO PUT TOGETHER A TEAM THAT DOMINATES IN THE TRENCHES
The 49ers’ arrival in Miami on Sunday night as a bona fide powerhouse should provide every struggling franchise with an important lesson. And interestingly enough, it’s one about getting humbled and reacting the right way.
Three Januarys ago, the Niners were, essentially, the Browns. They had experienced the implosion of the long-combustible Jim Harbaugh/Trent Baalke partnership and stuck with Baalke through two one-and-done coaches—first Jim Tomsula, then Chip Kelly. And coming through on the other end was a CEO, Jed York, determined to learn from that pretty terrible experience that followed the team’s 2012 run to Super Bowl XLVII.
York knew he had to build from the ground up, and so when Kyle Shanahan arrived for his interview in January 2017, the boss was ready to hear what the Falcons offensive coordinator was about to say. Shanahan was brutally honest. He’s studied the roster, and told York it was the worst in the league. He explained how easy it had been for Atlanta to destroy the Niners, 41–13, the previous December. Shanahan gave York a truth that a lot of owners couldn’t handle.
It’s an enormous credit to York that he had the humility to process that, and understand it, and wind up being drawn to it. And it’s a huge part of why the Niners are here now.
York gave Shanahan and GM John Lynch matching six-year deals and told them to work together, prioritizing alignment. He gave them plenty of rope, allowing them to ride out bumps. They’ve rewarded him by building something that’s not just strong, but something that looks sustainable.
The lesson here? A lot of owners go into the interview process looking for coaches to tell them that they’re really close, or that things aren’t that bad. (Never mind that most teams wouldn’t be looking for new coaches if that was actually true.) It took Mike Zimmer forever to get his shot as a head coach because he wasn’t like that, choosing instead to be blunt about how he saw teams. It’s probably cost Josh McDaniels some, too.
By going the other way, York empowered his people to fix what had caused the team’s foundation to erode over three or four years—and that’s not a small factor in how the 49ers reached the Super Bowl this year.
In that spirit, here are three other things San Francisco has done in building their teams that others can learn from.
• Take the best player. I asked York last week when he knew this kind of success was possible in 2019, and his answer was succinct: “When Arizona took Kyler Murray.” The Niners knew how good Nick Bosa was, and it didn’t bother them that there may have been bigger needs on the roster; they’d just traded for Dee Ford, who joined three top-10 picks already on the San Francisco defensive line.
This takeaway is easy: If there’s a true blue-chipper staring you in the face like that, don’t look away.
• Don’t put it all on the quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo threw eight passes against the Packers in the NFC title game and has a total of 208 yards throwing the ball in the playoffs. Those facts have been used to knock Garoppolo. They shouldn’t be. It’s a result of good team-building. Good teams should be able to pull the quarterback lever—they shouldn’t need to do it. As such, Garoppolo’s thrown for 300 yards three times this year, and the Niners are 3–0 in those games.
Being able to win the other way too, by barely throwing the ball at all—that’s a show of strength, not weakness.
“It shows how much heart our guys have, [they] just went so hard,” Kyle Shanahan told me after the NFC championship. “It's not like we expected it to be like that, but the way they were coming off the ball, the lanes they were creating, how hard our backs were going—plus with how good the defense was playing, I mean, you do can’t that unless the whole team’s tied together.”
Essentially, this is one reason why Tom Brady’s Patriots got the best of Peyton Manning’s Colts so many times. The Patriots could have their quarterback carry their team to wins. The Colts often needed their quarterback to do so.
• Be strong along the lines. I say this with the benefit of hindsight (and I wasn’t saying it at the time), but thinking back to when I was at training camp in August, I’m struck now at how the battle between the offensive and defensive lines—and in particular between Bosa and tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey—was so intense. And those battles set the tone for the entire team, helping form its identity.
“I thought we had a pretty good offense, and it was hard to operate at practice because our D-line and they had that mad man [DL coach Kris] Kocurek, who is so reminiscent to me of Rod Marinelli,” Lynch said, harkening back to his days as Buccaneers safety when Marinelli was the line coach. “I mean, Rod Marinelli is the most impactful of position coaches. We had Herm [Edwards], we had Lovie [Smith], we had all these guys—Mike Tomlin—but that position was so impactful because when they’re going full speed and they’re running to every ball, it’s hard.
“I remember some days where Warren Sapp sprinted 30 yards, and if he’s passing you up, you’re like, ‘Man, I gotta pick my s--- up.’”
In other words, if you have a bunch of war daddies up front that helps shape a team full of them.
And based on the results—and so many factors that brought the Niners here—it’s safe to say they’ve got a team full of them.