Leaks are Pouring Out of the 49ers Locker Room. Why is No One Stopping Them?
"The 49ers don’t leak," until they do.
The 49ers fired head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke in 2017 to give their organization a clean slate and a fresh revival at the two most important leadership positions.
“There’s only 32 of these jobs in the world,” is the common sentiment among head coaching and GM candidates every offseason—a statement that reinforces both the scarcity and prestige that comes with landing such a job in the NFL.
But a funny thing happened to the 49ers in January 2017 upon the departures of Kelly and Baalke—the franchise with 5 Super Bowls and 22 Hall-of-Famers kept getting passed over for greener pastures.
Anthony Lynn, Sean McVay, Doug Marrone, Vance Joseph, and Sean McDermott all accepted head coaching jobs with other teams before the 49ers had their guy. The trend continued in the GM search, as candidates Chris Ballard and Brandon Beane found other destinations while the 49ers continued their search.
The 49ers were not just the last kid to get picked at recess, the fallout of the Harbaugh-Baalke years left them with a halitosis that was repelling potential suitors.
Their reputation was of a politicking and conniving management team who managed to scapegoat a coach in the wake of three consecutive NFC championships. Such a state-of-affairs would send red flags to any future head coach or GM with any sense of survival instinct—and only a coaching candidate with equitable gravitas to 49ers management could hope to stand in the face of such power and influence.
Funny enough, one head coaching candidate, who had also been passed over in the coaching carousel himself, happened to possess the bounty of NFL respect and coaching competence to sit at the poker table with the likes of the 49ers and not be overpowered.
Kyle Shanahan had momentum that offseason—a Super Bowl appearance, a dominant and electrifying offense, an MVP season from his quarterback—but above all else, he had a name and a family legacy. Beyond the hype of his offensive prowess, or the championship legacy of his last name, Shanahan possessed roots in the NFL and NFL media that were stronger and deeper than even an ownership group like the Yorks could wrangle or manipulate.
Shanahan held all the leverage in that negotiation. He had a promising future ahead of him in the NFL regardless of the 49ers, and with that power, Shanahan effectively set an ultimatum: if the 49ers kept quiet about his hiring and more importantly, Shanahan’s choice for general manager in John Lynch, the duo would come aboard with good faith and trust in the 49ers.
Put simply, Shanahan and Lynch said: “no leaks or we’re out.”
Lynch admitted as much in an interview with KNBR shortly after his hiring, stating, “One of the great and liberating things for me, and I think why this thing came to fruition, I made a big deal that this stay quiet… Part of the rumors are things fly out of that building. And I wanted to see if I could trust this person. And so that was part of my thinking.”
Fast-forward to 2022, year 6 of Shanahan and Lynch: the results are a bit mixed, but one axiom has been a staple of 49ers culture in these six years—even through times of intense speculation like the 2021 no.3 draft pick—“The 49ers don’t leak.”
Until they do.
Bringing along second-year quarterback Trey Lance has been a divisive story for not just fans and pundits, but with players and coaches on the 49ers. While most would expect a no.3 overall pick to be embraced (if only for his inevitability), it has instead been met with fierce resistance.
Resistance so fierce, in fact, that leaks have been emerging from the 49ers for months now. Most troubling, it doesn’t appear anyone is intent on stopping them.
Several NFL insiders have published insights into the 49ers locker room of coaches and players that want a message to be very clearly known: we do not stand by the decision to make Lance the starting quarterback.
The insights are diverse and colorful. From Shanahan’s college buddy and longtime friend, journalists who have spent time in the 49ers draft war room, writers with deep roots in Bay Area sports, talking heads on the NFL’s own media network—they all have excruciating detailed accounts of why Lance represents a division within the 49ers.
Complicating matters now is Lance’s ankle injury that has forced back-up quarterback and revered team leader Jimmy Garoppolo safely and squarely into the starter’s role once again. The leaks have continued to come out with this new development, now passing along insights of “relief” and “calm.”
The leaks won. The leaks got their intended outcome—surely, though not certainly, not in the fashion they desired. But regardless, the leaks were able to make their point and be vindicated to the world.
In 2017, Shanahan and Lynch came to the 49ers with a firm stance against leaks. They both have consistently stood on the side that all issues should be handled "in-house," and that "the outside noise" doesn’t matter.
So then why are 49er coaches and players engaging and deploying ‘the outside noise’ to drive their wishes and demands? Why are the 49ers taking this matter "out of the house?" What’s more, the messengers who are voicing these leaks on their podcasts, websites, nationally-broadcast tv shows—they double as adamant supporters of the coach against his critics.
The head coach’s allies are putting out the word that the head coach’s decision-making to start Lance is not only wrong, but widely admonished. Why would Shanahan’s allies be so public and outspoken with views that undermine his decisions? Have they all coordinated to flip their allegiance?
Shanahan’s powers in the media are exceptional, until they’re not—or so we we’re led to believe in this instance. If Shanahan wanted the leaks to stop, it sure seems he would have the capital and authority to plug them up.
The reason for a leader to stand against leaks is simple: too many leaks will eventually break the dam—as Jim Harbaugh learned all too well. Has this season’s saga shown that Shanahan and Lynch have shifted their views to ‘rise above it’ and view the leaks as petty, insignificant and unproblematic? Perhaps.
Equally plausible, however, there isn’t much care if the leaks continue, even if the dam breaks as dams are to do. And maybe it’s even the intention.
For now, one thing is definably and undeniably clear: the 49ers leak.