SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Just two years ago, head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch stripped the San Francisco 49ers down to the studs, ripping apart what remained of a tattered franchise with an eye toward a long-term and sustainable return to glory.
The growing pains that followed were to be expected, as the Niners went 10-22 over the past two seasons. Along the way, expectations were accelerated after a five-game winning streak to end 2017, then came crashing down when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost to a torn left ACL three games into last season.
Now, as the third year of the Shanahan and Lynch regime is set to begin, there’s no more time for talk of rebuilding, setting the culture or any other platitude that comes with a franchise reset.
It’s Year 3, and even though Shanahan and Lynch maintain the security that comes with matching six-year contracts, they are turning up the heat on themselves and their team when it comes down to the one thing that matters most in the NFL.
“We’re very happy with the people we have in this building, talentwise and characterwise,” Shanahan said. “That’s good, we’ve accomplished that part. Now we need to win some games.”
That’s a message Shanahan sent loud and clear to the 49ers roster long before it ever was discussed publicly. As part of that offseason speech, Shanahan made sure his players knew he believes in them and emphasized what is expected of them in Year 3.
That much was obvious in the days after the Niners reported for training camp. And it was hammered home by Shanahan’s repeated contention that this year’s cuts to 53 players would be the most difficult of his tenure, a sign of how far the roster has come.
Where conversations about setting a tone and building a culture once occupied most of the airspace in media sessions, the chatter was now focused on winning games and returning to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
“Now we’ve got to win,” left tackle Joe Staley said, echoing Shanahan. “I think the same thing. You get a new general manager, a new head coach in here, it’s going to take a year or two to get the people they want, the system they want, everybody is dialed in and last year was the year that we really felt like going into the year we really had the pieces in the right spot. I think we added a ton more this offseason, but it’s time to win. I think it’s been spoken by a lot of players this offseason. Expectations are really high.”
Coincidentally, the internal expectations for this 49ers team probably exceed those on the outside. The opposite was true last year, when the outside excitement over Garoppolo and 2017’s finishing flourish overshadowed what was internally viewed as a roster that still needed some major pieces to become a legitimate contender.
Alas, Garoppolo’s injury meant what should have been a season in the seven- or eight-win range, in which growing pains were suffered for the long-term good, was derailed before it ever got rolling.
Instead, the Niners won just four games, leaving outside observers to take a more skeptical approach going into this season. Most online and Las Vegas sportsbooks have the 49ers with an over/under for wins of 7.5 to 8.
Not that the 49ers mind no longer being the dark horse pick.
“I say it’s much harder to be the team with the most expectations than it is to be the team no one’s looking for,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “I prefer to be the team nobody’s looking for. Because you’re going with expectations, then no matter what you do, you’re not meeting them …
“I think that this team is prepared to be special, to make some noise. But you don’t need expectations to do that. I think guys going out there every day, you have to set the expectations inside the building and that has to be the most important thing.”
That doesn’t mean the Niners view the past two seasons as meaningless, though. In fact, most players believe there were important lessons to take away from those games, particularly the 11 one-possession defeats.
Sherman points to the importance of the reps younger players got as a result of the team’s seemingly never-ending injuries as something that could pay off as soon as this season.
Tight end George Kittle was encouraged by the fact that there have been no signs of fracture despite the losing, indicating a close team whose players care about one another.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk remembers near-misses in losses such as the 2017 defeat at Indianapolis, or last season’s game in Arizona, where the offense had an opportunity to put a game away and came up short. They haven’t been forgotten.
“You’re always preparing to win, but I think the change now is that we can recognize what those pivotal moments in the game are now,” Juszczyk said. “And we recognize that now it’s time that we come out on top on those three or four plays that really decide the game. And I feel like at this point, we’ve experienced so many of those close games and been on the wrong end of it, that we now know. All right, in this moment, this is our moment where we have to make this game-defining play.”
Buoying that internal belief is the return of Garoppolo and a roster Shanahan and Lynch believe is easily the strongest they’ve had since they’ve been in San Francisco.
Much of the 49ers’ fate in 2019 will fall on Garoppolo, who had his ups and downs in training camp and the preseason. His knee injury was devastating for the Niners, not only because it hurt their chances in 2018 but because it also cost Garoppolo the opportunity to get some much-needed games under his belt.
In many ways, Garoppolo, 27, is still the biggest question mark looming over the Niners’ chances in 2019 and beyond. How he fares will go a long way in determining whether Shanahan and Lynch can ultimately find success.
But it won’t be the only determining factor. The offseason brought an influx of talent at edge rusher in the form of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and running back Tevin Coleman are also expected to be difference-makers who can help turn some of those close losses into victories.
“I think we’ve put a lot of hard work in to improve our roster and I think we’ve been able to do that and what does that do, that gives you a chance,” Lynch said. “And that’s up to us what we make of that, but you know we’re better positioned. You call it pressure, you call it opportunity, I just think we’re all extremely excited to kick this year off and what lies ahead.”