Behind the 49ers' Super Bowl return, two men who changed everything

BySeth Wickersham ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 22, 2020

UNTIL THE San Francisco 49ers crew started to sing, it had been a quiet night at the hotel bar. It was the NFL's annual spring meeting in March of 2018, and team owners, league and team executives, and reporters were congregated at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, Florida, talking shop and trading gossip. But the mood was oddly subdued. The previous night had gone so late that a janitor had started to clean the floors as a few executives and reporters remained anchored at the bar, refusing to let the night end even though it was well into morning. So the second night -- this night -- was slow, chill, sleepy even, until a group of men, in a baritone howl, launched into a barroom rendition of a classic that "Top Gun" fans would love:

You never close your eyes anymore, when I kiss your lips ...

Oh god. They weren't, were they?

And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips ...

They were.

Everyone at the bar looked over to see the 49ers brass -- including head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch -- serenading their wives, in plain view of the rest of the league.

You're trying hard not to show it ...

It was more of an inside joke than a cheesy team-building exercise. But a few years earlier, the idea that the 49ers' head coach and general manager would be at the bar together, much less singing, would have seemed as absurd as, say, Bill Belichick offering a prized backup quarterback for a second-rounder without generating a market. In 2014, the cold war that had existed between head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke since the 49ers had come up just short against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII spilled into the public. Through various media channels, each man found a way to make clear that the dynamic between them was unsustainable, despite the 49ers reaching three straight NFC championship games. Baalke won, and Harbaugh was fired after an 8-8 season.

But baby, baby I know it ...

Over the next few years, the 49ers would have done anything to be 8-8. Baalke promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, but he was in over his head from the beginning and was fired after one year and a 5-11 record. Chip Kelly was next in 2016, but the Kelly the 49ers hired wasn't the revolutionary version that had set the league on fire only a few years earlier. He seemed so burned from his Eagles experience that he was deferential to Baalke to a fault. He lost 13 straight games at one point, and both men were let go.

After three years of discord, 49ers CEO Jed York wanted to empower the next head coach, who would be allowed to hire the GM. But he also wanted a cultural overhaul. He wanted the 49ers to be a football family, the way the building had felt when his uncle Eddie DeBartolo owned the team during its dynastic Bill Walsh-blueprinted run. The team turned to Shanahan and Lynch, two men who barely knew each other, and gave them six-year contracts.

You've lost that lovin' feelin' ...

At first, it seemed like an odd pairing: Shanahan the ambitious son of a potential Hall of Fame coach, Lynch a star-player-turned-broadcaster who had zero experience in personnel. But as Lynch says, "Anyone who was around here knew that our foundation was strong." And that strength came not because of how they handled this year, when the team won -- reaching its seventh Super Bowl in franchise history -- but because of how they handled the previous two years, when the team lost.

FOUNDATIONS ARE FLEETINGin the NFL. The league is engineered to create them and reverse-engineered to destroy them. Three years ago, it looked as if the Atlanta Falcons were built to dominate. They haven't made the playoffs since 2017. Two years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles believed their Super Bowl win would be the first of many; they've lost their last two playoff games. Last year, the Los Angeles Rams appeared to have long-term answers at every cornerstone position; they missed the playoffs this year and are overhauling the coaching staff. In 49ers parlance, it's easy to lose that lovin' feeling. Lynch learned that the hard way. After his Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002, a team loaded with superstars never reached it again. Never came close.

Lynch has been known as a gentleman in football circles -- one of the rare people about whom nobody has ever said anything negative. He has always worked hard, not only as a player but as a locker room leader, often surrounded by eccentric personalities, especially in Tampa. It's invisible work, but he loves it and knows how vital it is.

He was hired by the 49ers in January 2017 after he cold-called Shanahan and offered to partner with him. They had some history -- Lynch played for and admired Mike Shanahan in Denver and interacted with Kyle as a broadcaster. When he would visit teams that Kyle was an assistant coach for, Lynch would always put in a request to talk to him -- and would often get sort of stiffed. Lynch would want Shanahan to attend the production meetings the night before games; Shanahan, holed up in his office trying to find any edge, preferred to talk over the phone. Still, Lynch says now, "we'd talk an hour, hour and a half."

Lynch itched for more than long calls. He wanted to get back in the game, so when Shanahan was hired, ambition met opportunity. Shanahan didn't know many of the other top candidates well, but he trusted Lynch and trusted his father's lofty recommendation. Both men had deep ties to Walsh's philosophy. Lynch had mostly played for Walsh or one of his disciples since he entered college, and Kyle had learned from his father, who studied how to run a team during his time as a 49ers assistant in the early '90s. It was written into their contracts that any decision was subject to approval by the other one. "We didn't know each other," Lynch says, "but right when we started working together, our personalities kind of meshed."

Lynch's hiring rubbed some around the league the wrong way. He'd landed a prized job without climbing up the scouting ranks. But he instinctively understood something simple about running a team that many scouts do not and never have: You have to lead, and leading is more complicated than grading players. "When you sat down with John, you see how much he cares about the team, how well he understands organization and how little ego he has," York says. Lynch wasn't going to help Shanahan just by finding him players; he was going to help Shanahan by being a best friend and support system. He had never assembled a draft board, but he knew how to assemble lasting relationships. It was also by design: Lynch had once asked Tony Dungy why his relationship with Bill Polian worked so well in Indianapolis. "Being a head coach is really hard," Dungy told Lynch. Polian, he said, understood that while the coach is a man alone out there, the job of stewarding a team is a shared task.

Shanahan, like most successful coaches, revels in the difficulty of the job. He is happiest alone and in his office, grinding until he unlocks a decisive edge -- and then another, and another. When he's out of the team facility, he's funny and down-to-earth, but inside the building, he reverts into analmost preternatural hardwiring to focus on only those items that will help win football games. After he was hired, in an early meeting with team staff, Shanahan apologized in advance in the event that he pass through the hallway and fail to reply if someone said hello. Lynch, though, didn't just spend hours with Shanahan, inside and outside the building -- their families became close. "We had each other's backs," Lynch says. "We knew we had to deliver, but we genuinely liked each other."

At the same time, the two men spent hours debating how to move the franchise forward. "We kept challenging each other," Lynch says. "What is it exactly, specifically," that the team needs?

It needed a lot, and when the Shanahan/Lynch tenure began with an 0-9 record, anyone who had closely followed the 49ers wondered whether their partnership would break. It didn't. The private postgame postmortems, when Shanahan and Lynch would meet with York and executive vice president Paraag Marathe, were positive -- eerily positive, considering all the losing. When rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard got the 49ers their first win of 2017, "you could see the culture building," York says now. "It was a huge moment for everyone."

Then the 49ers got what every successful team needs: luck, in two ways. The first instance occurred just before the trading deadline in 2017, when Belichick texted Shanahan, a coach whom he respected enormously, and offered Jimmy Garoppolo straight up for a second-round pick. The 49ers were stunned -- Belichick had told staff in the Patriots building and any team that had inquired that the quarterback would not be traded -- and were prepared to counter with a larger package, in case Belichick happened to be posturing. He wasn't. The second piece of luck occurred after an exceptionallyunlucky2018, when Garoppolo was lost for most of the season with a knee injury. The 49ers lost often, finishing 4-12, but lost close. Six losses were by eight or fewer points. They had pulled off a weird miracle: They'd built confidence on a team bad enough to land the second pick in the draft -- which turned out to be star rookie defensive end Nick Bosa. The 49ers were putting together something special, even if few noticed it. "We kept believing in what we believed in," Lynch says.

And so this year seemed almost like a byproduct of not just what they had built but what they believed. "When we hit our stride from a talent standpoint," York says, "we had the culture in place." Lynch helped the team hit its stride with both. He's been on fire picking in the late rounds -- tight end George Kittle in the fifth in 2017, defensive lineman D.J. Jones in the sixth in 2017 and linebacker Dre Greenlaw in the fifth in 2019 -- and hit on key moves like extending safety Jimmie Ward and signing free agent offensive lineman Ben Garland. The 49ers didn't have an off game all year, despite a lot of injuries. "Our depth has really been challenged this year," Shanahan told reporters last week, crediting Lynch and the personnel staff for their ability to find players who not only could fill the roles but excel in them.

Shanahan and Lynch had done more than present a united front; they were a united front. Lynch knows how to tell Shanahan no if he needs to, and he handles tricky conversations in the building that Shanahan doesn't have the patience for. Most GMs disappear during the season, allowing the head coach to speak for the team. Lynch is available, to season-ticket holders and to reporters, taking on speaking gigs when Shanahan prefers to pass. The family atmosphere York wanted so badly grew out of the shared trust, and it was real: The 49ers decision-makers often vacation together with their families. Before the NFC Championship Game, York came up with the idea of inviting Mike Shanahan to be an honorary captain. That meant that when the 49ers won, the father would hand the trophy to his son, just as Uncle Eddie had to the York family when the 49ers last reached the Super Bowl -- not just a passing of the torch but an acknowledgement that nobody accomplishes anything alone.

The idea of Mike handing the trophy to his son wasn't just "pretty special," as Kyle said after the game. It was inevitable, something York had envisioned, as much as he had envisioned going to another Super Bowl.

NINETY MINUTES AFTERthe 49ers gutted the Green Bay Packers 37-20 on Sunday -- San Francisco's second straight playoff blowout -- a lot of the team gathered for a private party in Michael Mina's Tailgate, one of the two Mina restaurants in Levi's Stadium. The award-winning Mina is now part of the 49ers family; he scouts restaurants for team staffers to visit on the road and makes sure the chef takes care of them. With the party in full swing, Lynch entered. He had spent a good hour in the locker room, congratulating players and coaches and staffers, answering at least 18 one-more-questions from the media. He walked through the party to the high-fives and bear hugs and I-love-you-mans of friends and colleagues, which left only one question:

Would the 49ers sing?

This time, there was no need. Will Smith's "Miami" blared from the speakers. Everyone knew the next stop, and everyone knew the fragility of it all, and nothing, least of all the love for one another, seemed gone.

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