There have been plenty of things to loathe with the San Francisco 49ers organization over the past few years. It started with chief executive officer Jed York apologizing to fans after a Thanksgiving Day loss to Seattle, and continue with the sources within the building whispering about former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s job security.
Unfortunately, Harbaugh’s departure didn’t halt the mysterious ‘source’ within the organization.
For two seasons under head coaches Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly, once the pyrite-glimmer of a season turned to a dull-grey lead, the leak machine worked harder; management needed to find scapegoats for the on-the-field failures, rather than own up to ineptitude.
It’s not worth rehashing old news, and it’s clear the leaks, and constant junior high gossip made the 49ers look more like a sewing circle than a professional football team.
I will not begin to guess what types of vibrations and energy emanated and bounced around the locker room during this time, but I can speak on behalf of some fans. Jed York had no problem trading the 49ers heralded history of class for 30 silver coins and friendship with Jay Glazer.
His actions hurt the players, and it gave the customer experience the feeling of buying a used set of steak knives at a storage unit fire sale.
At some point during the 2017 offseason, probably when the team was looking for a new general manager and a new head coach, I have to guess a trained professional had a one-on-one meeting with Jed York to set him straight.
Jed, you see, was leading the 49ers executives during these icy times. He and the other brass were desperately clinging to a 70-year-old successful brand with a vain hope the customer experience would rise anew from the shredded turf at Levi's Stadium.
For whatever reason, the 49ers executive office felt it necessary to handle player shortcomings on ESPN and have Trent Dilfer masquerade as the quarterback expert. Locker room disagreements were discussed on the NFL Network with Deion Sanders acting as the intermediary. Both news items sent to these intrepid reporters from anonymous sources with class!
The whole world knew it wasn’t working, and so did a mysterious candidate to serve as the new general manager.
“One of the great and liberating things for me, and I think why this thing came to fruition, I made a big deal that this stay quiet. First of all, you know what I was doing? Part of the rumors are things fly out of that building. And I wanted to see if I could trust this person. And so that was part of my thinking.” – John Lynch (Source)
Whether or not Jed and others knew of Lynch’s test isn’t known, and probably will remain a secret.
An unspoken catalyst for the 49ers’ recent success this season has been due to the lack of leaks coming from 4949 Centennial Boulevard. Sure, a source or two might share that linebacker Reuben Foster’s ankle is still a bit sore, or that tight end George Kittle has a bad hamstring, ankle, and back.
Those things are subtle and are material to quality journalism.
But John Lynch knew that a critical element for a closely-knit team is a safe environment for players to talk openly. For better or worse, that’s behind the closed locker room or meeting room doors. Players need to feel that it’s okay to let loose, ask questions or merely be upset with lack of on-the-field results.
The previous executive regime fed off this ordinarily classified information and gave no quarter breaking the trust of players and coaches alike. These childish actions fostered an unhealthy work environment and poured like liquid oxygen over the fan frustration with York.
York asked for the fans to hold him accountable, which they did for every move made over the last three seasons. If York tied his shoes the wrong way, the fans let him know it by flying an airplane over the stadium before games.
This year, York learned that a brand needs to be nurtured and sometimes reinvented. Along with it, the customer experience requires more than a glass tower and the ability to order shrimp ceviche nachos from Section 103.
Like you, I watched some of training camp via 49ers Live. It was a great idea and allowed those of us not invited to camp to watch special teams or a few one-on-one match-ups.
I remember one practice when a camera panned around the practice field, showing a small set of covered bleachers with people standing around watching the defense.
"That's odd," I thought. "Wasn't this a closed practice?"
As it turns out, the team installed these bleachers for SBL and suite owners, VIPs or contest winners.
At some point during practice, head coach Kyle Shanahan sent a text to general manager John Lynch stating, "Fans are too far away, can we get them closer." (sic)
Lynch responded with two words: Why not?
And so, the general manager walked across the field to invite fans across the field to watch the rest of practice.
Fans are not owed anything, but a touch of recognition is worth its weight in Super Bowl rings. A crisp high five from a player, an autograph for a kid or what Shanahan and Lynch did on Sunday are gestures that display the 49ers' gratitude toward their customers.
Because he’s kept his mouth shut and his Twitter handle free of on-the-field decisions, fans are buying into the new direction. Jed sold these magic beans before – a new direction, we’re reloading, Jim Tomsula, etc. – only to find out we brought home spray painted fishing weights.
Jed York is learning that building a brand and building a championship team are not separate topics that should never cross streams. On the contrary, these are the foundation on which he should construct the 49ers for the next 30 years.