MIAMI — The 49ers deserve all the credit for getting to the Super Bowl.
General manager John Lynch built the roster. Coach Kyle Shanahan guided the team. Jimmy Garoppolo, Richard Sherman, and their teammates made all the plays.
But when the 49ers get back home to San Francisco this coming week, they need to send the Patriots a thank you card.
The 49ers have navigated a remarkable turnaround in three years. When Shanahan was hired in January 2017, he became the Niners’ fourth coach in four seasons. When Lynch was hired a couple of weeks later, he was taking over a 2-14 team that had no quarterback.
Three short years later, the 49ers are NFC champions, one game away from bringing home their first Lombardi Trophy in 25 years. And the Niners will be forever grateful to the Patriots for doing them not one, but three big favors.
“Pretty wild how everything’s worked out,” Garoppolo said this past week. “I couldn’t be happier. Happy where I ended up, happy where I started. Just enjoying this ride.”
It is already well known that Bill Belichick gave the 49ers the gift of a lifetime when he called them up in October 2017 and handed them Garoppolo on a silver platter, asking only for a second-round draft pick in return. Shanahan and Lynch had planned on pursuing Kirk Cousins the next offseason, but when told they could have Garoppolo, “It only took 10 minutes to make the decision. There was no hesitation,” Shanahan said.
But this was not the only courtesy done for the 49ers by the Patriots. Niners CEO Jed York hit a home run with the Shanahan-Lynch pairing in 2017, but it likely never would have happened had Josh McDaniels not withdrawn his name from the 49ers’ coaching search, and had Nick Caserio not declined to interview for the GM position. The 49ers were heavily interested in both, according to a league source.
It was understandable that both Patriots would turn down the Niners, though. The organization was in constant disarray, cycling through Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula, and Chip Kelly as coach in consecutive seasons. The front office was known for a culture of leaks and backstabbing, and McDaniels and Caserio believed that better offers would come their way.
It led York to hire Shanahan, who was then 37 and never had been a head coach, and Lynch, who had spent his post-playing days as a broadcaster and had no front-office experience. Shanahan and Lynch had almost no relationship when the pairing was made.
“It’s funny because I think going into it, I don’t know when either side looked at that meeting, like, ‘OK, this is destined to be,’ ” York said this past week. “It was more of, ‘This is part of the search.’ ”
But it has certainly worked out. In Shanahan, the 49ers got one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds, whose unit finished second in points and fourth in total offense this season. And in Shanahan and Lynch they got two leaders who are smart, creative, and happy to share the credit with each other.
“Neither one is trying to elbow the other to get to the front of the line to say, ‘I’m the executive of the year,’ ‘I’m the coach of the year,’ ” York said. “They’re happy for the other one. They’re happy for everybody’s success.”
Of course, Shanahan and Lynch were also not very successful until they got a quarterback. The 49ers started 0-9 in 2017, when one morning the Quarterback Fairy dropped a present in their lap. It was Belichick, texting Shanahan at 5 o’clock West Coast time as Shanahan drove into work.
“We had just got killed by Philly, so I thought he was just texting me to try to make me feel better,” Shanahan said this past week. “But he said to give him a call if I had a second, and I called him and he ran it by me.”
“It” was the trade that would send Garoppolo to San Francisco for the 43rd overall pick in the 2018 draft. The Patriots had rejected the 49ers’ trade offers several times that offseason, but suddenly Belichick was offering up Garoppolo, and the clock was ticking fast.
“Once I got the text and called him back, I was like, ‘Wow, give me a second. I’ve got to go up and talk to John and soak this in a little bit. And we’ll call you right back,’ ” Shanahan said. “There was a deadline. There were other people. He asked us to hurry as fast as possible.
“I hung up, called John upstairs, he came right down. We talked for about 10 minutes and called back and said, ‘Yes.’ ”
The Niners were appreciative of the fact that Belichick was so direct and easy to deal with.
“It’s nice for Bill to be able to call somebody and say, ‘This is what I want. Can you guys do this?’ And it happened. So it wasn’t some long, drawn-out thing,” York said last year. “We’ve done several deals with New England. And it’s always very straightforward dealing with those guys.”
Shanahan is also appreciative that Belichick respects him so much. After executing the trade, Belichick mentioned in his media availability that “Jimmy’s getting a good coach.”
“Having someone like Bill say something like that, it’s as cool of a compliment as I could personally have, so that’s great,” Shanahan said. “I’m very glad he felt that way because I feel very fortunate that we were able to get Jimmy.”
Of course, the 49ers didn’t really know what they were getting in Garoppolo. He had started just two NFL games, and didn’t finish the second after injuring his shoulder. Garoppolo was set to be a free agent two months after the 49ers acquired him, and they didn’t know what type of investment to make in him.
Shanahan didn’t want to put Garoppolo into the lineup right away or judge him on his games with the 49ers that season, because “I thought it was a little unfair to him. I didn’t think it would be possible.”
But Garoppolo became the Niners’ instant leader, both in the locker room and on the field. He started the last five games and won all five, taking the Niners from 1-10 to 6-10.
“He blew all our minds,” Shanahan said. “The success he had when he was out there with very little preparation and little foundation of the offense and how well he played. By the time that season ended, he made our decision very easy.”
The 49ers rewarded Garoppolo with a five-year, $137.5 million contract in the spring of 2018. He has rewarded them by maintaining his same work ethic and leadership.
“Jimmy’s our easiest guy to work with. Jimmy’s a machine,” Shanahan said. “He’s there all day, every day. Nothing seems to get him too high or too low. It’s fun to have a guy that no matter what you tell him, it doesn’t stress him out and he’s always up to the challenge.”
Garoppolo sat patiently behind Tom Brady for 3½ years, and wasn’t sure if he would ever get his chance. But now he has his own team, a massive contract, and the spotlight of the Super Bowl. He couldn’t have asked Belichick to put him in a better position.
“I’m pretty happy with it. I don’t have too many complaints,” Garoppolo said. “Coach Belichick, he’s been nothing but great to me throughout my entire career, how honest he is, how up front. And yeah, to come here, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Garoppolo has proven his worth several times over the last two years. When he missed the last 13 games of the 2018 season with a torn ACL, the Niners went 3-10. With him back in the lineup this year, they went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl.
“He made us better as an organization instantly. He’s a winner,” Lynch said. “I think a lot of that is just inherent in who he is. But I think the Patriot way has helped shape that, as well. He had great experiences there, and all he cares about is winning.”
And thanks to a series of decisions made by Belichick, McDaniels, and Caserio, the 49ers of Lynch, Shanahan, and Garoppolo are now on the verge of making their own history in Sunday’s Super Bowl.