For those tracking the 49ers' rise to prominence, it was important to address this change considering it is one of those momentous, yet, hard-to-define elements in sports. While energy and mindset are vital components to a team's success, there is no tangible blueprint on how to achieve it.
It is not one of those things you can write into the game plan. Nevertheless, it is instrumental to a team's success. And the relevance here is that the 49ers just experienced that type of radical change, for the better, for a second time in franchise history.
As far as seeing the low-lows and the high-highs this league has to offer, the Faithful have witnessed dramatic environmental transformations before. The first being when coach Bill Walsh turned a 2-14 team into a 13-3 Super Bowl champion in just a few short years.
Imagine: a perennial loser rising to dethrone "America's Team"—that was part of the magic of their identity change under Walsh.
Fast-forward through five titles and the muggy years that followed, and Jim Harbaugh was able to breathe life into a team that was tragically misused under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. And just like that, a ballclub that went 37-59 from 2005-2010 had a chance to experience their own magic in 2011.
In the illustrious history of the 49ers, the sharpest changes in terms of the win-loss record from season to season were ignited by Walsh and Harbaugh, respectively. Yet, if you look at the personnel in place, there was a lot of carryover from rosters that previously failed to break .500.
So, keeping those two coaches in mind, and the impact they each had, we'll explore how San Francisco established and sustained a winning culture.
In terms of the mental approach, it is quite similar to the methodology of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, who professed that, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
Backed by their larger-than-life personalities, extraordinarily high football IQs and revered backgrounds, Walsh and Harbaugh instantly raised the standard in San Francisco with that age-old mindset. The goal is always perfection. However, if they were to come up just short, there is the belief that the finished product still might be good enough to be the best.
But those involved had to be ready to work. Right away, the intensified "preparation"—combined with the unpretentious “dedication” players had to have in order to stick around—was all part of the new regime. There were high expectations in the classroom, on the practice field, in the weight room and, most importantly, on game day.
Furthermore, if you failed to live up to team standards, it was not long before there was a waiver notification hanging in your locker. This is how football became less of a job for San Francisco’s 53 players and more of a way of life, which also goes to show why having a passion for the game is so important.
And once the players came to grips with what it took to win, and the losing stopped, they bought in even further to what the coaches were selling. It was their validating moment, wherein league-wide success suddenly became possible. Moreover, that commitment to winning—and the belief that every game was within their grasp—bred an expectation to win.
And it shows. Now the 49ers play to win, rather than trying not to lose.
In the video above, Zagaris pinpoints the proliferating effect that comes from winning (or losing for that matter). San Francisco’s win-loss trends over the years shows the 49ers experiencing both extremes of the spectrum, corroborating the snowball theory (via Pro Football Reference).
Like the saying goes, "When it rains, it pours."
Tracing their most recent turnaround, it is clear to see that the meat and potatoes of it occurred between Weeks 1-6 of the 2011 NFL season.
In the home opener versus the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers had blown a 16-0 lead by halftime, allowing their division rival to climb right back into the game and they were looking like the sputtering team of years past.
Clinging to a two-point lead with under four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown, followed by a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown. That sealed the victory for San Francisco, via NFL.com.
In Week 4 on the road versus the self-proclaimed “Dream Team” Eagles, the 49ers were down 23-3 in the third quarter, in danger of being handed a second consecutive loss and falling below .500 to start the season.
In the second half, big offensive plays in the passing game by Kendall Hunter, Josh Morgan and Vernon Davis, complemented by dependable running by Frank Gore, put the 49ers back in the ballgame. Not to mention, this was a real coming-of-age game for All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Behind a 112.1 QB rating, Alex Smith and the 49ers went on to score 21 unanswered points, toppling a highly touted Philadelphia team. The last-ditch forced fumble by Justin Smith was only the icing on the cake, solidifying one of the best team wins in the organization’s recent history.
With that said, Week 6 at Ford Field was still the defining moment, as the ‘Niners battled iconic WR Calvin Johnson and the undefeated Lions. Demonstrating a level of poise that had not been seen in quite some time, the 49ers went shot-for-shot with one of the more intimidating and explosive teams in the NFL that year, and won.
San Francisco became the first team to hold Megatron out of the end zone that season, while Smith, the formerly disregarded No. 1 overall pick from 2005, engineered a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback. On fourth-and-goal, with the game on the line, Smith made a pinpoint throw to steal the road win—first launching the “Are they the best team in the NFL?” question.
Not only was the talent there, but now the confidence existed, and the underlying belief that no matter the situation, they could pull through as a cohesive unit. This newfound expectation to win—portrayed through the team’s relentlessness on Sunday—has since made San Francisco a tough team to line up against.
Zagaris also touches on the "expectation to win" impacting the the personnel side of things…
In a first-class organization that has produced results, players are now willing to sign deals for the chance to win a Super Bowl. It is very similar to college recruiting in that respect. It is why high school players went to the University of Miami in the 80s and 90s and why Alabama and LSU get all of the top recruits nowadays.
Players want to win and they want to be a part of something great.
In this treatise by National Football Post writer Joel Corry, the ex-NFL agent elaborates on how the 49ers used extensions, contract language and negotiating tactics to get players like tight end Vernon Davis, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and tackle Anthony Davis signed long-term without breaking the bank.
Recently, San Francisco also managed to retain All-Pro DL Justin Smith at a premium, which Corry went on to call a “huge hometown discount.”
It has also lured esteemed veteran free agents on low-paying deals. In consecutive offseasons, wideout Randy Moss and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha both accepted minimal incentive-laden contracts to play with the ‘Niners, rather than joining Drew Brees in New Orleans. This would not have been the case only a few years ago.
In every conceivable way, the culture has changed in San Francisco.
Directed and produced by Dylan DeSimone and David Haladjian. Special thanks to the San Francisco 49ers, Michael Zagaris, the city of San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Library and the staff at Candlestick Park. Be sure to return to B/R for Parts III-V of this video series.