Perhaps, one of the most amorphous concepts in sports and the world at large is “culture.” What exactly does culture mean for the fortunes of a franchise? Can a bad team that loses games have a good culture? Can good teams who take care of business have a bad culture?
Many prospective coaches, including some in this hiring cycle, will be heralded for their ability as “culture setters.” You need no more proof that this quality and its ability to translate to on the field success has an unreliable hit-and-miss ratio than searching “Sean McDermott culture” followed by “Matt Rhule culture” and counting a similar number of hits for each.
Well, according to John Lynch, early in his and Shanahan’s tenure with the 49ers, they decided upon their shared definition of this idea: “Culture is the people you surround yourself with.” The GM took this a step further and explained how it pertains to the roster-building process, “We talk about the talent and spirit that [the players] embody, and I think we brought a lot of guys that fit that mold.”
There may be no more concrete example of this intangible quality than Jordan Willis and his answer to why he didn’t take the podium immediately after his instantly iconic contribution to Niners’ history, now and forevermore dubbed “The Block.”
“I just didn’t want to be taking all the praise for a team effort. This whole year has been so many ups and downs for the team. Even though in that moment I was graced with the opportunity to block the punt, I didn’t want that to go down as the reason why we are sitting where we are.
“A lot of people have persevered to get here and all the work that the coaches have put in night in and night out week in and week out, all the criticism coach Shanahan has taken, all the criticism Jimmy Garoppolo has taken and all the criticism some of our top players on defense have taken, they have all worked hard to dig us up out of this mess. I just didn’t want one play to be a defining moment for all the hard work that this whole organization has put in to be where we are, so to speak.”
In a sport filled with some of the most aggressive human beings on Earth, who can spit trash talk that would make Muhammad Ali blush, it felt utterly out of place to read this quote by Willis. I’d go so far as to recommend watching the clip of Willis’ answer in context for yourself.
Jordan Willis explains why he didn’t want to speak immediately after “The Block” pic.twitter.com/pzHfzvTPZO— Ty Austin (@TyLAustin) January 30, 2022
Sure, the ability to balance personal achievements against team success has been used to measure a player’s positive impact as a teammate or locker room presence for as long as there have been organized sports. But if you could literally measure it, these sentiments would break the scale.
It’s a testament to the front office’s approach and results when adding talent and attitude to the roster. Remember, Willis arrived by mid-season trade in 2020 when the defensive line lost nearly every frontline starter to injury at one point or another. He provided a spark and finished the season with his four-year career-high of 2.5 sacks.
Returning was no guarantee, but the Niners saw enough to bring him back on a one-year deal. For a player to buy in that hard to a team-first mindset in a year and change says as much about the team as the player, and, even better, you can see the same outlook all over the roster.
It’s certainly one of the reasons that this team didn’t fold when things looked bleak when their record stood at 3-5, or why they didn’t scare when staring down a 17 point deficient with a postseason berth on the line, or why they knew it was only a matter of time before someone would step up to make the play that would propel them over the Packers.
And it’s absolutely at the heart of why this core is playing for their second Super Bowl trip in three seasons.