SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As he stood before the assembled media last week and began laying out what needed fixing to get his football team back to prominence, San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York repeatedly turned to one word to encompass all that ails the organization: culture.
Throughout the course of his nearly 30-minute season-ending news conference in which he discussed the search for a new general manager and head coach, York invoked the word a whopping 16 times. But York wasn't the only one pointing to a change in culture as the primary function of a new regime.
"When I kept hearing him say that, I just thought it was a level of being professional, type of level," receiver Torrey Smith said. "You see that in top organizations. You see that with the Patriots or the Packers or Seattle. You see it. It’s stability. It’s the way they carry themselves on and off the field, the way they conduct themselves, and that’s the way we want to be. This is a place that has been that way in the past, and it can be that way. It’s just another start, and we have to build that up."
"I agree with building a winning culture," offensive lineman Zane Beadles said. "That’s a key thing, and it’s not something that’s easy to do, and it’s something that takes time, but it’s something that needs to happen. We’ll see how things go here as the offseason unfolds, but hopefully we’re able to do that."
As Beadles is quick to point out, building a championship culture isn't something that happens overnight. It didn't when the Niners were the toast of the league, and it won't if they're able to get back to that level. A shiny set of Lombardi trophies in a case is a sign of tradition, but it's not something that can sustain a culture.
Beadles knows as well as anyone how that process can go. As a rookie in 2010, his Denver Broncos went 4-12. The next year, they improved to 8-8 then 13-3 in consecutive years. He was there as Denver went through the process of building that culture, a culture that was jolted to life by the presence of a demanding personnel man in John Elway and an equally hard-driving quarterback in Peyton Manning.
So, aside from getting good people in the right places, how does a winning culture come about?
"I think establishing expectations early on of what’s expected of everybody to do their job and then holding people to those expectations day in and day out," Beadles said. "It starts from the top, and it starts from coaches, but players need to buy into that and run with it too. The best teams I’ve ever been around, coaches didn’t even really need to be present at practice. Everybody was holding each other accountable. It made for a better team and a team that’s invested in winning, and that’s a huge deal."
It's something the 49ers admittedly lacked in 2016. With a number of young players in key roles, the standard of work being put in wasn't always up to par. Veteran quarterback Christian Ponder, who arrived late in training camp, said there were some who weren't on the same page when it came to preparation.
"I wouldn’t say it was a lack of professionalism," Ponder said. "I would say there were a few guys who could spend more time in the playbook. We had a lot of mental errors throughout the year that made it more tough on us in certain positions, so you’d like some of the older guys to step up and hold guys accountable. I think that would be a big key going forward is accountability with players."
Such issues weren't necessarily pervasive, but one of the criticisms of the Niners as the year went on was that there weren't enough vocal leaders willing to step in and demand that everyone puts in the same amount of work every day. Fair or not, the presence of players not giving their all on a daily basis won't help build a championship culture. Moving forward, weeding out those not willing to put in the work will be a priority for the new coach and the veteran leaders that stay with the franchise.
"Not every bad kid is their parents fault," Smith said. "Sometimes it’s just the person. My son, I think he’s a great kid, but he peed on my ankle the other day. That’s him, you know what I mean? So it all goes together. Sometimes you have got to be very professional, and some guys are young. It all goes together. We have guys here who are doing it right; we have some young guys that have to learn. That’s not different, that’s not a 49er issue, that’s each and every team. You have just got to fall in line, and some guys have to grow up and we have to be accountable to each other."
Of course, a "championship culture" is an intangible thing. It can't be purchased on the free-agent market or by writing a big check for the hottest head-coaching candidate. Teams like New England, Seattle and others that have enjoyed sustained success of late have gotten there in different ways. Having a strong coach, quarterback and general manager undoubtedly goes a long way. As it stands, the Niners have none of the above.
York's belief is that finding a coach and general manager who are able to work together is a good starting point. It's why the Niners are canvassing the country in search of the best candidates they can find for coach and general manager.
"Whoever hires the other, whether it’s the general manager hiring the head coach, the head coach hiring the general manager, they need to be accountable to each other," York said. "They need to have a shared vision. They need to have a shared philosophy, and they need to know that I’m going to do everything that I can to give them the resources to execute on that vision, execute on that philosophy. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we’re trying to establish.”