While plenty of teams have figured out how to play chess while others are playing checkers, the 49ers are beating a tag team of Kasparov and Karpov in 4D chess.
And the recipe is fairly simple, thanks to one of “the two greatest things in life,” as explained by Jimmy Conway to Henry Hill: Always keep your mouth shut.
Of course, it’s more than simply keeping your mouth shut. Sometimes, you have to actively contribute to the misdirection process. That’s what G.M. John Lynch did last week, when telling reporters that the 49ers expect tackle Joe Staley to return for another season.
“We’ve heard nothing that would lead us to believe that Joe is not going to play,” Lynch said, adding that “we are encouraged that Joe will be a part of us, moving forward.”
He definitely was “part of us,” in that he was part of the ruse that allowed the 49ers to get Trent Williams from Washington for only a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-rounder. Unless Staley had a dramatic change of heart from Monday to Thursday night, Lynch knew at the time that Staley wasn’t coming back, and the 49ers were painting a false picture regarding Staley’s future, for strategic reasons.
Of course, the 49ers couldn’t have done it without the cooperation of Staley, who kept his mouth shut about his plans long enough to pull it off. But when a team enjoys a great relationship with a player, the player becomes willing to participate in the misdirection.
And an impressive misdirection it was, including a willingness to flip-flop No. 13 and No. 14 in round one with Tampa Bay, despite the Buccaneers’ extreme need for players to block for Tom Brady. Unless the 49ers quietly had a line on Williams, they quite possibly wouldn’t have handed Tristan Wirfs to Tampa Bay.
Then came Friday night. As the Vikings joined the Bucs, Jets, and Cleveland in exiting the pursuit of Trent Williams by using high picks on tackles, the 49ers were basically the only team left as of Saturday morning.
That’s when it got even more tricky, and where it would have been harder to pull off if Williams’ camp hadn’t put out the word that Williams wanted a big raise as part of a trade. By all appearances, that ended up being a subtle but very real part of the effort to engineer a path to San Francisco, something Washington owner Daniel Snyder wouldn’t have done if he’d known he had other options, given the bad blood between Snyder and the Shanahans.
In the end, there was only one other option: The Rams. Per Chris Simms, the Rams wanted Williams to play guard for a year, before moving back to left tackle after the expected retirement of Andrew Whitworth. Williams didn’t want to do that, so the Rams weren’t a viable alternative to the 49ers, who weren’t even known to be one of the teams pursuing Williams until the deal was done.
Some will wonder whether and to what extent the 49ers worked behind the scenes with Williams and his agent to create a plan for preemptively putting the kibosh on potential trades elsewhere. Unless someone can prove it, however, nothing will ever come of it — especially since the NFL exercises significant discretion when it comes to letting the world know that cheaters populate the league (even though they do).
And so, by keeping Staley’s plans under wraps until the trade was done, the 49ers kept other teams from more aggressively pursuing Williams, and the 49ers kept Washington from wanting more for him because, with Staley supposedly planning to play, the 49ers were less desperate to get the deal done for a tackle after three rounds of the draft had transpired.
Then there’s the pièce de résistance. Despite a clear and unchallenged notion the Williams wants his $12.5 million salary for 2020 to be dramatically escalated, Williams accepted the trade with no assurance or promises that he’ll get a raise. That’s possibly a testament to the relationship that coach Kyle Shanahan had with Williams during their time together in Washington, a relationship that not only prompted Williams to force his way to San Francisco but also caused him to not want more money on the way through the door to a new team.
There’s a valuable message in all of this. Often, coaches, General Managers, owners, and players lie to the media and the fans, for strategic reasons. Which is why it’s always important to be willing to not take things at face value, whenever there’s evidence that something more may be going on. In this case, the 49ers’ handling of the situation even prevented that from happening.