The owner’s podium speech after a Super Bowl victory usually is full of empty blathering and open pandering to the “best fans in the world.”
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie had some of that Sunday, but also a little more.
“It’s the most unique, together group of men,” Lurie said when given the stadium microphone after his team’s 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. “… I’ve told them, ‘I’ve never seen an incredible group of men in all my years of life that comes together with all the adversity and injuries and losing our franchise quarterback and be world champs.’ An incredible group of men.”
The 2017 Eagles were underdogs in all three of their playoff games. They had chemistry, they had togetherness, they had the “it” factor that’s so hard to pin down but is instantly recognizable to those exposed to it.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
It’s what general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan are after in rebuilding the 49ers. Sure, finding a great quarterback helps immensely, (though the better quarterback didn’t win Sunday). Champions also need good pass rushers, shutdown cornerbacks and plenty of other components. But there’s usually something special gluing those various parts together.
The 2011 49ers and their first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh had “it.” It was palpable just a few weeks into training camp that year and it carried well into 2012. But at some point that season, “it” began to evaporate and by the start of the 2014 season “it” was gone.
Had Harbaugh ridden the team too hard the first three seasons until there was nothing left by the fourth? Justin Smith, the piece of granite at the center of the locker room, suffered a bad shoulder injury late in 2012 and never really was the same. When that crack appeared, did it shake everyone else’s confidence?
Whatever the culprit, the bounce and energy and momentum that was so apparent in 2011 was replaced by a flatness and fatigue in 2014 that was just as conspicuous.
The good news for the current 49ers is that they already have a degree of that “it” factor. Maybe it was a new-coach bump or the fact that they were among the youngest teams in the league. But there was a cohesion, a camaraderie and vivacity about the 2017 team even before it went on its late-season tear. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo noticed it when he entered the locker room in late October. So did defensive end Cassius Marsh and every other newcomer to the team.
One of the most revealing games came when they played the Eagles in Week 8. The team had been stomped and shoved around the previous week by the Dallas Cowboys, a game that resembled one of their pitiful performances from the 2016 season.
They seemed even more vulnerable against Philadelphia, which was 6-1 at the time and whose quarterback, Carson Wentz, was an early-season MVP candidate. The 49ers, meanwhile, were beat up, winless and were playing their third game in the Eastern time zone in four weeks.
They didn’t win that rainy day. They didn’t come close. But they weren’t pushed around like they had been the week before. The Eagles’ 304 yards against San Francisco were their lowest output of the season until a Week 16 game, after Wentz was already knocked out for the season.
Two weeks after they lost to the Eagles, the 49ers got their first win. Two games after that, Garoppolo was in the lineup and they won their final five contests. Was Garoppolo the main ingredient? Yes. Absolutely. No question. But the timing was excellent in that the 49ers were beginning to percolate just as they acquired him.
All of which means the 49ers, who were discussed in the same breath as the Cleveland Browns at this time last year – both faced 150-to-1 odds, the worst in the league – will have far loftier expectations in 2018. The early odds put them at a respectable 20-1 to reach Super Bowl LIII, which places them ahead of Seattle, as well as 2017 playoff teams like Carolina, Jacksonville and Tennessee. That’s too high for a six-win team that finished at the bottom of its division, right?
Probably. But you could have said the same about the Eagles last year. They finished 7-9 under a rookie head coach and were the worst team in the NFC East.