‘Chemistry you can’t force:’ 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on team’s offseason dynamics
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were just getting comfortable. Their new positions, which they held for the first time, came with big, well-appointed offices and personal assistants. It was much different from their former jobs when Shanahan was an offensive coordinator in Atlanta and Lynch worked as a broadcaster traveling the country each week during the fall.
They quickly became the most important people in the building, asked to resurrect a struggling franchise in need of a dramatic makeover.
Shanahan was the fourth 49ers head coach in four seasons. Turmoil, finger pointing and a general lack of cohesion from ownership to the coaching staff marred the previous three campaigns, which all ended with coaches losing their jobs.
So when CEO Jed York searched the NFL landscape for his new leadership in January 2017, the goal was to create a steady program where players and coaches can develop — not look over their shoulders while hoping to avoid blame enough to keep collecting paychecks.
Shanahan and Lynch inherited a blank slate, which was perhaps the most appealing aspect of a team that was previously in such disarray. They could work together to set their own parameters with more salary-cap space than they could spend and the freedom to set a new culture. The task: build something reminiscent of the organizational high points of the 1980s and 1990s that included five Super Bowl championships. And make it sustainable.
With their newly minted nameplates hanging outside their new offices, Shanahan and Lynch assembled their staff to oversee the turnaround, which included senior executive Martin Mayhew and personnel chief Adam Peters, who came from winning organizations in Denver and New England.
The early lifting was over. It was time to begin painting their blank canvas.
They called a head-of-state meeting that included Mayhew and Peters in the fabled John McVay Draft Room, a first chance to get everyone on the same page.
Then Lynch and Shanahan kicked everyone out.
‘When adversity hits ...’
The meeting was down to two men at the head of the giant U-shaped table in the 49ers’ unofficial board room. It was time to set a course.
“Culture’s always been about people,” Lynch told the Bee. “We forced ourselves to really talk about it: this vision statement we did for our first draft that really spelled out what we’re exactly looking for in our guys.”
They poured over ideas to define the “49er Way,” the backbone of their football belief system. Since then, it’s fueled optimism surrounding the team, starting from the locker room and emanating through the fan base following the 5-0 finish to 2017 that helped return the 49ers to relevance. Lynch even called upon noted Stanford professor Burke Robinson, who teaches courses on decision making, to help set the vision statement.
“What is it exactly? You throw an idea out. Let’s expand upon that. ‘What do you think? What do you think?’” Lynch said of the meeting with Shanahan. “So we have a really good feel. Is every player going to check every box? No. But the more boxes we can check — and then the guy’s got to be able to play too (laughs). But, there are qualities that we look for. So we spent a lot of time defining what those are, and we look for players.”
Lynch has the vision statement printed under glass at his desk. It’s bullet-pointed, serving as a reminder for the what team looks for in its players. “Football Passion - Do they love it? Contagious Competitiveness. Dependability - Protect the team. Mental Toughness. Football IQ. Accountability to other players and themselves.”
After two full offseasons of rebuilding, only 10 players from the previous regime remain. Forty-three new faces appear on the Week 1 roster against the Vikings.
Last year allowed Shanahan and Lynch to make evaluations through adversity, losing the first nine games of the season for the first time in franchise history. That included a five-game stretch of losing by three points or fewer, an NFL first.
“Guys can pretend and trick you. But when adversity hits, you’re going to find out who people really are,” Shanahan told The Bee. “And so if you want to bring in someone real talented when you’re trying to change something, who doesn’t have the right attitude, as soon as you lose a couple games in a row — or nine in a row — that person’s going to make it very hard.”
A product of their team-building edict is a locker room that genuinely gets along, which the 49ers would argue is an under-the-radar factor in getting back to winning. Left tackle Joe Staley said that was sometimes absent under previous regimes.
“It just makes coming to work fun, you know? I’ve been on teams where it wasn’t, even when we were winning. In some of the Harbaugh years, you’d clock in and then you’d go home,” Staley said to The Bee, referencing Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers’ head coach from 2011-14. “It wasn’t like you’d stick around and hang out with your buddies. It was like, alright, I’m here to do a job. I’m going to clock in and then I’m leaving. Because I can’t wait to get home and get away from this chaos. It’s been fun to come to work every day.”
A birthday, a wedding, ‘Panda Mondays’
Staley, 34, is the team’s longest-tenured player, who admitted he pondered retirement following the 2-14 season under Chip Kelly that preceded Shanahan’s hire. Since then, Staley has been rejuvenated and one of the team’s emotional tone setters. He’s taken over as the mentor and best friend to first-round draft pick Mike McGlinchey despite being born a decade apart.
“I felt completely welcomed when I got here,” McGlinchey said. “I think it started with Joe. Obviously, he runs our locker room a little bit. Him being as good as he was towards me certainly helped the process. And everybody alongside of him was so open to coming and getting to know me and everything like that.
“As soon as you get here, you know it’s a culture thing and that’s where they’re starting. That’s what Kyle and John preach on. And I think you can tell by just the guys that we have in this locker room, that, from what I’ve heard, were here before and aren’t here any more. I think that’s a direct shock-to-the-culture thing.”
The most memorable away-from-football moment for McGlinchey since joining San Francisco was a meal in Indianapolis at St. Elmo’s steakhouse for Staley’s birthday before the third preseason game.
Two second-year players on opposite sides of the ball, tight end George Kittle and safety Adrian Colbert, spend each Monday getting Chinese fast food at Panda Express, which has become a phenomenon on social media called “Panda Mondays,” complete with its own hashtag.
Standout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who got married over the summer, invited a number of his fellow defensive linemen to the ceremony in Hawaii.
“I think building that relationship off the field, it’s just as important,” as between the lines, Buckner said. “You’re building that trust among you and your brothers. That relates to game days, being able to trust that he’s going to do his job and have your back no matter what. So building that trust and just building that bond away from the facility is very important.”
Added Kittle: “Being friends outside of the locker room is definitely a huge deal. You get to know the person on a better basis. Maybe if you know him outside, you understand the things like how to calm them down if they have a bad play, how to talk to them.
“Once you build those relationships, then football’s just second nature.”
Arrests are down since the new regime took over. Only two 49ers have been arrested since 2017, according to USA TODAY’s database. The first, cornerback Tramaine Brock, was released shortly after being incarcerated on allegations of domestic violence in April 2017. The second was promising linebacker Reuben Foster, who was taken by police twice in the offseason.
Foster was cited for marijuana possession last January in Alabama. In February, he was arrested on claims of domestic violence, which his ex-girlfriend recanted on the witness stand in Santa Clara Superior Court before charges were dropped. However, a loaded assault rifle was found in his bathroom and a weapons-possession charge stuck. Foster was suspended two games to start the season for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
Otherwise, the 49ers seem to be moving in the right direction. The team had 14 arrests from 2012-16 and largely steered clear of prospects with character concerns in their most recent draft class.
That’s where the college scouting department comes in. The team’s network of scouts does all the digging it can to ensure the team avoids bad apples. The general grunt work comes from talking to academic advisers, members of various weight training staffs, resident advisers and assistant coaches. One regional scout dove as deep to talk to an owner of a restaurant one draft prospect frequented. That owner was a source of information for the neighborhood and had the pulse on who was staying in and out of trouble.
“You’ve got people who care about football who aren’t entitled, who want to earn everything, who want to work,” Shanahan said. “They got one goal and that’s to be the best they can. Those are the type of people you can work with and you can build that culture the right way, because you know how important it is to them. It’s just as important to that person as it is to you. And when everyone’s like that, it’s easy to be hard on people, it’s easy to hold people accountable. Because everyone kind of thinks the same. Everyone wants to be their best.”
Follow The Bee’s Chris Biderman: @ChrisBiderman, firstname.lastname@example.org, sacbee.com/49ers