Although it’s not the first emotion you’d associate with the Super Bowl, it will be there tonight in the minds of many football fans around the country — fans of teams who perennially do NOT make the big game.
Like the Detroit Lions.
“How come Kansas City gets there after 50 years and we don’t?” Lions fans lament. “How does San Francisco, who was 4-12 last year, make the Super Bowl one year later? Come ON!”
Well. Some of it is luck, for sure. And injuries. But much of it — if you study the way these teams were built — reminds me of that line the Cowardly Lion sings in “The Wizard of Oz”: What have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!
Let’s start with the Chiefs. They were doing well from 2013 to 2016. Made the playoffs three times. Won their division once. All behind quarterback Alex Smith, who was a No. 1 draft pick. If the Lions — and other perpetually out-of-it teams — suddenly went to the postseason three times in four years, they’d likely stand pat.
But the folks in Kansas City weren’t satisfied. They thought with Andy Reid’s offensive imagination and weapons like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, they should be doing better.
So what did they do? They traded their 2017 first-round pick, a third-round pick, and their 2018 first-round pick to move up to No. 10 in the draft and select Patrick Mahomes.
That’s courage. And you don’t need to ask how it worked out.
As luck would have it …
Flip over to the 49ers. They hired John Lynch to be their general manager in 2017. A bold move, because he was in the broadcast booth prior to that. And Lynch, a month later, hired Kyle Shanahan as his head coach, a day after the Super Bowl where Shanahan, the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, was blasted for blowing a 28-3 lead and losing to the Patriots.
The pair, working together, have constructed a defense-first, win-in-the-trenches, run-the-ball and use-tight-ends system that took them to 13-3 this season.
Now, I can hear Lions fans already. They hired Lynch from the broadcast booth? Didn’t we hire Matt Millen from the broadcast booth? They hired a coordinator from a Super Bowl team? Didn’t we hire Matt Patricia, a coordinator from a Super Bowl team?
Yes and yes. But look at what they did differently. While Matt Millen wasted high picks on wide receivers, Lynch built his defense with early-round picks, including linebacker Fred Warner, lineman Solomon Thomas and the super impressive Nick Bosa.
And while Patricia’s specialty, defense, has sunk under his stewardship, Shanahan’s offense, his specialty, ranked No. 4 in the league this year, and his rushing game was No. 2.
Sure, there was some luck involved. The 49ers got Bosa with the No. 2 pick last year after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was injured early and they fell to a 4-12 record. Worth noting that 4-12 got you the second pick last year, but 3-12-1, the Lions’ record this season, only gets you No. 3. And that could cost them this year’s version of Nick Bosa: Chase Young from Ohio State.
I know. I know. Envy.
Personnel and culture
But there’s more to it than that. There’s the draft pick selections, like K.C. finding Kelce in the third round and San Fran finding George Kittle in the fifth, versus Detroit taking Eric Ebron in the first.
There’s the trades. The 49ers stole Garoppolo from the Patriots for a second-round pick. They even took Laken Tomlinson, a first-round bust for the Lions, for a fifth-round pick. So Detroit gave up a first-round selection for a fifth-round selection, and Tomlinson is now a starting lineman for the 49ers, having played every snap this season as part of the league’s second-most potent rushing attack.
How does THAT happen?
There’s also free agents. The 49ers signed former Pro Bowler Richard Sherman after he spurned the Lions’ offer for more guaranteed money. Here is how Sherman explained that to a writer from The Athletic: “Hey, I can get this $20 million guaranteed and be in Detroit and lose football games. Or I can go to a place where I’m very comfortable with the scheme, coach and culture … and I really believe we can win.”
Now, remember, Lions fans aren’t the only group feeling green this Super Bowl weekend. I’m pretty sure Cleveland fans feel the same way. And Cincinnati fans. And Miami fans.
It’s all about personnel and culture. You’ve got to have the right coach. You’ve got to have a GM with foresight. You’ve got to have the ownership that selects the right people for those jobs. And you must have courage to do bold things, like move up big in the draft, instead of always protecting later-round picks, or cut ties with good players if you can get great ones.
The jury is still out on the Patricia/Bob Quinn era, but the returns so far have not been optimistic. Hopefully, that changes.
Meanwhile, remember that while Kansas City and San Francisco are fresh to the Super Bowl this year, they both come from traditions of winning. Such traditions are often the difference between fans saying, “We’re gonna get there next year” versus “We never get there.”
Or the difference between expectation and envy.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.