The Prestige: How the 49ers Pulled Off the Greatest Trick in NFL Draft History in Three Parts
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“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts…”
This monologue, as performed by Michael Caine in the 2006 film The Prestige, has been stuck in my head since March 26, when the 49ers announced that they had traded their twelfth-overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, as well as a cache of future picks, in order to move up to the Miami Dolphins’ third-overall pick.
For the media coverage of the 49ers, this draft cycle has revolved around one thing: analysts’ confidence in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s and general manager John Lynch's decision to draft Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.
But only three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the 49ers' ability to mess with the media were the opportunity to present itself.
“…The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't.”
On paper, the trade made all the sense in the world. Normally when a team makes that kind of trade it is because they already have a prospect in mind that they are targeting, but when your coach is an offensive genius who can help Nick Mullens put up 262 yards and three touchdowns with a 72 percent completion percentage on the Oakland Raiders, things get a little more convoluted.
It’s no secret that Shanahan is a savant with helping quarterbacks reach higher heights than most coaches can. Robert Griffin III was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl selection in 2012. Matt Ryan had the best season of his career when Shanahan was offensive coordinator for the Falcons and helped them get to the Super Bowl.
That last name, along with Shanahan’s infatuation for Kirk Cousins and trading for Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, led the national media to immediately pigeonhole Shanahan into a preference for a specific type of quarterback.
“So when the trade went down, I was standing at the BYU pro day, about 15 feet from John Lynch, and I was standing there with Joe Douglas, Robert Saleh and a couple other folks, and we were just standing there waiting for Zach Wilson to throw at the BYU pro day,” ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said on KNBR two days ago. “And I had walked away previously to go to the ESPN set for a SportsCenter hit, and I made eye contact with John, gave a little head wave, and then I walked back to the scrum. He’s got this gigantic smile on his face. I’m like ‘What is he doing?’ and then about five minutes later we all get the buzz on our phones from the Adam Schefter tweet alert that the Niners had pulled off this trade and so I’m standing there with a lot of people who, you know, run the New York Jets, and some other folks, and everyone kind of like ‘It’s Mac Jones.’ And I mean, I’m in a group of probably eight people, you know, and everyone in the group said ‘Yeah it’s for Mac Jones.’”
This wasn’t sourced information that only few were privy too. This was everyone’s collective assumptions, based on track record for a coach who had always been given players to work with and never picked his own. The chance for him to hand-pick his own quarterback was a novel concept and clearly foreign, but when you listen to what Kyle said, things become clearer:
“…You want an elite player and of course if you can get a guy who is elite with his arm and can play in that pocket and do everything and still run around and make off-schedule plays.” Kyle said on a Zoom conference following the trade.“I mean, that's what you've seen with [Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick] Mahomes. Everybody wants something like that, but there is a risk to everything and you've got to see that in the draft, you've got to see it in college. It's not that these guys are just coming. I mean, no one's probably been talented like that. Some have. [Former Denver Broncos QB John] Elway's pretty talented and there's people, but there's more talented players playing these positions in college. So, I do think there's more options coming into the league, but if you can't sit in that pocket and play the position, eventually it's not going to matter. So, they both go hand in hand.”
To say that my prototypical guy is someone like Kirk Cousins, I mean, that's just, everyone knows my history with Kirk. We drafted him in the fourth round at Washington. I got to coach him for three games. We were fired. I left. Thought we'd have a chance to get him here in free agency and I would have loved to have him in free agency until Jimmy came along the year before, because I thought we could have won with him, just like Minnesota has. I think Kirk does a good job for whatever team he plays for every year. There's a number of quarterbacks like that, but that's the only one I've been associated with because people thought I was trying to bring him here, which I was at the time. It's not because that's how you draw it up. If you're going to draw it up, you're going to draw the biggest, fastest, strongest and best quarterback in the pocket. So, I think that's pretty ridiculous to say that, but I also tell you, I love Kirk. I know I'm not allowed to talk about other players, but Kirk's a hell of a player and a lot of people would be lucky to have a quarterback like that."
“The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
So why did the Mac rumors persist? Because they were easy. Why put in the work of trying to understand what Kyle would want, in listening to his words and trying to extrapolate the meaning into film work amongst the top QB prospects, when you can say “It’s Mac” and be done with it?
That’s the problem with gifted people. They see the world differently, and many times counter intuitively to how everyone else sees the world. So instead of understanding that and trying to view the world from Shanahan’s lens, it’s easier to make the lens for him.
“When we made the trade, we knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing.” Shanahan said in the Zoom conference following the Lance selection. “Now, we wanted an opportunity to go and look at everybody, but I think just looking at this whole process, I think I was in Mexico the day we made the trade and within hours, there's at least two people who are out there speculating that their opinions are they think we're taking Mac Jones and ever since then, I've kind of just watched every single person assume that that was accurate and that those weren't opinions, those were facts. We didn't feel that way from the beginning. I wouldn't have said there's no chance we wouldn't have. We were going to go through this process and I would never have said it couldn't have ended up being him, but I know how we felt about Trey the whole time. To watch that happen and to kind of watch everyone just assume, because a couple people say something, that's exactly how you feel, we weren't going to work to correct that. At all.”
The decision to allow the collective misinformation to run wild is something the 49ers took advantage of. Knowing what Shanahan is capable of and his understanding of the quarterback position, there was always a chance that if the information got out, someone could offer a king’s ransom to the Jets or Jaguars in a move to trade up.
“For me, it's just earning that mutual level of respect, and that’s earned.” Lance said in a Zoom conference following the pick.“Especially as a quarterback, obviously you have to make sacrifices. This is what I signed up for and this is what I love to do and I can't wait to do it. But, just for me, it's about treating people the right way and leaving an impact on people. That’s bigger than football. So obviously football is what I love to do and I can't wait to get there and learn. But, I don't believe that I'm on Earth to be a football player.”
Kyle Shanahan has never been able to get his guy, and now he has, and I’m sure he’s very thankful for the national media for helping him achieve that. More importantly, we should be thankful. As nerve racking and hair-pulling as the process has been in trying to figure out who to listen to and who knows what, ultimately not knowing created one of the most dramatic moments in NFL draft history.
“But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"."
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