It’s fair to say no one foresaw John Lynch as the 49ers’ general manager, because, up until a week ago, the Niners weren’t even considering him. After all, he’s a former player and current broadcaster with exactly zero experience in a front office. But let’s give Lynch some credit for perhaps knowing Jed York’s brain better than anyone else.
One week ago, Lynch called up current Falcons offensive coordinator and 49ers head-coach-in-waiting Kyle Shanahan and volunteered himself for the job. Out of the blue, just like that. Lynch went through the same interview process that a reported nine other candidates have, and most crucially, had a sitdown with Shanahan in an Atlanta hotel room, and last night it was made official: Lynch is the GM.
Here’s a good, universally applicable anecdote:
Minutes after news broke ... my phone buzzed with a text from a longtime scout from another organization.
“Please tell me these reports are false,” it read.
The 49ers would obviously like to recapture the outcome of the last GM hired without previous NFL personnel experience: John Elway, who’s had great success in Denver. But Elway did spend six years as a co-owner and GM of an Arena Football League team. It’s telling that the first comparison that comes up in every analysis of Lynch’s hire is another longtime player and Fox broadcaster with no front-office experience: Matt Millen, whose Lions teams never had a winning record and who admitted that he was unqualified for the job.
Jed York explained his thinking to the MMQB last night:
“So many opportunities are missed in the NFL because people don’t want to do something different. We’re okay with that, because I am confident in Kyle and John.”
“Something different” indeed. York seems to believe that Lynch’s specific qualifications don’t matter so much as a general approach that installs continuity and a good working relationship between coach and GM, such as the one he sees in his division in Seattle. (The many other instances of forced marriages between coach and GM—in Buffalo, in Philly, on the Jets, etc.—stand now as warning signs.) Both Shanahan and Lynch are expected to receive six-year deals, an unprecedented thing. Although we know the Niners have no problem cutting their losses. Even as they sign Shanahan’s paychecks they’ll still be paying two ex-coaches in Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly.
So Lynch’s real qualification is that Shanahan likes him, and that the two were able to articulate to York the basis of a functional partnership. That’s certainly plausible, but we’d have more trust that this was the plan all along if we believed Lynch was the Niners’ first choice. Yet he wasn’t even a choice until he threw his own hat in the ring. The Chronicle reported that Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio and Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard were high on York’s list but declined to interview for the job, and that Packers director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst was York’s top choice but withdrew himself from consideration.
This can work. A GM’s most important job might be assembling the right staff, delegating responsibility, and incorporating their input into his decisions. And the Niners already have a veteran personnel guy in Tom Gamble, and are expected to try to hire former Bucs GM Mark Dominik, who is close to both Lynch and Shanahan. Shanahan, too, is expected to have personnel input.
This is an unorthodox arrangement that the principals are going to have to figure out as they go, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’re able to make it work. Of course, we’d give that possibility more credence on a franchise with a track record better than San Francisco’s. And yet, at the same time, it’s pretty unlikely that the new braintrust can do any worse. As bizarre as this John Lynch hire is, his greatest gift in the early going will be a pathetically low bar to clear.