© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — The NFL is a come-and-go business. Perhaps no team knows this better than the 49ers, home of six head coaching changes in the past decade and four consecutive seasons without a winning record.
Eighteen months ago, the 49ers hired a new head coach and general manager in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, neither of who had previous experience in those roles. Since then, they have overhauled the roster, keeping just 12 players from Chip Kelly’s 2016 squad. Out of San Francisco’s 90 current players, 26 have played at least four full NFL seasons.
Despite the constant turnover, the foundation was built last year. Maybe an 0-9 start was needed to test the bedrock, which did not erode despite all the reasons it could have.
When Jimmy Garoppolo arrived, he walked into a locker room with a clean slate.
“When I first came in, they didn’t have any wins, but it was still a very tight-knit group. To have that is rare,” said Garoppolo, who spent nearly four full seasons with the New England Patriots, where he won two Super Bowl titles.
Player-speak is laced with positivity, but not always superlatives. That’s why the consistent praise of the 49ers locker room, reiterated by players of all ages and positions, is noteworthy.
You hear it from 14-year NFL veteran kicker Robbie Gould, who’s currently on his fifth NFL team.
“This is probably the best locker room in my 14-year career that I’ve ever been a part of,” Gould said at the State of the Franchise event in May. “It has a lot to do with the culture that’s being built here. There are two guys, Kyle (Shanahan) and John (Lynch), that have done a great job of bringing in the right people, and that’s what it’s about.”
You hear it from five-year NFL veteran Weston Richburg, who signed with the 49ers in March after spending his first four seasons with the New York Giants.
“It’s new to me seeing teammates hang out like that all the time off the field,” Richburg said. “I don’t know if you see that everywhere.”
You hear it from second-year running back Matt Breida.
“When I got in the NFL, a lot of veterans told me the teams aren’t (tight-knit),” Breida told KNBR in June. “The guys are about the money or themselves. This team right here, you could be a running back and be best friends with a defensive lineman.”
You hear it from seemingly everyone, rookies to veterans, offensive linemen to special-teamers.
In May, the 49ers held their second annual State of the Franchise event. The three-hour gathering was filled with superlatives, from Levi Stadium’s world-class catering to the organization’s indomitable legacy. The abundant positivity was somewhat ironic, considering the 49ers were coming off a 6-10 season and the No. 9 pick in April’s draft.
But Gould’s praising of the locker room that day — he cited Joe Staley’s singing and DeForest Buckner’s ping-pong ability as characteristics— was sincere enough to prompt Staley, the 12-year 49ers veteran, to express enthusiasm for the current regime.
“I’ve never been more excited for a football season to get here,” Staley said. “The energy, and piggybacking off what Robbie said earlier about the closeness of the locker room… It’s all built on respect of work.”
Last season, Staley admitted he was physically and mentally taxed and wondered if his career’s end was nearing. Then he sat down with Shanahan. Their conversation re-energized Staley, who ended the season on a superb note, capped with his sixth Pro Bowl appearance.
More recently, he has developed a big brother relationship with 2018 first-round draft pick Mike McGlinchey. The 33-year-old and 24-year-old call each other best friends, despite knowing each other for about three months.
“(Staley) is really good about delegating and including everybody,” Richburg said. “I didn’t feel like he was trying to take (the leadership role) and not let anybody else have it.”
The friendships among the team are widespread.
The defensive backs room spent the offseason going on dinners, bowling outings, go-karting, and attending Warriors games together. Free safety Adrian Colbert, one of the team’s budding stars, has broken out of his shell, assigning nicknames to the defensive backs group, including one for its elder statesman, Richard Sherman: Uncle Sherm.
No one, even the players, could have predicted how the locker room dynamic would shift with Sherman, San Francisco’s public enemy No. 1, joining the team he once antagonized. His impact has been nothing but positive.
“I love him,” Staley said last week. “He’s a great guy. (It’s) awesome to have him on our team. He’s been pretty much the exact opposite of what I thought. I thought he was going to be annoying like he was annoying to me when he was in a Seahawks uniform.
“When I found out we first signed him, I was like, ‘Oh that’s going to be kind of weird in the locker room,'” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “But no, he gelled with us right away, and he has become one of the leaders on the team.”
Sherman has been the commanding voice for a defense previously devoid of one. He did not participate in the majority of OTAs, but he was active on the sidelines, stepping in to compliment and critique the 49ers’ young secondary. He has taken cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon under his wing, inviting him to exclusive cornerback summits alongside perennial All-Pros, which can only give a 23-year-old, second-year NFL player the utmost confidence. Witherspoon long envisioned playing across from Sherman, whom he calls an idol.
When Reuben Foster endured a hellacious summer of court cases regarding a domestic violence allegation, Sherman, Colbert, and safety Jaquiski Tartt each attended at least one preliminary hearing to show support. After Foster was exonerated and returned to the team, the 49ers moved his locker next to Sherman’s.
Think that was by design?
In a year-and-a-half, Lynch and Shanahan have transformed this organization from the league’s laughingstock to its model rebuild. Sure, the 5-0 finish to 2017, followed with a productive free agency period, were instrumental. But the foundation was built as Lynch and Shanahan crafted a culture conducive to success, picked the players befitting the system and locker room, and stayed consistent in their message, despite the drastic lows of an 0-9 start and highs of a 6-1 finish in the 2017 season.
“It’s really hard to change a culture, which means it was one philosophy and now you’re trying to do yours,” Shanahan said last week. “You can say it all you want, but you have to drill that and you have to preach it every day.”
It’s easy to see why players respond to Shanahan so positively. How many head coaches admire Lil Wayne’s music so much that they name their son, Carter, after the rapper’s album series?
“I enjoy the hell out of it,” Juszyzck said earlier this week. “He’s just very relatable. We have a young team, and to have a coach who has street cred like that, it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just easier to take things from him because you feel like he knows where you’re coming from.”
How many general managers and head coaches join their players in exhausting Navy SEAL training?
Even GM and Coach joined in on the “fun.”
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) July 4, 2018
Part of building the current culture has meant eliminating distractions. This past season, the 49ers swiftly released both Navorro Bowman, who complained about being benched, and Rashard Robinson, who piled up penalties in quick succession. Rookie receiver Kendrick Bourne missed a meeting, and Shanahan warned him he had one more chance.
Earlier this week, when asked about right guard Joshua Garnett’s absence from practice, Shanahan bluntly said he was surprised Garnett missed back-to-back days, despite a minor knee injury, as he battles for the starting spot.
“It’s tough to make this team and do it if you’re not out there,” Shanahan said.
Ultimately, this 49ers brass will be judged and remembered on wins and losses. One thing is clear: the outlook in Year 2 is much rosier than Year 1, which can be credited to the fun, serious, cohesive, high-expectation culture permeating this 49ers locker room.