John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Developing a Culture a Significant Part of Niners’ Efforts to Change Direction

May 21, 2019 at 3:43 PM

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You hear the phrase all the time, particularly coming from the mouths of coaches who are taking over really bad teams: "We are going to try to change the culture here." What does that mean, exactly? The word culture can mean all sorts of things, depending on the context. In terms of sports, and of teams, it generally means that management is trying to bring a work ethic, a team-first mentality, a camaraderie, a professionalism and a single-mindedness to literally everything that goes on inside the team facility. This, as you can well figure, is not an easy thing to do. Teams need talent, first and foremost. It is fairly impossible to win in the NFL, and certainly to win consistently, without talent on the roster. That does not mean that the most talented teams win every year. Last February, a less-talented Patriots team beat a more talented Rams team. There were some crucial differences in those teams, however - the Patriots have won numerous Super Bowls, and understand how to not be overwhelmed by the event. The Pats have the (second) greatest coach in NFL history in Bill Belichick, and a staff of assistants who are excellent at what they do. They also have Tom Brady, the (second) greatest quarterback of all time. Sorry, Bill and Joe come first in my mind, and always will. These are incredibly important parts of what makes a team great, and what create sustained success in an organization. What is more important, however, is what I have heard called "The Patriot Way" of doing things. This is their version of a winning culture, something that has shown over the last decade plus to be successful in leading the team to compete for championships every year.

This was something that the 49ers had for close to 2 decades. It started when Bill Walsh took over as head coach. He brought in bright, confident assistants who were eager to learn and grow, and actually listened to their input. Walsh instilled in the team a way of doing things, a professionalism in all that they did, from practicing to how they traveled to how they prepared. He made the team the focus, not any individual, and treated players firmly but fairly. He demanded that the men on the roster hold themselves accountable for what they did. He was also fortunate enough to find some incredible leaders in Ronnie Lott and co., youngsters who were focused on one thing: winning a championship. They followed Walsh and his staff, did exactly what they were directed to do, and so established a particular way of doing things, which permeated the locker room, practice field and every other part of the organization. One enormous part that often goes unrecognized was the owner, Eddie DeBartolo, who wrote the checks and otherwise allowed the men he hired to run things. It paid off to the tune of 10 or more wins in 16 straight seasons, from 1983 to 1998. The Patriots have tied that mark. Other than that, one would be more than hard-pressed to find an organization with such sustained success.

Since the end of that run, the 49ers have struggled to find any sort of success. It all somewhat corresponds with the downfall of Eddie DeBartolo, who most fans remember or know was forced to give up control of the team in 1997. Since 1999, the team has had two brief upswings, in 2001-2002 under Steve Mariucci, who coached from 1997 to 2002, and from 2011 to 2013, during Jim Harbaugh's tenure. The team has struggled many of the remaining seasons, reaching a .500 record only twice outside of those short spans. It is not surprising that the names coaching the team have rotated like a turnstile as well during this period, with Dennis Erickson (2 years), Mike Nolan (3 1/2 years), Mike Singletary (2 years, split between 3 seasons), Jim Tomsula (who coached one year after Harbaugh but also part of the season during which Singletary was fired), and Chip Kelly (1 year) prior to Kyle Shanahan. This consistent change in coaching has created an environment wherein no culture can take root and develop - it also hurt that coordinators shuttled in and out constantly (remember that Alex Smith famously had 6 offensive coordinators in his first six years with the team). Finally, there is the whole issue of Trent Baalke undermining Harbaugh, and ostensibly other coaches, while he was the GM. Continuity, when the staff and administration are solid, helps to build a winning culture in an organization.

So are the Niners doing this right? Are they creating a winning culture? First, it is still a bit too early to tell. The returns to date have not been encouraging in that the team has had 10 total wins in the last two seasons. People will point to the many close losses, but that actually indicates a lack of winning culture, rather than the existence of one. Teams that have a strong winning culture seem to pull out the close games, seem to unify and find that extra little bit that is necessary to overcome their opponents in tightly-contested games. The 49ers have not yet shown that ability. In fairness, they had a garbage quarterback (sorry, Brian Hoyer, but I have to call it as I see it) in 2017 and lost their hopeful franchise quarterback in the fourth quarter of game 3 last year. They have had injuries, for sure, but every team has injuries. A winning culture helps teams to overcome these things. When Brady blew out a knee in the first game of 2008, Matt Cassel was promoted from being a backup and led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, which shockingly was not good enough to make the playoffs. Still, the team's culture was such that with a backup quarterback, the team won 11 games. Cassel went on to sign a huge free agent contract with the Chiefs in 2009 and then reverted to what he truly was - a backup. A $60 million backup. Patriots backups, it should be noted, have not done well historically once they have left New England. Here's hoping Jimmy G. is the exception.

Back to the Niners and their pursuit of a winning culture. They have at least one high-character leader who has been on the team for years - Joe Staley. They have brought in some high-character guys, some good leaders (like Richard Sherman and now Kwon Alexander), but they drafted (and ultimately released) a guy who is the antithesis of high character in Reuben Foster. These early years in the process have shown some promise, but they have also seen some brutal missteps. The one true positive that I see in the team as it has taken shape is this: every member seems to be there for his teammates, and every player seems to have bought into Shanahan's system completely. These are two of the most critical elements of a winning culture and, at least for now, the team has those as real strengths. The players seem to truly like and pull for one another. The offensive line goes out in a group to Sharks games and completely loses its collective mind (in a good way). Other players share a box. Teammates go to concerts and events together. It looks, from the outside, as though the team is truly unified and enjoys playing together. This is huge, as football has an emotional component that few if any other sports have. The New York Giants, you recall, beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl on emotion and will alone.

What might be working against this culture? This is a tougher question, as professional football teams are notoriously secretive. Few people knew how dysfunctional the Niners were in the Harbaugh era until the third or fourth year, and in large part because of leaks from within the organization. The coach and GM truly disliked one another, and did not even communicate. Many blamed Harbaugh, but the truth was that is now seems that Baalke was the truly significant problem. Just after the draft, a story came out that Lynch and Shanahan were having some issues. This has been scoffed at by both parties, and the players who have spoken up about it seem to support the notion that ShanaLynch is still in sync. But for how long? If the team does not produce this year, if there is not a serious improvement on the field, they will both feel true pressure, feel the threat of losing their jobs. Will they stay strong and unified if that happens? Furthermore, even if they improve, expectations are now off the charts. This is not fair, but it is reality, and if they do not make steady, consistent improvement, there will be pressure and consequences.

Another potential concern rests with Paraag Marathe, the almost invisible salary cap guru of the team. There have been occasional whispers, out on the periphery, that he carries an incredible amount of weight in the organization, and that he has Jed York's ultimate loyalty. If this is correct, then there is a real chance that there could be conflict between Marathe and ShanaLynch, particularly if financial concerns run headlong into the wishes and perceived needs of the team per Lynch. There have been no serious issues to date, at least none that have come to light publicly, but division and factions are among the greatest threats to the development and maintenance of a sustained winning culture.

This task of building a true and sustainable winning culture, as you can see, is far from easy. There are 53 active players on every NFL roster - 53 alpha males, who have busted their tails for their entire lives to make it to the pros. Each understands that every play could be his last, and therefore has to act in the best interests of himself and his family. This conflicts with the concept of putting the team first. The coach has pressures to win and win now, and often has others angling for his job. The same holds true for the GM. Ownership wants to win, but just as important is the financial aspect of owning a team. No one wants to lose money on an investment, and winning is only part of that solution. Marketing, public perception, bankable stars - these are all things that matter to the owner but have nothing to do with the team developing a winning culture. Agents. Television. Distractions. Bad decisions. Hangers-on. There are too many potential pitfalls to list, and every one of them threatens the fragile construct that this team, and every team, is trying to nurture into something strong and lasting. The pressure must be truly beyond belief. But the rewards, the payoff, would all be worth the effort. This season will, fair or not, mark a significant point in what sort of progress they have made. Their ultimate success or failure as the brain trust of this most recent version of the San Francisco 49ers will be defined, in large part, by how their third season unfolds.

I, for one, can't wait to find out.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • Eric Vaughn
    Great read Matt.
    May 22, 2019 at 2:28 AM

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