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Nobody is bigger than the team, except when they are

The 49ers hoped Reuben Foster would work out, but it blew up in their face. Now we wait to see what lesson the organization has learned.

The San Francisco 49ers released Reuben Foster on Sunday morning, and team leadership wants it to be clear that nobody is bigger than the team. Prior to the game, general manager John Lynch said, “I think one lesson I’ve learned being around this league for 30 years now in different capacities, is that nobody is bigger than the team. That’s ultimately what this decision came down to for us.”

After the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan echoed Lynch’s sentiments, stating that “no one is more important than the team” and “[o]ur number one rule is that you’ve got to protect the team.”

In any sport, professional, college, or otherwise, we regularly hear about how nobody is bigger than the team. If a player is released or otherwise disciplined for a transgression, team leaders will speak to this topic without fail.

At this point, it’s become an entirely overused cliche. Technically it’s true. A team decides when a player has become too big a headache, and at that point will part ways. We’ve seen it regularly with the 49ers in recent years, with Aldon Smith and Ray McDonanld being the primary examples.

While there is a kernel of truth to the “nobody is bigger than the team,” it hides an important part of the cliche that we all know to be true. Some players get more room to screw up, and the more talent you have, the more you get away with. This applies in plenty of other professional environments, but it is particularly high profile in sports.

There is nothing new to this, but it feels like when someone is saying “nobody is bigger than the team,” they’re trying to gloss over the realities of how many opportunities some players get over others. We don’t know everything that happens behind closed doors, but enough leaks out that it becomes harder and harder to take what is being said entirely at face value.

The 49ers gave Reuben Foster multiple chances, and it eventually blew up in their face. They were enamored with his talent and personality, and it cost them. He represents the one truly big off-field mistake thus far in the Lynch/Shanahan regime. They’ve missed on other players in the draft and free agency, and there are plenty of issues to be rectified in that regard — but ideally they will have learned from this and how they look at talent moving forward. They have to find the talent they think fits the system, but they cannot play as fast and loose as they might like to think when it comes to premium talent.

On Sunday, Lynch said the 49ers have to learn from this, but at the same time, they cannot operate scared.

“You got to trust your evaluations and remember back to, and I’m not making an excuse, and you sit in these draft meetings and there’s a lot of information that comes out on these kids. Like I said, they’re fallible, this wasn’t nearly as bad as a lot of them. Ultimately, we have to own it, and I own it. But I think most of all, it’s just disappointment.”

Lynch and Shanahan are in the spotlight, and it will only get brighter this offseason. The return of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon will serve as a salve, but with a high draft pick and a lot of cap space, this is likely to be an aggressive offseason. There is an opportunity to build this team into a playoff contender sooner rather than later, but any more mistakes like this, and things could go further south in a hurry. The 49ers did the right thing in releasing Reuben Foster, but who knows if they did it for the right reasons. Given how the situation played out, that is critical to whether or not they have learned necessary lessons from this situation.