NFL team decision makers hate to lose. When the ride comes to an end, it takes some longer than others to come to grips with reality. Sometimes coaches take it the hardest. They are wired to think that their team is capable of going the distance and bringing home the Lombardi Trophy. They live in a bubble and sometimes don’t see the big picture as clearly.
I always think that part of the job of a team’s general manager is to think about a big picture, but also be there for those that hit the floor the hardest with a season-ending loss.
As a team winds its way through the postseason, it’s easier to see reality from a slight distance away. Sure, you believe in your team and are ALL IN on the belief in what your coaches and players can pull off together. You are totally invested, but the reality is that some optimism is wishful thinking. You hope you can survive whatever the opponent doles out, but you also see the inadequacies of your team but in reality, the frustrating part about it is that you can’t do anything to make it better until the end hits with a THUD.
Once the last second ticks off on your season, your mindset is to immediately flip the switch towards building up what’s been damaged, bruised or just wasn’t good enough to start with.
San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch positioned himself directly outside his locker room and personally greeted each member with a hug and a hand shake as they returned from the battlefield after the hard-fought loss to the LA Rams in the NFC Championship game.
Lynch gets it! He started his repair of emotions, egos and feelings by taking the human side of picking up his guys. My guess is that after being there for the players, Lynch focused on his coaching staff to support and then others in the organization. That’s what good leaders do. Losing is crushing, but there is an expression that “what doesn’t kill us, makes us better.”
It’s clear to me that the 49ers are in good hands going forward and Lynch’s Assistant GM Adam Peters (who has interviewed for GM jobs around the league in the past), has picked up some valuable experience. By watching Lynch be there for his players and coaches after a hard loss, Peters has learned some lessons that could add to him becoming an excellent leader of a franchise himself in the near future. Lynch may not be as experienced as some evaluators in the league but he values peoples and emotions to the point that, they know how much he cares.
In these situations, I was always one to wake up the next morning with a smile and a notebook, ready to rectify what had held us back. As a general manager, you have identified your team’s shortcomings during the year, but until the season was over the page could not be turned to the more forward-thinking plan of repair that every good GM has.
My philosophy has always been that at season’s end, the baton gets passed from the head coach to the general manager. The head coach and his staff have done their best to steward this team through a long season. Now it’s up to the general manager to start a process of realigning his deck chairs and tinkering with other parts of his roster to get ready for the next cruise. This task was very energizing for me.
I remember feeling eager to start- sometimes making lists on our flight home as to what we needed to do. Maybe it was because I loved the challenges of bringing a plan together through a consensus and orderly process with the rest of the staff. I just loved the challenge of rebuilding or retooling for next year.
I remember telling Nick Saban that during our time in Miami. Once, when I could feel his frustration with a particular position group, at season’s end that we had not had a chance to address the prior offseason, I said, “we will chuckle down the road (when we look back at what we were playing with) when we have rebuilt that part of the team to the specifications that our scheme requires”. His response was “WE BETTER!!!". That was his way of challenging and pushing me to explore our options. I felt indebted to everyone on our staff and in our building as to not let them down.
I think there will be relief in San Francisco. I have sensed that Kyle Shanahan has felt restricted by the limited skills of QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Knowing this, I think he had to adjust his play calling and the way he managed particular games He has had to carry an extra burden with Jimmy Garropolo as his quarterback. Kyle knows that to move ahead they will need change that might include a temporary step back.
I think Garoppolo is limited in dealing with pressure and has struggled with this for the last few years. His injuries and lack of athleticism to escape a rush, extend plays or make something happen outside the pocket are real skills that Shanahan seeks.
The head coach and general manager had this discussion before last year’s draft when they decided to trade up and select Trey Lance with their first pick. However, it wasn’t until Shanahan had Lance in his system did he realize how raw and unrefined he really was. Lance was clearly not ready.
The learning curve and process for development of Lance was going to be more extensive than he originally thought. That’s why we heard quotes like “special packages and playing the quarterback that gives us the best chance vs certain matchups” before the season started. The truth is that Lance wasn’t even ready for a minor role or we would have seen him.
To his credit, Garropolo battled and competed like a pro and probably even exceeded the expectations of the 49ers brass this year. I really think that Garoppolo is better than many starting QBs in the NFL now. He is a tradable commodity for the 49ers with Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina and even Denver or Cleveland all possible suitors with some degree of interest.
If the 49ers jettison Garoppolo, it will be a bold move for them to flip the switch to the unproven, but talented, Lance. The move will not come without much anxiety and trepidation. It will only go away when Lance proves he can stand in the pocket and make all the NFL throws. Playing against the Los Angeles Rams three times a year will be a bit different for Lance than playing against South Dakota in the FargoDome. It’s a leap of faith some might struggle with, but it also comes with a new-found energy and direction for the 49ers offense badly needs and a different play book for Shanahan.
These are the kinds of decisions and discussions that I grew to love when running a team. They will be had when every position group is considered.
Lynch and staff will probably be at the Senior Bowl in Mobile by mid-week, scouting players and meeting on potential free agents. Lynch is feeling some pain for sure, but he is also relieved because now he’s in a position to flip the switch and DO SOMETHING ABOUT improving their team for next season.