If you’re a young 49er who gets off to a shaky start this season, fear not: General manager John Lynch has a daily reminder that it can be a slow road to NFL success.
It’s a black-and-white photo of him and Ronnie Lott that rests behind his desk at team headquarters. It was taken after a Buccaneers preseason game in 1994. Lynch has a mop of curly, brown hair atop his head in the photo. Lott has a New York Jets cap on his.
Lynch had been drafted in the third round a year earlier but stardom – even a starting job – had been elusive. A former pitcher in the Florida Marlins system, Lynch at the time was doubting his career decisions.
“I had thought the year before about leaving football, going back to baseball,” Lynch said. “Here I am. I came to the Bucs. I gave up a promising baseball career. And I can’t even start on the worst team in all of sports.”
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The 49ers hall-of-fame safety was still with San Francisco when Lynch was playing at Stanford, and Lott and other 49ers players often would stop by campus. Lott, of course, was drawn to the Cardinal’s hard-hitting safety.
Lynch said he was searching for Lott following the Buccaneers-Jets preseason game when the veteran came up behind him and grabbed him on the shoulder.
“He said, ‘Hey, I watched you play a couple of games there at the end (of the 1993 season) and you’re going to be just fine,’ ” Lynch recalled. “I said, ‘Really?’ And he goes, ‘You’re going to play at a high level. You’re going to be a Pro Bowl safety in this league.’ ”
Lott was right. It would be another two full seasons before Lynch became a full-time starter, but he would go on to make nine Pro Bowls and be inducted into the rings of honor of both the Buccaneers and Denver Broncos. Lynch has been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame the last three years and will be considered again in the upcoming cycle.
Lynch said he was going through some old boxes during a recent move when he came across the old photo. He says it’s a bit odd to see one of the most famous 49ers in a Jets hat.
“But it’s what he said to me that day that’s pretty special,” Lynch said.
Over time, the photo and Lott’s words have taken on different meanings for Lynch. Now he’s in charge of his own team.
The roster Lynch inherited was even worse than his early 1990s Tampa Bay squads, and he’s on the ground floor of a thorough rebuild.
San Francisco has 15 rookies – 11 of whom played in Week 1 – and the average age of the roster is 25.75 years. Four years ago the 49ers had the eighth oldest team in the league; now they have the ninth youngest.
In 1995, the Buccaneers selected a defensive lineman, Warren Sapp, and an inside linebacker, Derrick Brooks, in the first round of the draft.
That trio not only gave Tampa Bay a Pro Bowl-caliber player on all three levels of the defense, it gave the team three young leaders intent on turning the Buccaneers from league laughingstock to NFL bully. Tampa Bay’s defense propelled the franchise to a Super Bowl win at the end of the 2002 season.
In April, Lynch selected a defensive lineman, Solomon Thomas, and an inside linebacker, Reuben Foster, in the first round. The picks weren’t designed to fill holes on the roster, but to add leadership and toughness to a team that had been drained of both in recent seasons.
Those young 49ers – minus Foster, who is out with an ankle injury – will enter the lion’s den on Sunday. The 49ers haven’t won on Seattle’s CenturyLink Field since 2011, and the game will be a nice test of just how much grit Lynch has added to the locker room in Year 1.
But if they stumble – the 49ers are 13 1/2-point underdogs – Lynch has a reminder to remain patient.
“That helps me with some of these guys,” he said of his photograph. “Don’t expect it to happen overnight. Reuben Foster’s probably going to be really good right away. But don’t give up on a guy.”