John Lynch's new job as 49ers GM is a head-scratcher to many

ByJim Trotter ESPN logo
Monday, January 30, 2017

Minutes after news broke Sunday night that the San Francisco 49ers were finalizing a deal to hire John Lynch as their new general manager, my phone buzzed with a text from a longtime scout from another organization.

"Please tell me these reports are false," it read.

They were not. San Francisco has hired a person to oversee its football operations who has never worked as a scout nor been a part of an NFL personnel department.

That's not to say Lynch doesn't know football. He played 15 seasons in the NFL, went to nine Pro Bowls, won one Super Bowl and is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also has been a game analyst for Fox Sports the past eight years. But that analyst tenure came right after his playing career. Again, he has no experience with an organization when not wearing a helmet.

If the 49ers believe this was the right move to turn around a franchise that lost 14 games in 2016, 11 last season and eight the year before that, and will send out its fourth head coach in as many years this fall, so be it. That is the prerogative of team CEO Jed York, who reportedly interviewed at least nine candidates.

But that doesn't mean personnel people around the league weren't put off by how things turned out. Some of them have spent decades trying to work their way up the ladder to the large office that overlooks the practice fields, and they found one line in the story outlining how Lynch came to be a candidate particularly galling. It read: "The idea to hire Lynch was his own. He personally called Shanahan and volunteered for the job about a week ago."

Shanahan is Kyle Shanahan, who is expected to be named the 49ers' new coach following the conclusion of Super Bowl XLI. The NFL long has been known as a "it's not what you know, but who you know" league, and Lynch has known Shanahan since at least 2004, when Lynch was playing for Kyle's father, Mike, in Denver.

York had let it be known that the new coach would have a lot of say in the GM hire, because York wants a coach and GM who can work in tandem to restore the past greatness of a franchise that has won five Super Bowls, though none since the 1994 season. Shanahan clearly felt most comfortable with Lynch, whom he spent time with over the weekend.

Still, Lynch's hiring begs the question: Did the 49ers essentially say the ability of the two men to get along was more important than the candidate's qualifications? One of the personnel people who texted me is black. He also wondered about the team's and the league's commitment to presenting opportunities to qualified minorities.

John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, whose mission statement is to promote diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, front office and scouting staffs of NFL teams, said he doesn't see an issue with San Francisco's new hire.

"I think the 49ers were looking for people they could fit together -- to build the team similar to what they had with Bill Walsh and John McVay," Wooten said. Lynch and Shanahan each will reportedly receive a six-year contract, which is astounding for a first-time GM and a first-time head coach.

"I scouted John at Stanford," Wooten continued. "He's a smart, team guy; a hard worker. He knows what he's looking at. He knows how to get along. Great leader. Listen to him on Sundays, he knows weaknesses and strengths of players. He's very personable. MLB and NBA [hire former players] all the time."

Perhaps, but it's rare for former players to assume general manager duties with no experience. Matt Millen started 166 games over a 12-year pro career and went directly from the broadcast booth to running the Detroit Lions in 2001. The franchise went 31-81 and had no winning seasons in his seven years at the helm.

Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway has assembled Denver Broncos squads that have gone to playoffs in five of his six seasons running football operations, with one championship in two Super Bowl appearances. But Elway had a foundation before taking over the front office in Denver. He co-owned and ran an Arena League team for seven years, so he had an understanding of what awaited him in 2011, when he assumed control of the Broncos as vice president of football operations and GM.

Lynch may turn out to be equally successful, but that's not the issue. Once again, the issue is the process by which hires are made. This one has left some people shaking their heads while others scratch theirs.

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