'The 49er Way:' Revisiting a conversation with GM John Lynch
Back in the summer of 2019, Lynch imagined this opportunity.
Players called their shot in the summer of 2019. A San Francisco 49ers team entering Year 3 under this regime — a regime that passed on Patrick Mahomes — knew it needed to win. And fast.
Inside the walls of Levi Stadium, fullback Kyle Juszczyk said: “There’s a fire in peoples’ stomachs of, ‘No more bullshit. We need to do this now.’” Off a 4-12 season, Fred Warner viewed 2019 as Super Bowl or Bust. “You have to win football games in this league,” the linebacker said then, “or everyone's going to lose their job.” Naturally, Richard Sherman was most vocal: “They always say, ‘Be humble. Show humility. Never guarantee wins.’ Well, g--damnit. I think I'm going to win. I don’t think I’m going to lose.”
Their words were jarring at the time.
That summer of 2019 was a true pivot point for head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. (Here’s that B/R story, in full.)
Another round of injuries and losing could’ve derailed the franchise. Instead, the 49ers immediately backed up the rhetoric with a 15-4 season that ended at the hands of Mahomes in the Super Bowl. The duo has built a consistent winner through the sort of mistakes that almost always nuke organizations and send you calling allies in the biz for a job. They passed on the best player in the sport for a defensive lineman (Solomon Thomas) that’d give the team all of six sacks in three seasons. They paid up for Jimmy Garoppolo, only to trade a trio of first-round picks for Trey Lance. Both are gone. Yet, the 49ers have reached three straight conference titles anyways. Coaches and personnel members keep on getting promoted elsewhere.
These 49ers bucked the system. They’re in the Super Bowl with Brock Purdy, the 262nd pick in the 2022 draft.
All a testament to both Lynch and Shanahan.
However the power structure works in Santa Clara, something’s working.
Now, we’ll see if their unique team-building methodology is good enough to win it all. With the 49ers set to face Mahomes and the Chiefs again, it’s instructive to look back at one particular conversation from that trip to 49ers Land in ‘19.
Inside his office, Lynch opened up on a myriad of topics.
What did he say?
How did things play out?
Here’s a look back…
On Year 3 with the roster: “We knew it’d be a process. I’ll tell ya, it’s a lot more fun looking at our depth chart. Behind there is our depth chart. (Points to back of office) When I opened that thing up, gosh, it used to feel like ‘Man, there’s a lot of holes.’ I don’t think anyone in today’s football — because it’s not like the old school when you could just outspend everyone else — you always have places you’d like to be a little bit better. But we don’t have the gaping holes this roster had before. So provided we’re healthy, and we’ll have a lot of guys who’ll be right by training camp, and then we have to just go do it. We don’t feel like we’re in a position where there are holes all over our team. We couldn’t always say that, and that’s a much better feeling.”
This was actually being kind. The roster that Shanahan and Lynch inherited needed reconstructive surgery. San Francisco finished 2-14 in Chip Kelly’s lone season, on the heels of Jim Tomsula’s 5-11 season. The 2016 quarterback job was split between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, Carlos Hyde was the starting running back and the receivers were a hodgepodge mix: Torrey Smith, Jeremy Kerley, Quinton Patton, Rod Streater. The defense? Abysmal. Those 49ers allowed more points (480) than anyone in the league. From a logistical standpoint, it’s understandable why the 49ers didn’t take Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. There were needs all over the roster. Shanahan and Lynch likely viewed this as hazardous territory for any rookie quarterback.
On how he’s finding himself as a GM: “One thing that always gets me about this job, and it’s part of what makes it so enticing, is that it never stops. I think one of the hard things for me is you always felt as a player — when I broadcasted, you were performing on gameday. It’s like I do all this work and then on gameday, alright, I can’t do a darn thing. That’s a hard deal. I’ve talked to other guys like (Broncos exec) John Elway and (Ravens exec) Ozzie Newsome and that is something that takes a long time to get used to: Not having a lot of control in the outcome. Now, what you have to believe is that everything you do on a day-in and day-out basis is getting the organization to function on all cylinders. That all contributes. And I think we all have a great understanding of that. I’m real proud of the way we’re operating as an organization. I feel great about the synergy we have as a personnel/scouting staff with our coaches. We work extremely well together, trying to understand each other on a day-in, day-out basis.”
One element from the Bleacher Report story the 49ers weren’t thrilled with after publication was how one staffer viewed the dynamic between coaches and the personnel department. This source noted an imbalance. With Shanahan wielding so much control, he said that the scouts felt marginalized. “Voices are being heard,” this source said, “but they’re not the right voices.” A handful of 49ers scouts who watched Solomon Thomas in person several times never viewed him as a top 5 pick. This source couldn’t remember one serious conversation about taking a QB ahead of that 2017 draft. The Reuben Foster discourse was also bizarre.
While the quarterback position has been an odyssey — and the 49ers have whiffed on players in the draft — the team’s body of work is impressive up and down drafts. This regime infused a hurting roster with the likes of Nick Bosa (No. 2 overall), Deebo Samuel (No. 36), Brandon Aiyuk (No. 25), Fred Warner (No. 40), George Kittle (No. 146), Dre Greenlaw (No. 148), Colton McKivitz (No. 153), Deommodore Lenoir (No. 172), Talanoa Hufanga (No. 180) and, of course, Purdy with the last pick in the 2022 draft. Trades for Trent Williams and Christian McCaffrey paid off in massive ways, too. Williams is making his case as one of the greatest left tackles in NFL history. McCaffrey is up for offensive player of the year.
On his relationship with Shanahan: “It’s great. I think it starts with respect. There’s a great deal of respect amongst each other. I think there’s a genuine friendship where we like being around each other. I think we stimulate each other’s minds with the game. We challenge each other. Do we always agree on every single player? No. But we challenge each other to arrive there. I can tell you with confidence that we’ve never made a decision here where we both haven’t been all-in on by the time we made it.
“By nature, Kyle comes from the offensive side of the ball and I come from the defensive side of the ball. I think that’s how we started appreciating each other. Production meetings, I obviously knew him from playing with his Dad (in Denver). When we were in production meetings (for Fox games), the same thing happened. I’d ask questions that he thought were thoughtful questions. And he’d give answers that I knew were thoughtful answers. And what was a 10-minute conversation would turn into an hour. A night before the game or two nights before the game. I think that’s how the relationship was born. I think just on a day-in and day-out basis, we challenge each other to try to grow this organization. And how to grow as individuals as well.”
Shanahan is the man in charge. He choose Lynch as his GM. He has the final say. But however these two reach final decisions, it’s working.
Those conversations during Fox production meetings are now conversations that set the course for one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.
Power structures vary around the NFL. Scan the latest round of hires. Whereas the Los Angeles Chargers gave Jim Harbaugh control, other teams let the general manager hire the coach. That’s one reason why Bill Belichick is currently out of work. No way is arguably the greatest coach in NFL history ceding power. Yet, there’s a good chance owners saw Belichick’s track record as a drafter in recent years and… were less than impressed. Further, the NFL is forever an exercise in survival. The sitting GMs of teams seeking head coaches likely weren’t going to advocate for Belichick too loudly to owners because that’d immediately minimize their own standing within the front office.
Point being, it’s not easy to find synergy at the top.
Winning cures all. San Francisco is in a great place.
On knowing their futures are tied to Garoppolo, and how they’ve handled the quarterback position: “We knew, when we got together, we have to find that guy at that position. It was an interesting time because you also knew a lot of guys were going to be coming up as free agents. So we had our eyes on some of those guys and kind of measuring exactly what our team needed. So looking back, I think it was fortuitous when it came to us that Jimmy became available. In our first year, we made some calls about him. Nothing came to fruition. Later on, we were able to do something with Jimmy. And he really picked up our team. (49ers went 5-0 to close 2017.) Unfortunately, the injury happened (in 2018). … Kyle has done a great job of challenging him to grow from the neck up. He’s a guy who hasn’t played a ton of football so that was the hardest part about last year. He needs to play. I don’t care how talented you are — you’re going to go through growing pains playing that position in this league. So I think Kyle had to be creative and we had to be creative on how to challenge him and have him grow without actually playing.
“He does things talent-wise that are rare. His ability to throw the football. A thrower of the football. Those things are rare. We’re excited to have him back. A great quality of that position is you make everybody else better. He certainly showed us the first year that he has that ability to make everybody around him better. And we were drawn to that.”
At the time of this conversation, Jimmy Garoppolo had started only nine games in five pro seasons. After trading a second-rounder to the Patriots for Tom Brady’s backup, and seeing Garoppolo go 5-0, the 49ers doled out a five-year, $137.5 million deal. He’d go on to throw for 3,978 yards and 27 touchdowns with 13 picks in 2019, but could only lead this team so far. When Shanahan schemed up a potential game-winning play to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders with 1:33 left in the Super Bowl, the QB overthrew him. The next season, the 49ers defense was blasted by Buffalo’s Josh Allen on Monday Night Football — and seeing the rise of such athletic forces at the position — Shanahan wanted one of his own. The coach and GM agreed to sell the farm for Lance, let the North Dakota State quarterback sit for the 2021 season, handed him the keys to the offense in 2022 and Lance suffered a season-ending injury. Garoppolo took over. Garoppolo got hurt again.
The door opened for Purdy.
We’ll soon see if Purdy can make that throw Garoppolo missed.
On selecting Solomon Thomas at No. 3 overall, and if they discussed Mahomes/Watson/Trubisky: “We did, we did. I went down to Texas Tech. I went to Clemson. We worked out… we loved those guys. We really did. We still believe Solomon is going to be a heck of a player. And we’re really hopeful that some of the moves we’ve made this year are going to allow him to be that. Some of his growth as an individual. He’s gone through some tough deals and he’s come out of the other end. We think things are lining up that he’s going to be a really important player for us, a really impactful player for us, and those guys are going to have great careers.”
Lynch’s comments hinted at so much more. When I then chatted with Thomas in San Francisco, the defensive lineman credited the GM for essentially saving his life.
After Thomas’ sister committed suicide, he slipped into a very dark depression.
Lynch was the person who could tell Thomas was in a bad place. Maybe he missed on Thomas, the player. But Lynch took a class with Thomas at Stanford and knew who he was as a person. He knew something was wrong and decided to speak up in the team cafeteria. From the ‘19 story:
On how his experience as one of the best safeties in the NFL helps as a GM, despite his lack of scouting experience: “I sure feel like it does. There’s certain things I understand. It’s certainly not a requirement. There’s guys who never played that made tremendous GMs but I believe that there are certain things to understand if you never played. There are things that I do understand. Aside from that, I’ve always been a huge fan of the game. I can’t get enough of it. So that’s important in this game as well. I think the areas of the lack of traditional experience I had, I had to rely on building a team around me. And really proud of the team we’ve built here. And like I said earlier, how it’s functioning, how it’s working all together. Leadership is something I became accustomed to during my career. And leadership — whether you’re playing a football game or running a business — it’s very similar. You try to do your best to empower people to be the best versions of themselves.
“You can’t have thin skin in this role. I think even more so than as a player. You’re going to take it because not everyone is going to agree with you. And there’s forums these days in which people can express themselves freely. But I love the challenge of it, and that’s something that playing really teaches you. The guys that are successful that’s what they do — they say, ‘OK, what’s in my control? And how can I find a way to get better at that each and every day?’”
Here, it’s good to remember just how much of a mess the 49ers were before Shanahan and Lynch teamed up and rebuilt the football department. Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke had their fallout and the head coach headed to Michigan. Tomsula and Kelly were disasters. A once-proud franchise was in a very bad place. Fans were growing antsy. While there were personnel people around the NFL rolling their eyes at the former NFL safety-turned-Fox broadcaster getting a GM job without any scouting experience, it’s also true that many of Lynch’s strengths — people skills, communication, organization, public speaking — served as a healthy balance to X ‘n O-master Shanahan. The 49ers have found gems on the defensive side of the ball, too. It’s safe to assume Lynch, a Hall of Famer, had a strong say.
On expectations being higher here: “The 49er Way. They expect excellence. I played for Bill Walsh (at Stanford) and I got a taste of that. Before him, I played for Denny Green who came from the Niners’ staff and the Niners’ way. And Jon Gruden had grown up here as a young coach and was very influenced by their ways. I played for Mike Shanahan who coached here. So there was a lot of people who influenced my career, my life who came out of this place and it always, to me, stood for excellence and striving for perfection. It’s an iconic organization so what an opportunity to take this on and try to bring this place back.”
Win the Super Bowl next Sunday and John Lynch will officially restore that “49er Way.” It’s been 29 years.
All he needs to beat the quarterback he passed on with his first draft pick as GM.