Buy-in. It’s a noun, one of those terms like “want-to” (synonym is “desire”) and “out-physical” (synonym is “overpower”) that belongs to a special language spoken by football coaches.
It might loosely be defined as “the act of accepting or going along with a concept or movement.”
And, according to defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, the 49ers are displaying an abundance of buy-in this spring.
“The players have been great,” O’Neil said this week. “The buy-in has been awesome, and the thing I like the best about them is how much they love football. It makes it really easy to coach them.”
Of course, you would expect a high degree of buy-in on a team with a new coaching staff. Players want to get in good with their new bosses, and, more than that, they need to learn a new system.
But the 49ers’ enthusiasm is notable given that new coach Chip Kelly didn’t arrive with a sterling reputation among NFL players – the principal complaint from the Philadelphia Eagles was they were overworked – and that O’Neil, 37, is young and undistinguished. He’s been a defensive coordinator twice before, and those units were 23rd and 27th in total defense.
Kelly’s intensity also is in sharp contrast to what the 49ers were accustomed to last year. Former coach Jim Tomsula was celebrated for being attuned to his players’ feelings, and everything was geared to making them as comfortable as possible.
That’s not the case this year. Still, attendance for the 49ers’ voluntary practices has been excellent. Phil Dawson, the team’s 41-year-old kicker, is the only healthy veteran who has not been on hand the last two weeks.
Kelly and O’Neil have been helped in several ways:
▪ NaVorro Bowman hasn’t missed any practices. And, according to O’Neil, the inside linebacker hasn’t missed a practice repetition. Bowman is the unquestioned leader of the defense and its most decorated member, and he’s still coming back from the knee injury that cost him the 2014 season. No one would blink if he skipped an OTA practice in May. The fact he hasn’t sets the tone for the team. If Bowman is able to grind through Kelly’s practices, it’s hard for a younger player not to. And nearly everyone on the defense is younger. The only players older than Bowman – he turns 28 on Saturday – are safety Antoine Bethea, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey.
▪ Bethea is another tone setter. There was speculation this offseason that the 49ers would trade Bethea, a 10-year veteran, because they have so many young, promising safeties. Bethea, however, is the only 49ers defender familiar with O’Neil’s system. He and Eric Reid, the team’s union representative, have been the starting safeties in the offseason; both have a strong standing in the locker room, and both have bought into O’Neil’s system.
▪ Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are young, and neither has a lot of clout at this point, but both were recruited by and played for Kelly at Oregon. So did undrafted rookie Alex Balducci, and quarterback Thad Lewis played for Kelly with the Eagles. That provides some built-in support for Kelly; he doesn’t have to win them over. Armstead, Buckner and Lewis also can answer questions that teammates might have about race-related issues Kelly faced when he was with the Eagles and which stemmed from comments by running back LeSean McCoy after he was traded to Buffalo last year. Others who have played for Kelly, including Armstead, have defended him.
▪ Kelly’s practices are as brisk as expected, but the conclusion among players is the pace will help during the regular season. Said Reid: “Name a team that’s going to go that fast. So the game should be slow motion for us when the season comes. So I like it. It’s a challenge. I’m always up for a challenge, and I think it’ll make us better in the long run.”
Eagles players said similar things when Kelly arrived in Philadelphia three years ago. “Everybody is having fun,” running back Bryce Brown told the Allentown Morning Call in May 2013. “I think (Kelly’s system) allows us to go out there and work harder. Everybody looks forward to coming into work, and it’s just a good feeling around here.”
By Kelly’s third year, that good feeling was gone. Players complained they worked so hard beginning in May that they had nothing left in December. Defensive players noted the fast pace of the offense led to more plays for the defense, so many more that by season’s end they played the equivalent of three more games than the average NFL defense.
But for now, Kelly has to be pleased. He’s pushing the 49ers, and they seem eager to be pushed.
The players need it after a year under amiable but perhaps too-friendly Tomsula. They also need a shove to catch up with the rest of the NFC West.