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How to stop being a loser (Ep. 350)



The San Francisco 49 have never been to the Super Bowl in six years. Their last championship dates back to 1995. In this season, the team plans to change it. (Photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Stringer)

Our last one Freakonomics Radio episode is called "How to stop being a loser". (You can subscribe to the podcast at the address Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or somewhere else, get the RSS Feedor listen through the top media player.)

Even the San Francisco 49ers, one of the most precious sports franchises in the world, were one of the best. But they lost recently – a lot – and one of their players launched a kneeling controversy during the national anthem. So why are everyone so optimistic? To find out, let's talk to the owner of the team, the coach, the general manager and the famous players, including their new quarterback of $ 137.5 million. (Ep. 2 of the series "The Hidden Side of Sports".)

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

* * *

Pretend for a second that you own a National Football League team. how nice would it be? For beginners, you would be really rich. But also, you would have a piece of the most successful sports league in history. And this makes you part of the fabric of America. People organize their programs to watch N.F.L. Games. They are so passionate about your product that they dress regularly as your employees. Think about it: have you ever seen someone wearing a U.P.S. uniform that does not work for U.S. This passion translates into millions of eyeballs and billions of dollars – so, however rich you started, you're now getting richer. Can you imagine how beautiful it would be? Or – better than imagine – we hear someone who actually owns a N.F.L. team:

Jed YORK: My name is Jed York.

And let's say that this team seems to be one of the most successful and valuable franchises ever.

YORK: I am the C.E.O. of the San Francisco 49ers.

ANNOUNCER: "Rice has just set a Super Bowl record with 12 taps, it's moving … Montana Touchdown! John Taylor!"

In the '80s and' 90s, the San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowl.

ANNOUNCER: "That's it! The game is over, San Francisco won Super Bowl XXIII."

Jed York is 38 years old. The team has been in his family for many years.

YORK: I rotated through every single department. And my first gig was really in the equipment room, learning to sew tags on the shirts and doing that stuff.

DUBNER: Okay, you're the C.E.O., I realize it's your title, it's an operational thing. Are you the owner? An owner? How does the property work?

YORK: So, my family owns over 90% of the team, and it's split between my brothers and my parents and me. My mother is the main owner of the team.

As York moved from the engine room to C.E.O.'s office, the glory days of the team were retreating. They arrived at another Super Bowl six years ago. But they lost.

YORK: It's hard to miss a Super Bowl and come back and try to refocus.

In fact it was hard to focus. The next seasons went from mediocre to horrible. York did what N.F.L. the owners usually do in these cases: he fired the trainer, again and again. Some fans thought that York should have been fired. They rented a plane and flew over it with the same message. York's answer was quite sensible:

YORK: I own this football team. Do not dismiss the owners.

Now, imagine that at the same time everything that was happening also happened:

NEWS STILL 1: The quarterback of San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem.

NEWS AGAIN 2: Colin Kaepernick & # 39; s the protest against racial injustice seems to be gaining ground.

And this led to this:

Donald Trump: You would not like to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when someone lacks respect for our flag, to say: "Take that son of a bitch away from the field". On. He was fired. He is fired! "

In the midst of all this chaos, on and off the field, Jed York hit the hard reset button. The 49ers started the season 2017 with a new coach, a new general manager and a roster full of new players. They started the year with high hopes. After all, it's the San Francisco 49ers! Those great hopes turned out to be misplaced.

ANNOUNCER: The biggest margin of victory compared to the 49ers, going back up to 1980.

And the new coach was unhappy.

Kyle SHANAHAN: When you lose a game, a lot of noise happens. When you lose two, a ton happens. Usually, three like Armageddon. Try nine.

Nine direct losses to start what was to be your turnaround season. Then you have the President of the United States telling you to fire your "son of a bitch" employee. And your sport is increasingly thought of as too violent and brutal for the modern world. Are you sure you still want to own a soccer team? Despite some adverse winds, N.F.L. football is still one of the most popular raw materials in the history of sport. We all know what it means to consume this merchandise; but what do you need to produce it? We recently spent a couple of days inside the 49ers complex talking to everyone: ownership and senior management, head coach and general manager, and of course the players, including the $ 137 million quarterback:

Jimmy GAROPPOLO: What's up guys, I am Jimmy Garoppoloand you're listening Freakonomics Radio.

And we learned a lot. For example, how the sports industry is different from other industries:

Victor MATHESON: So you really need a certain level of collusion just to make the product work, right?

How winning everything is, but losing can also be very nice.

GUIDO: When we lose, we actually get better draft choices.

We will hear as a N.F.L. the team makes its money, in addition to football.

weight LANGE: Yes, we went directly from monster truck to Taylor Swift.

And you will hear what soccer players do when they are not playing, practicing or lifting weights.

* * *

In the first episode of the series "Hidden Side of Sports", we have seen how sport has reflected, throughout history, some of the most pressing concerns of our civilization: politics, culture, economy and human potential.

David EPSTEIN: The athletes were told that their legs would fall if they ran fast enough to run the mile in less than four minutes.

When we started thinking about this series of sports, we knew we wanted to spend an episode going deep into a single team, preferably before their season started. Not only do they have more time to talk, but it is also when everyone is still optimistic, tied for first place and unharmed. Regarding the sport, we thought of going directly to the top of the sports pyramid, as described by the sports economist Victor Matheson:

MATHESON: So the biggest league in the world in terms of revenue generated is the N.F.L. And the N.F.L. generates something like $ 14, $ 15 billion a year.

We also thought it would be fun to focus on a team that had had a strange season the year before. One of the strangest seasons of all time. A season that went from utter desperation to something that came close to euphoria. This set of criteria brought us to San Francisco 49ers.

DUBNER: So, what's this big tunnel here, where are we?

LANGE: So this is the weak point of the stadium.

In May, we visited the team complex in Santa Clara, California. They had just started their pre-seasonal practices, which are technically called O.T.A., or "organized group activities".

The place was incredibly busy, considering that the season would not have started for other months. He was also incredibly optimistic. To understand why the entire building was so enthusiastic about the 2018 season, you have to understand what they went through in 2017. And to understand it, it's useful to go back to 2011, the beginning of the Coach Jim Harbaugh era. At this point, the 49ers had not been in the playoffs in eight years.

YORK: So Jim was at Stanford when we hired him.

This, again, is the owner of 49ers and C.E.O. Jed York.

YORK: And Jim is a guy who's just a great personality.

A personality that Harbaugh was not shy to show in public:

Jim HARBAUGH: "Personally I think it's a bunch of shit."

YORK: And I think that with Jim he can certainly screw someone in the wrong way. But he's not worried, "I'm going to make sure everyone goes". He has a goal in mind and that is "How do I win?"

ANNOUNCER: 33-17 is the final score as Harbaugh is a winner in his first game as a professional coach.

Harbaugh turned the team immediately. They had three excellent seasons in a row, including the one in Super Bowl, against a team of Ravens coached by Harbaugh's brother.

ANNOUNCER: It's the Harbaugh bowl. Jim and John Harbaugh, Ravens and Niners, two of the best teams in the league.

DUBNER: Describe how bad it is to lose a Super Bowl?

YORK: It's strange, because we lost N.F.C. First league games, and it's strangely easier to lose the Super Bowl because you can say, "We did not have our best game. So, there is no if and without but, there is nothing.

Not everyone in the 49ers building is as optimistic as the owner Jed York.

STALEY: Losing the Super Bowl? Oh man, he sucked. Oh, it's like the worst day of my life. Thank you for bringing it.

That's Joe Staley:

STALEY: I'm a left forward for the San Francisco 49ers. I've been in the team, this will be my twelfth season, so I only played here in San Francisco.

DUBNER: Right. And you're easily the longest-running veteran here –

STALEY: And the best.

DUBNER: From a long shot.

STALEY: And the most beautiful.

DUBNER: Best-looking, yes. Your nose, I must say –

STALEY: leans well.

DUBNER: What should I say?

STALO: leans to the right. It has been broken a couple of times.

Staley has long been one of the best tackles left in the league. His main task is to protect the quarterback from passing games. Which means that in addition to being the longest lasting 49er, Staley is also one of the biggest.

STALO: six feet and six. It's about 295, 300 pounds.

It is also known as one of the most delicious.

STALEY: [singing] Hakuna matata, what a wonderful sentence. Hakuna matata is not a passing mania. It means without worries for the rest of the days. It is our philosophy without problems, hakuna matata.

Staley also hosts a budget-free web series called "The Joe Show", shot in the 49ers locker room:

STALEY: And our first guest is my eighth favorite player in the football team – Dakota Watson everyone, let's go!

It is worth staying away if you are a N.F.L. player. It's a fairly ruthless business. That 49ers team that went to the Super Bowl six years ago? Staley is one of only two players still in the team. On 53. This is how much turnover there may be on a N.F.L. roster, especially when a team has a bad stretch. And the 49ers had a bad shot. The season after the Super Bowl defeat, they won only eight games, against eight losses. The coach Jim Harbaugh, whose idiosyncrasies were tolerable during the winning season, had exhausted his welcome.

YORK: We could not get to a place where both sides were willing to keep going.

Up to a new coach and a new season. With even worse results: five wins, 11 losses. Then another new coach for next season – with an even worse result: two wins, 14 losses. Also that trainer was fired, along with the general manager, who makes decisions about the staff. This left Jed York as the primary goal of increasing malevolence. Here he is at a press conference right after the disastrous 2016 season.

REPORTER: Jed, you fired your general manager and trainer because they did not meet certain performance standards.

YORK: This is part of this.

JOURNALIST: OK, let's stick to that part. Why should not you be fired or reassigned for the same reasons?

YORK: Look, again, nothing I will say will be satisfactory.

JOURNALIST: Say something.

And this is when York said this:

YORK: I own this football team. Do not dismiss the owners.

Nobody is happy when a N.F.L. the team is losing: the players, the fans – also, as you heard, the journalists. But paradoxically, there is a constituency that has reason to be a little less unhappy. Who is that? The property Here is something important to know about the National Football League and other major American sports championships. Each team in each league wants to win, but does not have to win to have a financial success. Consider the N.F.L. The league is essentially a coalition of the 32 teams. The commissioner is at the service of the owners and promotes their interests. It is essentially a cartel, with registration by invitation only. Unlike the major soccer leagues around the world, there is no promotion or relegation from the American sports championships. Unlike corporations, these leagues do not face much real competition from avant-gardes and rivals.

MATHESON: So, first of all, we see that the leagues are actively trying to crush their competition.

Once again, there is the sports economist Victor Matheson.

MATHESON: We had the N.F.L. drive the U.S.F.L. out of the market in 1985, at least partly through nefarious means. Partially through the fairly incompetent management of the United States. – Probably driven by New Jersey owner U.S.F.L. team of course, Donald Trump.

You might think that an economist would oppose this lack of competition. You might think he would consider this behavior to be completely collusive.

MATHESON: So sport is really interesting because you actually need a certain level of collusion between teams just to make the product work, right? So this is not Apple and Samsung, right? Apple really wants to eradicate Samsung from its business so that it can grab the entire mobile phone market. And Samsung wants to do the same thing with Apple. But the New York Yankees do not want to kick the Boston Red Sox because they need someone to play, and you have to figure out how you'll manage your league so you can create a good entertainment product.

The product of N.F.L. it is certifiable and therefore certifiable profitable. It is important to stress that this profit is shared equally between the 32 teams. Local revenue varies, but each team gets a 1/3 of the national revenue cut that includes money from TV rights, sponsorships, licenses and sales of goods. Last year, the total national revenue of N.F.L. it was over $ 8 billion, with each team receiving more than $ 250 million. And that $ 250 million check from the league: it's your part if you win every game, half of your games or none. When Jed York's grandfather bought the San Francisco 49ers in 1977, he paid $ 17 million.

YORK: Obviously the team is probably worth more than $ 17 million today.

Quite right: Forbes estimates the value of the 49ers to $ 3 billion, making it the tenth most valuable sports team in the world. This is without having won a Super Bowl since 1995. And this is with two winning games in 2016. What would happen if a football team in the English Premier League did it? They would have been relegated to a lower league and their finances would have crumbled. The Premier League would give them the so-called parachute payment, to help them avoid bankruptcy, but they would have to sell their best players. An N.F.L. team that only wins two games, meanwhile, still gets $ 250 million of control from the home office.

AT GUIDO: I actually joke with my English Premier friends.

That is Al Guido, the president of the 49ers.

GUIDO: Not only: when we lose, we actually receive better draft choices. They are actually relegated and have to try and get back on.

DUBNER: So the football business – I'd like to be a N.F.L. owner because it's a kind of closed model, right? If you are inside, you can not literally lose. I mean, can you lose money in N.F.L?

GUIDO: Of course, if you are one of the lower level clubs, it is difficult. For your point, it's rather difficult.

I asked Guido to describe his duties as club president.

GUIDO: I supervise everything that is not football. So if you think about the sales, marketing, G. and A. functions of the team –

DUBNER: G. and A. is it?

GUIDO: general administrative. So finance, human resources, legal, insurance, all these things. Development of the territory

The development of the territory in particular is a great piece of the value proposition of the 49ers, as it is for many sports franchises. It is no coincidence that so many team owners have made their money in real estate. This includes the late grandfather of Jed York.

YORK: He was one of the first to bring the center into the suburbs and he really surrounded a shopping center and built a great empire.

At one level, own a N.F.L. the team is a real estate game. Yes, athletes are required to play the game. But athletes come and go. The stadium is the constant, and is a cash cow on at least three dimensions: as a stage for lucrative TV contracts, as a venue for live events, obviously including football games, and as a sponsorship opportunity. In 2014, the 49ers were built and moved to a state-of-the-art 1.3 billion dollar stadium. Now it's called Levi's Stadium, after the jeans manufacturer paid $ 220 million for a 10-year naming agreement. Some of that money goes to the new hometown of the 49ers, Santa Clara, which is located in Silicon Valley. It's about an hour south of San Francisco, where the 49ers had been playing since 1946.

YORK: We would have liked to stay in the city of San Francisco. We have reviewed over 85 sites in the Bay Area. There's a lot of work that concerns him from an environmental point of view, from a government point of view.

DUBNER: When it was announced that you were going to build the stadium down here, what was the general public response?

YORK: It was not a very positive answer, because people wanted us to stay in the city.

DUBNER: And how did you portray yourself? Greedy? How not faithful? What?

YORK: Probably more than the non-loyal, because in terms of greed there was very, very little public heritage placed in the building.

A modern stadium like Levi's can generate much more revenue than an old studio, thanks to the luxury suites and the willingness of fans to pre-purchase seasonal tickets. The 49ers, like most teams, do not just sell you tickets; First you have to buy what is called a "personal license", which allows you to buy tickets. When Levi's Stadium opened, those licenses were sold for $ 2,000 to $ 80,000 per seat, depending on location.

GUIDO: about 95-96 percent of the building is sold out on seasonal tickets.

DUBNER: And how do you compare this percentage with the other N.F.L. stadiums? Is it typical or a little high?

GUIDO: Oh, it's very tall. Very high. Yes, we are in the first quartile of the income of the team inside the N.F.L.

Please note that N.F.L. the teams only have eight home games for regular season, with a couple of preseason matches and, if they are lucky, a playoff match or two. This is not a very efficient use of a resource as expensive as a brand new and technologically advanced stage. But do not worry: even the 49ers are active owners. Second Forbes, Levi & # 39; s Stadium in its first three years "hosted more non-N.F.L events … than any other new stadium." Here Bob Lange, the vice-president of communications of the 49ers, while offering us a tour of the stadium in May:

LANGE: Yes, we went straight from the monster truck to Taylor Swift last weekend, and as soon as Taylor Swift got off the pitch, they're putting down the clods. Because soon we will have a football match.

So, from the business point of view, the mid-2010 49ers were doing pretty well. Monetize their beautiful new real estate investment; taking their constant share of the billions of the N.F.L. The only problem was that their real football team stank. In three seasons, from 2014 to 2016, they won a total of only 15 games; The New England Patriots have won 14 games in 2016 alone, while the 49ers have won only two games. That was also the season in which the quarterback 49ers became the speech not only of the N.F.L., but of the entire country. Colin Kaepernick was removed only a few years after leading the 49ers at the Super Bowl. But with the collapse of the fortunes of the team, even his. He was put on the bench, then reinstalled as an appetizer, and then back on the bench. He asked to be traded, but the team refused.

This sort of controversy is a standard problem on N.F.L. teams. But then Kaepernick launched an entirely non-standard controversy. It started after a series of high-profile shootings of African-American police. During the national anthem that is played just before each N.F.L. game, Kaepernick sat on the bench rather than standing along the side line with his teammates. He later moved his protest from sitting to his knees during the anthem. He said he was not interested in "getting up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses blacks and black people".

Colin KAEPERNICK: There are people who are killed unjustly and can not be held responsible. The policemen get paid for killing people. It's not right.

As you probably know, this has become a big problem.

JOURNALIST: Colin Kaepernick's protest against racial injustice seems to be gaining ground.

Other players throughout the league have begun to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick. The protests of the hymns became a political football, turning real football into a secondary event and, to a certain extent, into a victim: a slip in the NFL votes was attributed, at least in part, to the protests of the anthem – though, To be fair, the NFL rankings were much lower than most TV shows. The same Kaepernick was finally released by the 49ers, and was not collected by any other N.F.L. team, despite having strong career numbers. Kaepernick accused the blackballing league and filed a case of collusion, which is still unstable today. I asked the owner of 49ers Jed York on the Kaepernick dispute.

YORK: When you look at African Americans in particular and people of racial minorities and police shootings, there are some things that are not really good in our country. Colin probably took a different approach than I would have taken, but he certainly drew attention to the subject. And I understand where the angry people were who did an action during the national anthem.

But when I look at where Colin left, when I sat down during the national anthem, he changed his position to do something that – It's hard for me to see a knee – If you can come with a community or company to take a knee is a disrespectful act, by any means show me. So, I mean, I feel like I'm trying to change his position to be as respectful as possible during a very, very sacrosanct moment during a professional football game. And I think the narrative type has gone out of control.

DUBNER: And then you have something that five years ago nobody could have foreseen:

TRUMP: You would not like to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when someone lacks respect for our flag, to say: "Take that son of a bitch away from the field".

DUBNER: Do you talk about it, your communication with the White House, if there are any, and how did it hit you?

YORK: So we had no direct communication with the White House. The N.F.L. The league office might have it, we did not do it. The position we took was, whether you are for or against someone who takes a knee during the national anthem, you have the constitutional right to be able to do it. Now that does not mean you're immune to the repercussions of your actions, but you have every right to do that and take that action.

DUBNER: Now there is a lawsuit that denounces collusion between the owners. Tell me what you can or do not know about this.

YORK: It's really hard to get into something that's a lawsuit going on. I know that for us, Colin was kneeling before regaining his starting position with us. So what was your political position had nothing to do –

DUBNER: So, it was not starting, then the protests started, then it started again.

YORK: correct. Yup.

DUBNER: But he finished the season then as a starter or –

YORK: He did it, he finished the season as a starter with us.

DUBNER: So, it would seem that there is evidence that there was no effort on the part of the 49ers to diminish their professional skills, right? I mean opportunity-

YORK: I certainly do not think there were any, and we did not have any negative conversations with other teams saying "Do not sign Colin". We will not do it with Colin, we would not do it with anyone else.

DUBNER: Have you been deposed?

YORK: I was not.

DUBNER: In collusion, has any of the Niner been deposed in the event of a collusion?

YORK: I do not believe it.

Between the saga of Kaepernick and their worst season in many years, the 49ers were ready for big changes. Just hiring a new coach every year did not work. So, they realized:

Paraag MARATHE: What could be best is to start from scratch and do a complete reboot, because doing half of it each time was not the one that was giving us the right answer.

This is Paraag Marathe.

MARATHE: And so the best way to do it is to rebuild it from below.

Marathe is, unofficially, Jed York's right-hand man. And officially?

MARATHE: I'm president of the 49ers companies and executive vice president of football operations.

Marathe has worked with the 49ers since 2001. She previously worked as a management consultant at the I.M.G. Sports agency; his M.B.A. he is from Stanford, his university degree from Berkeley, and grew up nearby, in Saratoga, the son of Indian immigrants. His father was an engineer who, when Paraag was 10, decided he wanted to start a family business.

Marathe: The American dream, right, start a new business. And we voted in the family: my father was a gas station, my mother was a party, my sister and I were pizza chefs. So we bought a pizza restaurant.

DUBNER: And in the end you were managing the place, did I get it?

MARATHE: I was managing the place when I was 12 or 13 years old. But it was fun. I had hired a lot of my friends, so we all worked there and ran a pizza restaurant.

DUBNER: What laws on child labor?

MARATHE: Exactly. So I also delivered pizzas, like a high school child. So, I literally know every street in Saratoga. In fact, if you provide me with a home address, I'll probably tell you the phone number or vice versa. Seriously.

With the 49ers, Marathe has been involved in everything from the contractual negotiations to the salary cap management to the analysis department. When the team hit the bottom in 2016, he and Jed York recognized that they needed to hire another new coach – the fourth of the team in four years – but they also needed a new general manager. This is the person responsible for deciding which players to get and which to eliminate; what kind of contracts they could afford and stay below the salary cap. They also realized that they had to rethink the alliance between coach and G.M., to make sure they were rowing in the same direction.

MARATHE: We did a lot of research on successful organizations and what made them work, and what did not. And one of the things that was of paramount importance is first of all a coach and a general manager who were in the same life cycle of their careers, so you do not think about saving your job, and you do not think about trying to put yourself to the test, right?

And another thing was the way: you have different structures in each club: sometimes the G.M. it's at the top and the head coach is underneath, sometimes it's the other way around. We wanted to install it where they were partners. And they complemented each other on what their respective skill set would be.

And then we went out and we looked at all the sports and thought, what are the key attributes of a head coach we are looking for? What are the key personality rates and key skills sets? The same thing in a G.M. So we gave each candidate a list of 10 skills from a coach or a GM, and we said, "We want you to classify these from 1 to 10, not how important they are, but how good you are with them. by the way, you have to be one in 10 on something, and you have to be 10 out of 10 on something. "And they were not the answers so much that we cared about how they got there and how they talked about it later.

DUBNER: Some guys could not put one down?

MARATHE: Così tanti ragazzi hanno fatto uno, due, tre, quattro e poi sei punti per cinque. Perché non potrebbero essere peggiori di niente. Right? Era solo quella conversazione che non potevano permettersi consapevolmente di essere cattivi in ​​qualcosa.

Ma alla fine i 49ers hanno trovato qualcuno che conosceva i propri limiti.

SHANAHAN: Sto sempre dando per scontato che questa cosa brutta succeda, cosa facciamo per prepararci?

E questo è:

SHANAHAN: Kyle Shanahan, capo allenatore, 49ers.

Shanahan ha solo 38 anni e non è mai stato un allenatore. Ma era stato un coordinatore offensivo di grande successo per alcune squadre – e, non senza importanza, è figlio di un successo N.F.L. capo allenatore, Mike Shanahan.

SHANAHAN: Crescendo, ero in giro per il calcio tutta la mia vita.

Mike Shanahan ha vinto due Super Bowls come capo allenatore dei Denver Broncos. Era anche il coordinatore offensivo per i 49ers, quando hanno vinto il loro ultimo Super Bowl. Il che significava che Kyle Shanahan andava alle superiori qui, nella zona di San Francisco. In effetti, quando era un bambino – questo è a proposito di nulla, ma è troppo bello per non dirlo – quando Kyle Shanahan era un bambino, andava a fare la pizza nella pizzeria gestita da un altro ragazzino, Paraag Marathe, l'uomo che alla fine avrebbe assunto Shanahan per allenare i 49ers.

MARATHE: hai fatto i compiti.

All'inizio del 2017, poiché i 49ers stavano decidendo di dare a Kyle Shanahan il suo primo incarico di head coaching, era piuttosto impegnato – come coordinatore offensivo degli Atlanta Falcons, che si stavano preparando a giocare nel Super Bowl contro i New England Patriots. Paraag Marathe e Jed York, tuttavia, volevano davvero l'input di Shanahan su chi avrebbero dovuto assumere come G.M.

SHANAHAN: Sono come, "Puoi incontrare questo G.M.? Puoi incontrare questo ragazzo? "No, mi sto preparando per una partita di playoff, preparandomi per il Super Bowl. È stato molto stressante per me.

Poi, improvvisamente, Shanahan ha ricevuto un messaggio da qualcuno – un ex N.F.L. grande che ora era un giornalista di football, e che era un grande fan di Kyle Shanahan.

John LYNCH: Ho sempre pensato che fosse uno di quei ragazzi che era un passo avanti rispetto alla concorrenza.

E questo è:

LYNCH: Mi chiamo John Lynch.

DUBNER: Per anni ho pensato che il tuo vero nome fosse "duro". Sembrava che non dicessero mai "John Lynch" senza "colpire duramente John Lynch".

Lynch si è ritirato come N.F.L. giocatore nel 2008 e ora stava chiamando i giochi per Fox.

LYNCH: Ho avuto una buona carriera nel mondo delle trasmissioni, ed erano grandi per me. E ho amato ogni secondo di esso.

DUBNER: Ma hai perso la competizione?

LYNCH: L'ho fatto. L'ho fatto. Everybody I think at certain points, at year’s end, you do a little self-evaluation and say, “Oh gosh, my life’s really going well. I got a great family, I’m proud of my kids, I got a great marriage, loving broadcasting —”

DUBNER: “But what’s my win-loss record?”

LYNCH: Yeah, exactly. And there was always a “but” that was a little unfulfilling.

When Lynch heard that Kyle Shanahan had been offered the 49ers’ head-coaching job, he called to congratulate him.

LYNCH: And I had seen something the day before that he was struggling with finding someone he wanted to work with as a general manager and I just threw out there at the end of our conversation — I said, “Hey, maybe I’d do it.”

SHANAHAN: And he was very polite about it, and he was like, “If you already got a guy, just don’t even worry about it, but I just want you to know I’d be very interested.” And I went downstairs, and I remember telling my parents — who know John, because my dad coached him — and he’s like, “What’d Lynch have to say?” And I was like, “Said he wants to be a G.M.” And my dad’s like, “Oh, what do you think of that?” And I’m like, “I think I really like that.” And it took a lot of anxiety away, because all I want is someone who loves football, who is smart and capable of doing it, and someone that you can work together with.

John Lynch as G.M. was a bit of a stretch — he’d never been a football coach or executive. But he had been a great player, and he was smart — he played his college football at Stanford. There was one more thing going for Lynch.

MARATHE: He’s just a presence.

Paraag Marathe again.

MARATHE: He has such amazing presence. You just — you’re around him for half an hour, and it makes you want to be a better version of yourself.

And so it came to pass that in early 2017, a few weeks after firing their previous head coach and general manager, the 49ers had their new leadership duo: an up-and-coming young coach and an inspiring first-time G.M. Now all they had to do was get the kind of players who could win them some football games. Like this guy.

Solomon THOMAS: Solomon Thomas, I play defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers.

Thomas was born in Chicago; then his family moved to Australia for several years; and then to Texas. He was a big kid — so, naturally, in Texas:

THOMAS: Someone was like, “Why aren’t you playing football?” And I was like, “I really don’t know what football is.” So, we signed up, did the Pop Warner football thing, and first practice, just going out there, was tackling basically the guy in front of me, because I didn’t I know what to do. I didn’t know you were supposed to tackle the guy with the ball.

But Thomas figured out the game pretty quickly and was eventually recruited to play at Stanford. If you’ve begun to think there’s a bit of a Stanford mafia within the 49ers organization, you might not be wrong. It also might not be a total coincidence. In one of his first classes at Stanford, Thomas recognized an older guy sitting up front.

THOMAS: And we’re like, “Who’s that? Oh crap, that’s John Lynch.” And kind of a little starstruck.

Hard-hitting John Lynch, now in his 40’s and in his broadcasting phase, had gone back to Stanford to complete his degree. A couple years later, as the brand-new G.M. of the 49ers, the first player Lynch drafted, with the third overall pick, was Solomon Thomas.

THOMAS: It was just totally a dream come true, it was like —

DUBNER: And he’s was like, “This is your former classmate, John Lynch,” was it him or Shanahan who called you?

THOMAS: John called me first and said, “Hey, classmate,” and then, yeah. It was pretty insane.

Thomas was one of the key young players the 49ers were rebuilding their defense around. The offense, meanwhile — that was Kyle Shanahan’s specialty — the offense needed even more help, especially at quarterback.

SHANAHAN: I mean, that’s the toughest, to me, position in the world. And there’s 32 teams and there isn’t 32 people who can play that position at the level needed.

GUIDO: I mean, if you look at the A.F.C., I think over the last 17 or 19 years, it’s basically been three quarterbacks. So it’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. Sprinkle in a few Joe Flaccos. And that’s it.

With Colin Kaepernick gone, the 49ers’ best quarterback options were C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer — neither of whom were very good options. But Shanahan and John Lynch and the whole organization knew it’d be hard work to turn things around. And if there’s anything Kyle Shanahan is really, really good at, it’s working hard.

SHANAHAN: During the season Mondays, I’m usually in about 5:30 every day. I leave on a Monday at 11:00, on a Tuesday at midnight, on a Wednesday at midnight, on a Thursday at 9:30, and on Friday, I leave at 2:30. Friday is like my weekend, where I get home at about 3:30, and that’s the night I kind of hang out with my kids. Saturday, I’m in at 5:30, we’re usually traveling somewhere, or we have meetings and a walk-through. I go home for two hours, then go to the hotel.

DUBNER: You spend the night at the team hotel on Saturdays?

SHANAHAN: Yeah, everyone does. And then on Sundays, I’m over at the stadium very early in the morning.

DUBNER: So I have to say, you hear these stories forever about coaches literally sleeping in their offices, working these hours that you described. I think anybody listening this, those hours sound totally nuts.

SHANAHAN: Yeah.

DUBNER: And my thought is always, “Does it really have to be that way?” For people who don’t know the game or care about it and they hear, “Wait a minute, you’re a football coach, why do you need to be working 18 hours?” What are you doing?

SHANAHAN: On a Monday, as a head coach, I need to watch the game for myself, which is offensive-side, defensive-side, special teams. It’s rewind, fast-forward, sideline copy and there’s three clips before we get past one play on one side of the ball. And I’ve got to watch it with the coaches. And then when that is done, I’ve got to get the whole team together and I got to watch certain clips of the team from head-coach standpoint. Anyways, it takes all Monday, all right, it takes all Monday. And now we’ve got to start watching Seattle, who we play the next Sunday.

For the next several minutes, Shanahan describes, in exhausting detail, the rest of the week:

SHANAHAN: Well, I teach the pass game from 8 to 9, then we teach the run game from 9 to 10. Then our special-teams coach comes in from 10 to 10:45 to teach special teams. Then we go out on the field and we have to walk through all that new stuff we learned. Then we come back in and we eat lunch. Then we go out and have a real practice. Now before tomorrow, we got to go study third-downs. We’ve got to study short-yardage goal line. We’ve got to draw it out, the plan, put them on cards how we’re going to practice tomorrow. We only do red zone on Thursday night. So, Friday, same process. … 11 guys versus 11 guys. It’s infinite how many different things you can do and if one guy is off, the play doesn’t work on either side of the ball. And if that play doesn’t work, it could be a hurt quarterback, it could be a touchdown. That could be the reason you’re telling your second-grade daughter that she’s moving next week. … Yeah, there’s not many other ways to do it. I know it’s embarrassing. We’re not doctors, we’re P.E. teachers. I don’t try to explain it to people much, because it’s laughable. And —

DUBNER: Has anybody ever tried, has any coach ever said, “You know what, maybe all those hours that we’re working, if we slept more, we’d be sharper and try to make up for it that way?” Has anybody ever tried a totally different approach?

SHANAHAN: Yeah, totally.

DUBNER: And those are no longer coaching —

SHANAHAN: Guys you would never know their name. Because they don’t last long. And, I mean, it’s okay if we’re tired and we barely can function. We don’t have to perform the play. It’s us wearing our brains out all week to put our players in the best opportunity possible for them to be successful.

*      *     *

In September of 2017, the iconic San Francisco 49ers franchise was ready for their renaissance. They had a new coach, new general manager, many new players, a gorgeous and relatively new stadium, and seemingly all sorts of wind at their back. Then they played their first game. They got crushed by the Carolina Panthers, 23 to 3.

ANNOUNCER: Kyle’s fine, this team will be fine. It’s in good hands with John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan. They’re young and new, they’re going to get better as the season goes on.

But things didn’t get better. The 49ers lost again:

ANNOUNCER: Touchdown, Arizona! Cardinals win!

And again:

ANNOUNCER: It is good! Colts have won it in overtime!

And again and again. Six straight losses to open the season. Amazingly, the last five all were by three points or less.

LYNCH: I mean, that’s hard on a head coach.

John Lynch, the rookie general manager, was worried about his rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan.

LYNCH: And I think a big part of my job the first year was being a psychologist to him. You’ve waited your whole life to do this. And now, all of a sudden, in a historic fashion, we lost five games by three points or less and it had never been done in this league.

How should you interpret those five close losses? Were the 2017 San Francisco 49ers still catastrophically bad — or were they really close to turning the corner? The next few games answered that question:

ANNOUNCER: Largest margin of victory over the 49ers, going all the way back to 1980.

The 49ers had begun their supposed turnaround season 0-9. This affected everyone in the building. And their families. Including Al Guido’s nine-year-old daughter.

GUIDO: So the kids will either make fun of my daughter, right, or if she wears the 49ers stuff, they’ll be like, “The 49ers stink. What’s your dad doing,” type of thing.

SHANAHAN: I mean, when you lose a game, a lot of noise happens

That’s coach Shanahan again:

SHANAHAN: Not just from media members and talk-show hosts, but from family members, from anybody. When you lose two, a ton happens. Usually three’s like armageddon. Try nine. And it happens to where, I mean your wife hears the radio all day, she reads stuff, she — eventually you get home, and everyone’s been saying that their husband sucks so bad and she wants to know why. And eventually, you say, “It wasn’t me, it was this position.” She eventually says that to another wife and that’s how teams get torn apart.

THOMAS: I’ve never lost that many games before, in the season or over my career. And so that was different.

That was defensive end Solomon Thomas. And here’s the linebacker Malcolm Smith.

Malcolm SMITH: No, it was miserable. Miserable. And I actually wasn’t playing, I was on injured reserve, so it was like —

DUBNER: So you were out all last year?

SMITH: Helpless, yeah. I’d say I was taking it harder than some of the guys on the field. You’re watching, you feel like you can’t do anything.

Joe Staley, the offensive lineman who sings — he was also hurt. Staley played through it, didn’t miss a game, but he started talking about quitting football when the season was over.

STALEY: I was in year 11, I was on my sixth head coach. We’re I think, at this time like 0-7, and it was just like I had mental lapse of weakness there where I was just the adversity got to me.

Kyle JUSZCZYK: Definitely super frustrating, not how we expected things to start.

That’s the fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

JUSZCZYK: But you’d be surprised just how positive things stayed around here. It was pretty incredible.

Juszczyk, who played his college football at Harvard, was also hurt last season. In the third game, he got a concussion.

JUSZCZYK: So, we were playing the L.A. Rams, and we are on the goal line and smacked my head with their linebacker and just had a really, it was really weird. It was almost like a bell just ringing. I remember feeling like a tuning fork. I’m pretty shook up, but I’m sitting in the huddle and I’m definitely messed up. But do I sit down and wait for the trainer or do I, let’s just run this next play and then I’ll figure it out after that? Well, it all happened so quickly I stayed in and I ran the next play. And it was the worst decision. Same thing, ran into linebacker and that one finally put me out, where I was unconscious for a second and then had to get taken in by the trainers and all that kind of stuff.

DUBNER: Wow, do you regret, it sounds like you regret the decision?

JUSZCZYK: The second play, definitely. I should’ve taken myself out, but things happen so quickly.

DUBNER: How much of it is also just macho?

JUSZCZYK: There’s a little bit of pride in there, which is stupid, because there shouldn’t be.

DUBNER: That’s changing, I gather, in the N.F.L.?

JUSZCZYK: It definitely is changing. There’s no shame in taking yourself out in that situation, your brain is way too important for this kind of stuff. And I think guys are starting to understand that a lot more — but it’s still I think so ingrained in all of us that there’s a little bit of that pride that still keeps guys in there.

As Juszczyk was recuperating from his concussion, the 49ers’ season kept getting worse. And yet, he says, Kyle Shanahan managed to keep his 0-9 team from turning on each other, or on themselves.

JUSZCZYK: Nobody was walking on eggshells here, we were still very confident that we were moving in the right direction. And every week Kyle would pull up some clips to show like, “We’re making progress, I swear guys. Hey, just stick to it and it’s going to turn around.”

DUBNER: I have to say that just sounds like exactly the opposite of what lay people think about football coaches.

JUSZCZYK: Yeah.

DUBNER: We think you could have a pretty good game, and then they call you in and show you, “This is the block you missed,” and so on.

JUSZCZYK: Oh, that definitely exists. And I’ve definitely been a part of that too. But, I almost feel like it’s more of a kind of a new-age thinking of this more positive feedback and I know it definitely resonates with me. I’ve never gotten much from a coach that’s just screaming at me and telling me how terrible I am. I do not know. That just doesn’t work for me.

LYNCH: Kyle and I kept saying to each other, like we can go in there and throw a fit and throw water coolers.

General manager John Lynch again.

LYNCH: But those guys were giving outstanding attitude each day.

And here’s Kyle Shanahan:

SHANAHAN: We took over a 2-14 team. We knew we had a long way to work, we didn’t expect to be 0-9, but we’re going to keep working and not reinvent the wheel.

DUBNER: We’ve heard from everybody in the building that it was a remarkably positive locker room. And most people attribute that to you. So, I’m curious to hear what you did specifically to make that happen.

SHANAHAN: I don’t know if I did a good job. It was my first time in that situation and I think every situation is different. I mean, people act like, there’s a book or something to handle situations, you’ve got to adjust to what the situation is, and you don’t know that until you’re in it.

One big reason the 49ers were in that situation is they didn’t have a quality quarterback. And, as Shanahan told us:

SHANAHAN: I mean, that’s the toughest, to me, position in the world. And there’s 32 teams and there isn’t 32 people who can play that position at the level needed.

But remember: in the N.F.L., as in all the big American sports leagues, the worse a team’s record is at the end of the season, the better positioned they’ll be to draft the best players from college.

SHANAHAN: We were 0-9. I knew we were going to be in the position to have a high draft pick, a lot of quarterbacks were coming out that we knew were going to go in the first round.

But there was a quarterback already in the N.F.L. who Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch thought could be a good fit for the 49ers.

LYNCH: Yeah, Kyle studied him out of college.

SHANAHAN: I studied the heck out of him coming out of college.

LYNCH: He was one of the guys who kept showing up on Kyle’s teach tapes, in terms of the quick release, the accuracy of the traits you’re looking for in quarterbacks.

This quarterback was in his fourth season in the N.F.L., but he’d barely played at all. That’s because he was the backup to one of the most successful quarterbacks in history: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Brady had just turned 40 years old, but he’d declared that he did not plan to retire anytime soon. And this declaration apparently made the backup quarterback — the heir apparent to Brady — expendable. Here’s 49ers owner Jed York:

YORK: It’s hard to see into somebody else’s building and know where they are and what they’re doing. But when you have Tom Brady, and Tom says he wants to play another four or five years that’s a very, very difficult decision to make for the Patriots.

I asked Shanahan and Lynch how surprised they were to learn that a quarterback they coveted had suddenly become available for trade?

SHANAHAN: I was surprised just because we checked earlier in the year and he wasn’t then, and then it happened just a day or two days before the trade deadline.

LYNCH: We called the Patriots about him, we quickly got shut down. They were not interested in get rid of him. I don’t blame them. And something changed, and we were the beneficiary of that. And people called it genius. If that’s genius, I don’t know. We got lucky.

This quarterback’s name is Jimmy Garoppolo.

GAROPPOLO: What’s up guys.

Garoppolo’s agent — who happens to also be Tom Brady’s agent — called to tell him he’d been traded to the 49ers. But Garoppolo didn’t pick up.

GAROPPOLO: I took a nap, woke up to 100 text messages, 100 missed calls.

DUBNER: How long was your nap?

GAROPPOLO: It wasn’t that long, I swear. You go through so many emotions initially, because you don’t know what’s going on. I’ve never been in this situation before. Your emotions are going wild. But next thing I knew, I was a 49er, and the rest is history.

Garoppolo wasn’t expected to play right away, maybe not even until next season. He had to learn the 49ers offense from scratch, and Shanahan saw no reason to rush their quarterback of the future, and maybe get him hurt. And then, in the 10th game of the season, the 49ers finally won, behind quarterback C.J. Beathard. But the following week, they were getting beaten badly, and then Beathard got hurt. There was no way to salvage the victory. Shanahan sent Garoppolo in anyway.

ANNOUNCER: Garoppolo, moving to his left, looking toward the end zone, he throws, touchdown!

SHANAHAN: We’re walking off the field and the crowd is cheering, and we just got blown out, and our fans are excited.

Okay, so now the 49ers are 1-10. In the next game, Garoppolo gets his first start:

ANNOUNCER: Garoppolo over the middle, caught by Taylor! First down and more.

The 49ers beat the Chicago Bears, 15-14. Here’s Solomon Thomas:

THOMAS: It was just, a win felt so good and it was something that we didn’t want to take for granted and something that we always wanted to keep feeling.

The next game, Jimmy Garoppolo passed for 334 yards, and the 49ers won again.

THOMAS: And we got on a roll and Jimmy came in, was doing incredible. That motivated the team as well and it was pretty special.

With Garoppolo leading the way, the San Francisco 49ers won five straight games — including three against playoff-bound teams — and they finished the season at 6-10.

ANNOUNCER: See you later! Touchdown San Francisco!

What are the odds of a team losing their first nine games and then winning their last five? You can’t count that high.

MARATHE: It’s not like Jimmy was the savior, right? It’s the whole team.

Paraag Marathe again.

MARATHE: And every single player played better, had more confidence, and saw the culmination of their hard work and patience that they had towards the vision sort of come to fruition. Jimmy was the catalyst, the first spark plug, but it really ignited the whole team.

Here’s Joe Staley:

STALEY: I mean it was huge for our team last year to finish the way we did. Jimmy coming in really made a huge difference for us.

And Kyle Juszczyk:

JUSZCZYK: I think you really got to give Jimmy a lot of credit. I mean, he put in serious time, after practice, with the coaches, by himself. I mean, he was here all night just trying to learn this playbook.

And Jed York, the owner:

YORK: I mean, it was very clear that Jimmy was a guy that took everybody’s attention on the field. Like the guys gravitated towards him. And he’s a natural leader.

As a reward, Jimmy Garoppolo — having sat on the bench for four seasons in New England, and then started a grand total of five games for San Francisco — Garoppolo signed a five-year contract worth $137.5 million. It was at that point the richest contract in N.F.L. history.

GAROPPOLO: For the most part I just go out and do my thing. All the outside noise, it’s just noise. If you get caught up in all that stuff, you’re going to have a tough time. The N.F.L.’s hard enough as it is.

DUBNER: From everything that we’ve heard, from everyone on the exec side and on the players side, you’re some combination of Y.A. Tittle and Superman and Jesus Christ, people just gather around you and love you.

GAROPPOLO: That’s a hell of a combo right there.

DUBNER: It’s a pretty good combo.

GAROPPOLO: Yeah, I think I’ve never really tried to fake it or be, I don’t know, someone that I’m not, because guys, especially in a N.F.L. locker room, they see right through that. They’re not dumb. So, you just have to be yourself. I do not know. I’ve always thought myself as one of the guys and I think that plays a big part in it.

It had been a bizarre season for the 49ers. The deepest gloom replaced, almost overnight, by the brightest of futures. But now, there was a question: what, exactly, are the San Francisco 49ers? Are they the best 6-10 team in history, the team that won their last 5 games? Or are they — well, a 6-10 team? Teams that go 6-10 one year aren’t very likely to win the Super Bowl the next year. Although sport being sport, crazy things do happen. That’s one reason we like it. So what happens this year? Back in May when we visited the 49ers, I’d asked York and everyone else to predict how the team would finish this year. Their answers were, to me at least, remarkable. And they probably said a lot about what kind of mindset you need to run a team, and the mindset of a working athlete. Here’s how the executives — York, Guido, Lynch, and Marathe — answered when I asked about their expectations:

YORK: I think, you never know what’s going to happen in an N.F.L. season, but it’s really about getting better each and every game.

GUIDO: I don’t have any predictions on wins or losses.

LYNCH: I don’t want to put a number on it.

MARATHE: That we continue to stay on the path. If we were still building toward something and it didn’t necessarily lead to wins, that’s okay.

I think you’d agree the executives are the definition of noncommittal. And here are the players. They, I think you’d agree, are anything but noncommittal. Here, in order, are Solomon Thomas, Kyle Juszczyk, Malcolm Smith, and Joe Staley.

THOMAS: Our goal is to win it all. And I feel like we have the potential to do that.

JUSZCZYK: I got high expectations. I expect to win. I think you can already that things feel a lot different than they did last year.

SMITH: The ultimate success would be the Super Bowl.

STALEY: I always think of it as a Super Bowl.

We also spoke with the 49ers placekicker, Robbie Gould. one of the most accurate and productive kickers in the modern N.F.L. He’s been in the league since 2005, most of those years with the Chicago Bears. He’s grateful for his longevity and realistic about his future.

Robbie GOULD: I mean you can be here one day and gone the next. I mean, I got cut in Chicago on Labor Day weekend, after making the team and then the next day, it’s just how it is.

DUBNER: How high are your hopes for this year? Obviously you ended last year amazingly well.

GOULD: I think the expectations and the locker room and the field and the vibe is pretty high.

DUBNER: You think this team can win 10 games?

GOULD: I think they can win a Super Bowl. I think it’s just a matter of how bad do you want it? I’m not here to win a T-shirt and hat. I’m here to win a Tiffany’s trophy. That's all. That’s the only reason I’m here and if you are here for a T-shirt and hat, then I’ll buy you the T-shirt and hat, because I want the trophy.

In the N.F.L. season that’s just begun, the San Francisco 49ers lost their first game — on the road, against the favored Minnesota Vikings — and then beat the Detroit Lions at home — but barely, nearly blowing a big lead. As Jed York told me by e-mail after the game, “We need to finish better if we want to get to the promised land.”

Special thanks to Victor Matheson and all the 49ers, but especially Bob Lange, their V.P. of Communications.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Robbie Gould, placekicker for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Al Guido, president of the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Kyle Juszczyk, fullback for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Bob Lange, vice-president of communications for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • John Lynch, general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Paraag Marathe, president of 49ers enterprises executive vice-president of football operations for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Victor Matheson, economist at College of the Holy Cross.
  • Kyle Shanahan, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Malcolm Smith, linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Joe Staley, offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Solomon Thomas, defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Jed York, C.E.O. of the San Francisco 49ers.

RESOURCES

EXTRA


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