‘I was running the ball for my sister’

1 May

Really great insider piece here from Peter King at SI’s Monday Morning QB.

The nuts and bolts of the piece are a look behind the 49ers’ draft room door. It’s a revealing look at rookie GM John Lynch’s first draft, one he opened with a bang by trading the second pick to the Bears for the third pick (plus more picks) and still landing the two guy he really wanted in the first round.

Lynch has no background in actual management, having come from the Fox Sports broadcast booth. But a small anecdote in King’s story reminds us that Lynch has at least sought to learn about management: he went back to Stanford to complete his degree and took a management course in 2014.

Elsewhere, we see a man who has lots of football knowledge stepping back and asking his colleagues for advice about things he doesn’t know.

It’s a great tick-tock of how a draft team went through their drafting process.

The real nugget of King’s story is the quote I’ve used as a headline, from a conversation Lynch has with draft pick-to-be Joe Williams.

And they talked. Lynch was stunned by Williams’ forthright admissions. Lynch found out what he believed to be the root of the problems: In 2007, when Williams was 13, his sister died of a heart ailment, and Joe Williams felt the burden was with him, because on the night she died, he was with her and fell asleep when she fell gravely ill. He was destroyed, distraught, and ignored his pain, and as he discovered later, the bottling up of his pain caused extreme distress. He was diagnosed with manic depression. He told Whittingham he would do himself more harm than good by staying on the team, and Whittingham understood. The team understood. After a long time on the phone, Lynch had a radical change of mind.

It’s a remarkable exchange, a player who put up incredible numbers after sitting out for a month last fall while he looked to do anything but football. He thought his NFL dream was dead. Then an injury crisis prompted Utah’s coach to call Williams and ask him to come back.

Other teams were scared off by Williams’ meandering path through collegiate football. (He went to three schools.) Even Lynch said he’d written the kid off. But a conversation on the third morning of the draft between GM and player turned the tide, as explained above.

There’s so many thoughts here. Why didn’t Lynch have this call before, is my first question. Then again, Lynch and his coach had had to hit the ground running in preparation for this week, and maybe there just hadn’t been time.

There’s no doubting the numbers Williams put up. There’s a pro athlete in there. But running backs are about their offensive line as much as they are about their own talent.

They drafted a player who spoke openly about mental illness. That’s the other big story here. Williams said “this is my shit.” And Lynch simply said, “cool, I’m down.”

That’s actually really amazing. The NFL is a place which lets plenty of awful things slide, but here’s a moment where at least one of their leaders has chosen to say “NBD” about something which might have sent others running for the hills in the past.

“There are no perfect players,” Lynch tells King as the biggest lesson he learned in his first draft. He traded picks in a manner which showed flexible thinking. He went in with the second overall pick, traded down to the third pick and watched the Bears skip over the guys he really wanted.

Even at 3, Lynch was willing to consider dropping down further, recognizing the value in amassing picks as well as how other teams ofter overvalue the placing of picks because they overvalue the abilities of their draft targets.

It’s a good sign for a rookie GM. The San Jose Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami, who’s been a harsh critic of the 49ers brass, especially under Lynch’s predecessor Trent Baalke, called the swap with the Bears, which ended with the 49ers drafting the player they wanted all along, Solomon Thomas, and getting three further picks, a “wow move.”

Lynch’s coach Kyle Shanahan even had to remind himself of the scale of their project: this isn’t an immediate turnaround. They need to find as many prospects as they can.

And in picking a player like Joe Williams, or Reuben Foster (their second first round pick, a player coming off shoulder surgery and possibly the biggest slide of the draft, picked because Lynch had amassed all those other picks) the 49ers brass look to be saying “we’re thinking differently.”

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be right — but they’re not using conservative thinking, there’s no doubt of that.



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