What comes first: leadership or victories?

Fifteen seasons have passed since the 49ers played in a Super Bowl. Back then, winning was a part of the team’s DNA, much the same way as losing has become part of the 49ers since many of the team’s leaders were fired after the 2003 season.


Eric Davis and Gary Plummer both played on the 49ers’ last Super Bowl team. They remain close to the current team in their roles as analysts on television and radio, respectively.


When I asked them which characteristic the current team needed most from that 1994 team, their answers were similar. The 49ers’ last Super Bowl team was comprised of veteran leaders at nearly every position. That team also had a mindset that nothing could prevent them from winning.


“There were no excuses to not win,” said Davis, who now serves as an analyst for Comcast SportsNet. “It’s often said that the mindset is that you win as a team and you lose as a team. We always felt that we won as a team, but if we lost it was somebody’s fault.


“If we executed the way we should, we’d win. And the only way we’d lose is if somebody wasn’t doing his job. So the mindset was, ‘Don’t be the guy who screws it up for everybody else.’ That’s the pressure. Nothing was ever good enough.”


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There’s some chicken-and-egg element involved with leadership. It’s difficult to become a leader without accomplishing success. But many consider leadership essential to become successful.


“If you looked at that team, we had leadership at every level,” Plummer said of the ’94 team.


Sure enough, the 49ers were a team loaded with veteran leaders at nearly every position group with Steve Young at quarterback, tight end Brent Jones, offensive linemen Harris Barton and Jesse Sapolu, receiver Jerry Rice, and defensive players such as Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks, Plummer, Ken Norton Jr. and Rickey Jackson.


“It’s hard now to get that in this area of salary cap and free agency,” Plummer said. “Part of it is due to youth. Bryant Young didn’t say a word in 1994, and he ended up for seven straight years being one of best leaders on the 49ers. It’s tough to be a leader and commanding presence unless you’ve been there and done that.”


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Davis said when he first got to the 49ers, Joe Montana was the unquestioned leader. But safety Ronnie Lott was the emotional heartbeat of the team. Later, Young was the leader and Tim McDonald was the heart and soul.


That got me to thinking about the current 49ers. Certainly, there is more than one way to develop into a winning team. But using that same model, quarterback Alex Smith has to take over. And the best candidate on defense to become the heartbeat is safety Dashon Goldson.


I don’t mean to fan the flames of the same monotonous Alex Smith comments, but Smith can be a leader. He would be more in the mold of Montana than the more verbal Young. Of recent Super Bowl champions, Smith’s leadership style would be more like Eli Manning than Peyton Manning.


The key for Smith is to continue to progress and take care of his job on the field. If the 49ers start winning more games than they lose, the leadership questions will be answered.


As for Goldson, he is the best candidate because of his position as a safety. He’s a tough, hard-hitter who should continue to acquire a better grasp of everybody’s responsibilities on defense. As Davis said, the defense needs to have a leader who can take it upon himself to change a defensive call when it’s obvious to the players in the huddle that they were given a “bad call” from the sideline. But the key is that everybody on the field has to completely trust that the player and be held accountable.


Sure, the 49ers would like Patrick Willis to be that kind of player/personality. However, I compare Willis to Bryant Young in a lot of ways. It took Young many years before he found his leadership voice. Willis is making strides in that capacity. But it seems to be against his nature to rock the boat.


Justin Smith leads in his own way, by setting a great example. Takeo Spikes has good leadership skills, but it’s imperative for a defensive leader to be on the field for every play — especially critcal third downs.


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UPDATE: The Chicago Bears have hired 49ers quality control coach Shane Day to join Mike Martz’s offensive staff as quarterbacks coach. The Sun-Times’ report has been confirmed. Coach Mike Singletary now must fill an entry level-position on the 49ers’ coaching staff.


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