SANTA CLARA, Calif. — I spent two hours watching Jimmy Garoppolo, and Mike McGlinchey, and Rueben Foster, and Jerick McKinnon, and Solomon Thomas, and the rest of a promising young Niners team go through a brisk Sunday morning session.
Looking for good reasons why Kyle Shanahan’s crew is ready to handle outsized expectations, coming off the most promising 6-10 season I can remember? You’d have to wait until about 20 minutes after practice for that. By then, players’ families and fans were scattered about an open area adjacent to the fields. And a Garoppolo checkdown away, I could give you three good reasons …
• Veteran addition Richard Sherman, who sat out practice with a hamstring injury, was giving coaching pointers to running back Jeremy McNichols. Linebacker Korey Toomer was lingering close, second in line to see “Uncle Sherm.” He jumped in after McNichols was done.
• Next to them, there was a player with his pads and shirt off, running one-man gassers.
• About 10 yards from there, all four quarterbacks—including C.J. Beathard, who made it from his grandfather Bobby’s Hall of Fame induction in Ohio in time for this 9:15 a.m. Pacific practice—were working with the skill guys.
“Going on my head coach interviews, everyone wants to know, ‘Hey, what’s going to be your culture?’ ” Shanahan said, about three hours earlier in his office. “Everyone wants some magical trendy thing that sounds neat and excites an owner. My whole thing with culture—a coach can talk all they want and say what they want, but culture has to do with the people in the building.
“If you bring in the right people, the culture takes care of itself. And so our whole deal was, we want people who work hard, overachievers, whether they’re talented or not, because they’re grinding and they’re always trying to earn something.”
The Niners know they’ve got a lot left to earn. That’s why, while we all fixate on their 5-0 flourish to finish 2017, you’ll see more reminders of the team’s 0-9 start around camp. But as Shanahan said, if the Niners can grow up as fast as many think they will, it probably won’t be because of something their players learned over the last six months. More likely it’ll be something those guys had along.
Fourteen camps down, and a lot of mail to sort through this week. I’ll see a 15th team (Redskins) tonight in Foxboro, then six more at five camps next week. And I’ve learned plenty that I’ll incorporate in replying your questions in just a minute.
But we’re going to start with how the Shanahan/John Lynch Niners rebuild kicked into overdrive last December. Remember, this was a football operation so broken, and in such need of an overhaul, that the brass had to give its new coach and GM unheard-of six-year deals coming in, to affirm a commitment to a deliberate process. The sentiment was illustrated in the “brick-by-brick” slogan Lynch used to describe the new regime’s approach, and backed by a competitive group that started 0-9.
Then Garoppolo came along, and key pieces of the team came together, and everything changed.
“We have high expectations for ourselves,” Lynch told me. “But we also understand—we’re crystal clear—that what this season becomes is in our hands, and it’s about how we go to work. And nothing’s ensured. It’s not, ‘We played well at the end of last year and it’s just going to carry over.’ We’ve got to get better.”
On paper, they have. McGlinchey, drafted ninth overall out of Notre Dame in April, is plug-and-play at right tackle, with a future as Joe Staley’s heir on the left side. McKinnon, the free-agent former Viking, is a great fit in Shanahan’s offense as a Swiss Army knife of a back. So is fellow free agent Weston Richburg, filling the need for a heady center to take some of the mental load off the quarterback. Sherman, the longtime Seahawk, is a perfect mentor for guys like second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon, and fits Robert Saleh’s Seattle-style defense.
But the belief here is that all of those guys were right for more than just their playing ability. It’s also in how they match what Shanahan was referring to, as he and Lynch look not just for a certain type of player, but also a certain type of person.
“Kyle always says it’s like the mentality of a shark,” Staley said. “Someone that’s like a shark. There was a quote he had—sharks don’t wake up and care that it’s Monday. No, they wake up doing scary-ass s---, because they’re sharks. That’s what they do. He just wants people who have one speed, one mentality—it’s all football. He calls them sharks. That’s what he looks for.”
So, if you follow, a shark probably wouldn’t care much what about he hunted down seven months ago. Same idea here.
“We can’t control what everyone’s saying out there,” Garoppolo told me. “In our locker room, we remember that we were 0-9. We have signs up, reminders that we haven’t done anything yet, and we have to go out and prove it this year.”
And maybe the best example of that tunnel vision was laid out, unintentionally, by Garoppolo himself. By now, you know that TMZ caught him out with adult film star Kiari Mia last month. Those who know him say getting busted was a result of how new to him it is to be this recognizable. He still sees himself as the guy on the Fortnite team with tight ends George Kittle and Garrett Celek and practice-squadder J.P. Flynn.
When Shanahan and I discussed the hoopla over Garoppolo and Mia, he conceded there was a lesson for the quarterback to learn there. But in a certain way, Shanahan said, it revealed a natural humility about Garoppolo too.
“That’s an important quality to have,” the coach said. “You can get caught up in how big everyone else is making you. Social media is just crazy. There are people who aren’t really famous who are famous these days. If you get caught up in that stuff, I don’t get how anyone can totally function. So it’s important to stay level-headed and keep your own reality, keep your own perspective, or it gets carried away.
“Jimmy, he’s done a good job of doing that, but it gets harder. And I think that will be his challenge throughout this year.”
His team’s challenge, too. And the key for Garoppolo, and the 49ers, to surmount that challenge might just something Lynch and Shanahan saw in those guys all along.
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On to your mail …
From Hunter Leslie (@ShadyKb24): How far can the Jags go this year if Bortles carries his progress so far into the season and the Jags have a top-15 passing attack to add to to the already dominant run game?
Hunter, the most encouraging thing about the Jaguars’ offseason, to me, is seeing how they fortified their commitment to build up the lines of scrimmage, a part of their on-field identity shift after promoting Doug Marrone two Januarys ago. They added Andrew Norwell on offense and Taven Bryan on defense, to units that already had come to make up the personality of the team.
Generally, teams that are steady on the lines of scrimmage are competitive every week, so I think Jaguars will be in the hunt again. And I’d agree that Blake Bortles’s progress—as we detailed in the July 2 MMQB, coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is trying to get him to more effectively use all areas of the field—will probably determine how far they go from there.
From Nate (@3asy_Livin): How can the Steelers pull that defense together to win a SB before Ben retires?
All the drama on offense has drown out the fact that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have assembled a pretty talented core on the other side of the ball—with vets like Morgan Burnett, Cam Heyward and Joe Haden surrounded by talented risers like T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Artie Burns. And it’s not all potential, either. The Steelers ranked fifth in total defense and seventh in scoring defense last year.
The key this time around is going to be finding a way to avoid the periodic collapses, like the pair they had against Jacksonville last season, and find someone to play in Ryan Shazier’s spot next to Vince Williams. Third-year pro Tyler Matakevich is there now, with Burnett and first-round pick Terrell Edmunds possibilities to play at a ’backer spot in the team’s nickel.
From Mac (@Kingdonk78): When the Bengals don’t make the playoffs again, will they finally replace Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton? Should Mike Brown hire a real GM since he’s allowed this dumpster fire to go this long?
OK, first, I believe this strongly: Cincinnati’s ability to get back to the playoffs rides on the development of the offensive line, and to what degree ex-Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn and first-round center Billy Price are upgrades. The Bengals felt the losses of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler more than they ever imagined they would last year (draft misses played into it too), and that’s why Glenn and Price are so vital.
As for the GM question, the Bengals already have a very capable personnel chief in Duke Tobin, who other teams have been sniffing around for years. He doesn’t have the GM title, because Brown has always had it. But he more or less plays the GM role there and has done well with it, having built some of the league’s most talented rosters over the course of this decade.
From Michael Anthony Stokes (@S---StokesSays): Is Doug Pederson not a better offensive mind than Sean McVay, seeing as he won the Super Bowl with a backup and McVay won a soft NFC West to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs at home?
Fair question, Michael, and I’m not sure we have an answer to it yet. Sean McVay has been a play-caller for four years now and has made an enormous difference in the careers of two quarterbacks—Kirk Cousins in D.C. and Jared Goff in L.A. Pederson, meanwhile, developed Carson Wentz over two years, then retrofitted his offense for Nick Foles on the fly last year, and won a Super Bowl.
Here’s what I like that the two have in common: Both fit their offense to their quarterbacks, and make the quarterback’s job simpler. Last year McVay dressed up a lot of his Rams offense with run-action concepts to help Goff play faster. Meanwhile, Pederson has kept some Chip Kelly concepts in Philly to help Wentz get an edge with his legs. In each case, that’s smart coaching.
So it’s a cop-out, but I think both guys are really good, and really creative, and I’m just not sure we have enough of a track record on the two to definitively separate them.
From Peter Vandeventer (@PeteVandeventer): Which defense will surprise the most this season?
I’m looking at the bottom 10 in total defense from 2017, and if I had to pick one to come out of nowhere and make a big jump … I’m going to cheat and give you the 11th-worst defense from last year—the Packers. I love what they’ve done in assembling young corners (Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson), and that crew should enable coordinator Mike Pettine to be as creative and aggressive as he wants to be.
And if you want to look in the front seven, I think having Mo Wilkerson with Mike Daniels up front, playing for Pettine and on a one-year deal, will help, as will the development of linebacker Blake Martinez (the staff believes he has star qualities). The big question will be where they find their edge pressure, with Clay Matthews a year older, and it’s worth noting Pettine has run good defenses without premier outside rushers in the past.
From Justin D Jensen (@Justinscolor): Think a [trade of] Earl Thomas and picks for Khalil Mack make sense for both teams?
No I don’t. But I’ll humor you and go through both situations. Let’s start with Thomas in Seattle, who I think is a difficult commodity to trade. If you’re a team dealing for him, are you really going to give up high-end draft capital and the salary cap real estate it’d take to sign him to a new deal? And if you want him as a one-year rental, how much are you willing to give up for that? And would he report? It’s complex.
As for Mack, there hasn’t been progress between him and the Raiders in a while, and it’s not getting better on a personal level. There are plenty of whispers around the league about Oakland’s ability to fund full guarantees while they’re in their pre-Vegas limbo, and so there’s no real end in sight to this saga. I know that owner Mark Davis and GM Reggie McKenzie love Mack. But love won’t be enough to solve this one.
From Eric-John M. Davis (@EricJohnDavis): Pats question: Do you believe Eric Decker can help the Pats this season? What’s the over/under for receptions, yards and TDs?
We’ll finish up here—I don’t think Decker is a sure thing to make the team in New England. Yes, he has background in the offense (Josh McDaniels drafted him in Denver), and the Patriots have a need. But there’s a reason Decker sat on the market for as long as he did, and why the skill-position needy Jets dumped him a year ago, even though he was still on a pretty reasonable deal.
Maybe he’s reborn in New England. We just haven’t seen that guy since 2015. Decker is 31 now, and other teams don’t think he can run anymore. Plus, of late, he hasn’t been catching the contested balls he used to. But if he makes the team and stays healthy? I’ll give you over/unders of 40 catches for 500 yards and two touchdowns, on the strength of having Tom Brady at quarterback.
Enjoy the games tonight, everyone!
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