Image Credit: Bay Area News Group
“Winners behave like winners (before they’re winners)” is one of the main underpinnings of Bill Walsh’s “Standard of Performance.” Walsh’s organizational philosophy covered seemingly every detail of how the organization operated from how the players and coaches dressed for practice to how the phones were answered at the team’s practice facility. Eventually it became known as the “49er Way.”
The “49er Way” led to four Super Bowl championships (three under Walsh), and an NFL record 18-game road winning streak (1988-1990) in the Eighties and early Nineties. Around the NFL, the 49ers had a reputation for being very business-like, almost robotic, in how they went about conducting themselves. When Bill Walsh retired after winning Super Bowl XXIII, the 49ers machine kept running just as it always had winning the Super Bowl the following season, but after losing the NFC championship game in 1990, ’92 and ’93 some changes were in store.
The 49ers dipped heavily into the free agent pool in 1994, signing linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer along with linebacker-turned-defensive end Rickey Jackson; each man played a key role in the team’s 1994 season, but the biggest impact came from Deion Sanders.
Sanders was the most coveted free agent on the market that year and the 49ers viewed him as the missing piece to get them past the Cowboys and back to the Super Bowl.
Aside from his stellar play on the field, Sanders injected the once robotic and business-like 49ers with an attitude and a swagger that had the normally reserved Jerry Rice and Steve Young doing end zone dances (or at least attempting to).
Much like Bill Walsh thirty-eight years before, Kyle Shanahan took over a team that needed a complete rebuild and culture change. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch tore down the roster and started from scratch to bring in players with the type of character that can help re-establish a winning culture. And after two years of high draft picks and selective free agent signings something was still missing: swagger.
Even though the Niners signed Richard Sherman prior to the 2018, they were still missing some of that swagger. Sherman, still recovering from a torn Achilles, was playing at less than full speed and had to adjust his swag accordingly.
The 49ers again dipped into free agency this season to sign linebacker Kwon Alexander, who from day one has brought an infectious energy to this team.
Even while Alexander was continuing to rehab from an ACL injury during the off season program he assumed a leadership role among the linebackers and dubbed the group the “Hot Boyz” (the original Hot Boyz were a late nineties rap group that featured Lil’ Wayne, among others. Lil’ Wayne is a favorite of head coach Kyle Shanahan).
Alexander plays the game with a passion that can be seen and heard thanks to the field level microphones and that passion has rubbed off on his teammates.
Starting middle linebacker Fred Warner, in his second year out of BYU, has been far more vocal this year than last. The influence that Alexander has had on Warner is evident; he is much more outgoing and vocal this year.
Bringing Warner out of his shell is something that began in the summer. Alexander was asked about Warner during the team’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado:
Fred, I be telling him, “you got to match my energy today” and stuff like that and he been very vocal, talkative, he’s out there making crazy plays and he’s going to keep doing that
Former NFL GM and co-host of the GM Shuffle podcast, Michael Lombardi, says “if your linebackers are slow, your defense is slow” and last year the 49ers had to play with backups at linebacker and the defense played slow; that is not the case this year.
The pairing Alexander with Warner has improved the speed of the defense. The defense, as a whole, is playing fast and causing turnovers, which, they did not do a year ago (a subject that has been well documented).
Coming into this season, the 49ers did not make many changes the secondary, despite earning a league low 37.5 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus in 2018. The message was clear, the front office was happy with the players in the secondary and that fixing other areas of the defense would fix the coverage. So far, they have been proven correct. The improved pass rush gets all of the headlines, but the contributions of the linebackers should not be overlooked.
Kwon Alexander has routinely made plays in the passing game, recording one interception and dropping another, this season on his way to earning an 81.7 coverage grade from PFF through six games.
From the moment he was introduced to the media, Alexander has embraced his role as team leader; speaking openly about his role as a mentor to younger players and trying to empower others to lead.
Alexander was the “heart and soul” of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense according to his former teammates and coaches and he is quickly becoming just as important to the 49ers defense.
After a training camp practice Alexander was asked why it was so important for he and Fred Warner to be the “ignitors” of the defense:
Really because we’re the leaders of the defense. Linebackers we got to take control and be vocal and be loud and have the energy and let everybody feed off of you. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
So far this season, Kwon Alexander has brought the heat that lit the fuse that has the defense playing with confidence and swagger; shades of what happened in 1994.
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