How a Stanford professor helped lay the foundation for this 49ers era

For his first few frenetic months as the San Francisco 49ers’ general manager in 2017, John Lynch left his family behind in San Diego. His temporary home at the Santa Clara Marriott became a brainstorming center for reversing the fortunes of a moribund franchise.

The 49ers, coming off a 2-14 season, had perhaps the NFL’s worst roster. Lynch had no NFL front office experience. He’d have to learn on the fly with coach Kyle Shanahan, his new partner at the top of the 49ers’ power structure.

Tony Dungy, a coach under whom Lynch starred as a Hall of Fame safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recommended that he and Shanahan build an organic bond by watching as much film together as possible. So the duo immediately began watching hours of game tape. As the film rolled, they talked. They philosophized. They connected.

As the 49ers begin another playoff run, one can trace their current success — they’ve played in three of the past four NFC Championship Games — to the stream of football consciousness that flowed from Lynch and Shanahan during those marathon film sessions.

“I’m over here at the Marriott and I’m like, ‘God, we’ve got to capture these beliefs,’” Lynch said recently in his office.

The GM would remain restless until the 49ers could harness his and Shanahan’s confluence of knowledge in an efficient, usable way.

Then, the light came on. Lynch remembered Burke Robinson, a lecturer at nearby Stanford who’d been his instructor in a spring 2014 course called “The Art and Science of Decision Making.”

“I’m trying to think of how, and boom, I remember in Burke’s class on decision analysis, we did this deal on vision statements,” Lynch said. “I knew this is what we’ve got to do. Because that’s how you capture it all.

“Who better to go to than Burke?”

Over two-plus decades at Stanford, Robinson has taught his graduate-level course and advised students on significant life decisions. Lynch, who starred in football and baseball at Stanford from 1989 to 1992, returned to campus to resume his studies in 2014. He enrolled in Robinson’s class and worked on writing a vision statement for his immediate family.

“I think it’s the most valuable class that I took at Stanford or anywhere else,” Lynch said. “Burke’s a brilliant man, he really is. The basic fundamentals of just putting a framework to decisions is really invaluable because you can do it with anything in life.”

Robinson took the same principles he’s used to guide Silicon Valley businesses to his meeting with the 49ers. He joined Lynch and Shanahan in April 2017 at the team facility in the John McVay Draft Room, named after the GM who had worked with coach Bill Walsh to build the dynasty teams of the 1980s and 1990s.

The new regime’s first NFL Draft was coming up. It was time to solidify their sense of direction.

“I’ve advised some of these startups and they don’t have a vision of what they want to do,” Robinson said over lunch in Palo Alto near Stanford’s campus last month. “It’s like, ‘Hold on, you’re not just tech geeks designing features on some tech product. These have to add benefit to a customer somewhere. Where is the unmet market need that you’re going to satisfy? Where’s your vision for developing a product that meets the minimum set of needs and then advances from there?’

“It’s the same in companies and a football team. If you’re on a sailboat, you have to know which port you’re heading for.”

Robinson began by individually interviewing Lynch, Shanahan, 49ers CEO Jed York and executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe. He gauged the temperature of a franchise that was on its fourth head coach in four seasons and starved for organizational unity, which many within the franchise felt had been lacking under former general manager Trent Baalke.

When Jed York, far right, hired John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan in 2017, the 49ers were on their fourth coach in four years. (Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)

Lynch and Shanahan were then joined by 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters and senior personnel executive Martin Mayhew, all meeting with Robinson in the draft room. (Peters was hired last week as the Washington Commanders general manager; Mayhew was hired by the Commanders as their GM in 2021.)

This was the main event, where the 49ers would craft the vision statement that would set a tone of cohesion in the front office for years to come.

Robinson began by asking all four men to write down and share their top three proposed inclusions. Desired traits in players soon cluttered the whiteboard. Some ideas, like “speed,” pertained to the physical nuts and bolts of playing football. These naturally formed a grouping titled “49er Talent” on the left side. Others like “football passion — loves the game” and “contagious enthusiasm” were functions of player demeanor, so a grouping titled “49er Spirit” popped up on the right.

Shanahan, according to Robinson, was initially ambivalent about the whole exercise. He just wanted to continue watching film with Lynch.

“I get it,” Lynch remembers telling Shanahan, “but we have a bunch of scouts that we’ll be working with for the first time, so everybody in this building has got to know (what exactly we want in players). We’ve got to be able to articulate that. It’s got to be crystal clear.”

For about three hours, the four men brainstormed, discussed verbiage and voted on orders of importance for their inclusions. An early draft of their work looked like this.

Courtesy Burke Robinson.

After a recess, Robinson narrowed the exercise to just Lynch and Shanahan, who have made it a point to meet immediately after every 49ers game since their hirings.

“The conversations we had after Adam and Martin left were about how they’re going to work together,” Robinson said. “It’s easy to work together when you agree. But you’re going to have times when you don’t agree. You’re going to have to have a consistent message going up to the draft room, to the media, to the players. You can’t be telling the players one thing and the media another.”

Said Lynch: “Kyle came alive, which was cool. And then it got real, then it got good. We hit our stride. Burke started challenging us. And Kyle likes to be challenged. The last two hours were money, and this is what we walked out with.”

That more refined version of the vision statement listed “contagious competitiveness” as one of its primary player traits on the right side, and it’s probably the most distinct example of a marriage between separate thoughts from Shanahan and Lynch.

Shanahan wanted “competitiveness” to be a key trait, but he envisioned it falling in the talent column. Lynch was also insistent on including that trait, but — in keeping with his emphasis on culture — he wanted a juicier term that would fit in the spirit column.

“We want guys who compete every day, but everybody has that,” Lynch said. “We want it to permeate the whole team.

“Burke was great at leading us. He’s probably like, ‘These simpletons.’ But he wouldn’t say it for us. He’d say, ‘Come on, how do we capture it?’ And I’m like — ‘Oh, contagiously competitive.’”

Robinson noted that the entire foursome — plus York and Marathe in their interviews — emphasized the importance of the 49ers returning to their winning processes of the 1980s and 1990s. This tie to the franchise’s illustrious history became the North Star of the vision statement.

Our nucleus of dedicated players will reestablish The 49er Way and lead our organization back to the top of the NFL,” the top reads. “These players will represent our core values and beliefs in both their talent and spirit.”

Then there’s the closing sentence, which is underlined by silhouettes of the 49ers’ five Lombardi Trophies: “We firmly believe that players who embody these core values will change the culture and reestablish the 49er Way — a Brotherhood that will lead us back to competing for championships year after year.

The 49ers emblazoned the final version on a large wall chart, which they hung up in the McVay Room for the 2017 draft.

“We sat down looking to make something just for that first draft,” Lynch said. “Then we liked it so much, we said ‘Let’s make it the guiding light for our organization.’”

Said Robinson: “They wanted to be the role model for the NFL. They said, ‘We’re rebuilding what we used to have.’”

“Things like this aren’t just a piece of paper,” Lynch said, waving a laminated copy of an updated 49ers’ vision statement. “You start to see it come to life. And that’s when it’s really cool.”

The 49ers have made much of their vision statement a reality. They haven’t yet won a Super Bowl, but the barren roster Lynch and Shanahan inherited in 2017 is now one of the most talented outfits in the league. This season, the 49ers have nine Pro Bowlers and five first-team All-Pro selections, the most of any team in the NFL. The “49er Talent” column is thriving.

There’s also plentiful evidence of realized success on the “49er Spirit” side. Stories of the locker room’s cohesiveness have helped position the team for their best odds yet to win a Super Bowl under the current leadership.


Postgame locker room summits with Trent Williams and Nick Bosa: A 49ers fixture

It started with unity upstairs. A collaborative process between the coaching staff and scouting department has enabled the 49ers to target and land enough of the right players to make their system work, even as they’ve walked a tightrope around the salary cap with a formula that’s put pressure on hitting mid-to-late-round draft picks. The team has been exceptionally productive in the fifth round (tight end George Kittle and safety Talanoa Hufanga are two All-Pros selected there) and the seventh round (quarterback Brock Purdy was famously the last pick of the 2022 draft).

“Our scouts know they’ve been heard out — they know they’ve been listened to,” Lynch said. “That’s culture to me. And Kyle said it well when we first started the interview process: ‘Culture is the people you surround yourself with. We’ve got to bring quality people to have a great culture, and it will happen naturally once we start to do that.’”

When Lynch began his tenure as the 49ers’ GM, he didn’t have any executive experience. But he did have a wealth of observational knowledge collected from his time as a Fox broadcaster.

“People in football have this very focused, insular view,” Lynch said. “When I was a player, I knew how they did things in Tampa and Denver — but you don’t really get a global outlook on the league the way you think you would. As a broadcaster, I started being a curious person about football. I asked, ‘What are the common threads?’

“I could be in John Schneider and Pete Carroll’s office (with the Seattle Seahawks) and they were saying the same thing, and then I’d go to bad organizations and the GM would say: ‘Man we’ve got all the talent, John, but the coach can’t get it out of them’ — and the coach would say, ‘We don’t have the talent, look how bad it is.’ … They weren’t connected. But there were things about the organizations that were perennially successful. It was like, ‘Gosh, it’s not that hard.’ You just have to have a good relationship.”

Though the 49ers have been unified under Lynch and Shanahan, they certainly haven’t been perfect.

A handful of early picks never came close to meeting expectations for them, including the two first-rounders — defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (a Stanford product who was a classmate of Lynch in Robinson’s decision analysis class in 2014) and linebacker Reuben Foster — the team selected in that 2017 draft. The blockbuster trade-up to select quarterback Trey Lance in 2021 wasn’t fruitful, either. And despite substantial on-field success, frustrating injuries and gut-wrenching losses have, at least so far, prevented the 49ers from reaching their ultimate goal.


One lesson from 49ers’ Trey Lance saga: 2021 was a bad year to gamble on a QB

But many of these setbacks have helped highlight another 49ers’ strong suit: adaptability.

“We haven’t been afraid to tweak the vision statement a little bit when things have changed,” Lynch said. “We’re all a product of our experiences.”

The first changes came after 2017 and 2018, when they began emphasizing a desire for “finishers” after blowing several late leads. After a 2020 season that saw the team put a record amount of salary on injured reserve, “availability” became a stated priority.

The evolution of the vision statement has tangibly affected the on-field product. Lynch said their 2019 draft selection of bruising receiver Deebo Samuel was a direct response to a league-wide resurgence of physicality at the line of scrimmage from defensive backs. To improve perimeter run defense, the prototype for the team’s speed-rushing “Leo” defensive end position has morphed from a lighter edge rusher to a much larger and more physical run stopper.

The 49ers’ defined vision statement has helped lead them to players like George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner. (Ryan Kang / Getty Images)

At this point, the 49ers’ success in talent acquisition speaks for itself. So does the annual league-wide popularity of the organization’s coaches and executives. Teams have hired away three Shanahan assistants to be their head coaches (Robert Saleh, Mike McDaniel and DeMeco Ryans) and two of the four participants in that original vision statement meeting — Mayhew and Peters — have landed GM jobs elsewhere. It’s clear the rest of the NFL is interested in adapting key parts of the 49ers’ formula.

Lynch hopes that it continues to be self-sustaining. He believes a precise sense of direction creates an ideal environment for internal development, which can organically replenish the 49ers’ brain trust even when key figures leave for promotions elsewhere.

“That’s the lifeblood,” Lynch said. “You want to grow from within so you have people indoctrinated in what we do.”

It all circles back to the foundational pillars the 49ers established before that 2017 draft.

“We didn’t want it to be just a cheesy slogan that we talk about every now and then,” Lynch said. “We wanted it to be about who we really are. It’s our beacon that reminds us who we are and what we’re trying to be.”

(Top illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Stacy Revere / Getty Images and  Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images) 

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