How 49ers escaped Jarryd Hayne era
ON reflection it was a bizarre time to be an Australian sport fan.
The Jarryd Hayne phenomenon - after the Parramatta star departed rugby league for the NFL and the San Francisco 49ers - was like nothing we'd ever seen.
For a nation with some hardcore American football fans but many more who were relatively new to the intricacies of the gridiron, suddenly we were all intimately familiar with coach Jim Tomsula's prickled moustache and sweaty brow - and had an opinion over which running back was best placed to back-up Carlos Hyde.
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By default the San Francisco 49ers became Australia's team. We watched every down in the hope Hayne would break off a punt return or score that elusive touchdown, learned the names of players like Mike Davis and DuJuan Harris and celebrated their rare victories.
But the reality is Hayne's story likely would never have happened if the 49ers had not just parted ways with Jim Harbaugh, the successful coach who led them to three consecutive NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.
There's no doubt Hayne played his way on to the squad with his sparkling pre-season performances, but it was a lacklustre 53-man unit backed by a PR team desperate for some positive headlines.
Hayne and Tomsula were both gone after just one season and the 49ers took much longer to sort themselves out. Their 5-11 record in 2015 slumped to 2-14 under Chip Kelly the following season.
But in one of the more remarkable turnarounds in league history San Francisco is back in this Monday's Super Bowl and there's some key moves that made it happen.
Team CEO Jed York, who was a familiar face during Hayne's time in Santa Clara, compares the journey to Andy Dufresne's escape from prison in the Shawshank Redemption.
"Everybody wants to get to that beach at the end," York said. "No one wants to go through what he went through to get to the beach. And we had to get through that."
After failing on consecutive coaching hires, York brought in offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan was fresh off coughing up a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51 but the 49ers were confident he was their man.
They partnered him with general manager John Lynch, a Hall of Fame-level safety with Tampa Bay and Denver who knew what it took to win it all.
While some key pieces had been added in the draft during the barren years - including defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner - there was plenty of work to do to overhaul the squad.
The 49ers were also determined to shed their reputation as a home for players with off-field trouble, leading to what York says was the toughest decision of the past few years.
The team had invested a first-round draft pick in linebacker Reuben Foster in 2017 before he was arrested for domestic violence the following year.
In the past San Francisco had been slow to part ways with troubled stars but they bit the bullet and cut Foster.
"We moved on from it and it was hard," York said. "And we could have justified not moving on from it. There are other people who have been in worse situations than what Reuben was in. But we knew where we had to be. So if you look for a defining moment for those guys, I think that's a defining moment for the culture of this team."
There were other key additions through the draft, free agency and trades - none more important than their leading man, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Stifled behind Tom Brady in New England, Garoppolo was prized from the NFL standard-setters for a second-round pick and has barely put a foot wrong, taking his record as a starter to 23-5 entering Monday's game against the Chiefs in Miami.
There was success at either end of the draft as the 49ers developed George Kittle from pick 146 into the best tight end in football before seeing No. 2 overall selection Nick Bosa tear up the league in his first season.
San Francisco also raided their northern rival Seattle to shore up their defence, signing corner Richard Sherman in free agency on a deal that's benefited both parties.
And then there's the likes of safety Jimmie Ward and offensive tackle Joe Staley who were teammates of Hayne and have been through it all.
"There were definitely some years where I didn't really see the vision and where the future of the franchise was going," Staley said.
"I just want to win for these guys," Garoppolo added. "Guys like Joe Staley. He's been through everything you could be through in a career with one team. Guys like that, that's who you play for."
They've even got an Aussie on board too after taking a gamble on Perth-raised punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
The 27-year-old high school dropout and former glazier was always going to be a quality punter, but Shanahan and Lynch's decision to take him in the fourth round was considered somewhat of a reach given players in that position are normally selected in later rounds.
But after going 6-10 and 4-12 in Shanahan's first two seasons it's all come together this year.
The 49ers topped arguably the toughest division in football with a 13-3 record and swept aside the Vikings and the Packers in the playoffs.
Now there's just the Chiefs to see off to secure their place in history - and no doubt Hayne will be cheering them on.