One man who stood side by side with John Lynch on Sundays recalled a colleague who dedicated himself to preparation during the week.
A man who could watch film and discern the game’s subtlest nuances.
A man who, on game days, though he wasn’t calling the plays or grappling in the trenches, exuded a presence that inspired the rest of the team around him.
“He is a leader of men,” said Kevin Burkhardt, who partnered with Lynch on FOX NFL television broadcasts the past four seasons. “I know it’s a different thing (than playing), but he led us. You can ask anybody on the crew, you can ask the tape editors, the camera guys. He was our leader.
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“That ability to lead men, to lead an organization – I don’t think a lot of people have that. I just don’t. It doesn’t come along naturally.”
The 49ers bet big on Lynch’s ability to lead last week, when they surprised the football world by hiring the 45-year-old former star safety as their new general manager. Lynch had never held a front-office position in the NFL before Sunday. Now, under a six-year contract, he is tasked with guiding the 49ers back to competitiveness following one of the worst seasons in the franchise’s storied history.
As initial shock over the selection – elevated by a covert hiring process that Lynch later admitted was calculated – wore off, opinions poured in. Skeptics cited Lynch’s lack of experience as an executive. None question his grasp of the game after playing 15 years in the NFL and eight more as a broadcaster. But assembling a front office? Running a draft? Building a roster?
It seems understood that Lynch’s newness – and that of Kyle Shanahan, the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator who is expected to be the 49ers’ next head coach – to his impending role makes forecasting his performance impossible. Still, over the past week, a contingent of NFL voices, many of them Lynch’s former teammates and coaches, combined to form a picture of Lynch as an intelligent, communicative, motivated individual whose foray into management has left them, if not overtly optimistic, at least intrigued.
Perhaps the most succinct endorsement of Lynch came from Stanford coach David Shaw. Addressing Bay Area reporters Wednesday, Shaw, who played with Lynch at Stanford in the early 1990s, acknowledged his was an “unconventional hire” to the San Francisco Chronicle, before stating why he expects the 49ers’ gamble to pay off.
“John doesn’t fail at anything,” Shaw said. “John’s never failed at anything.”
From hitting baseballs to hitting receivers
Lynch might have been a baseball player. Selected in the second round of the 1992 major-league draft by the expansion Florida Marlins, Lynch played minor-league ball that summer and considered forgoing his senior year at Stanford, where he had been moved from quarterback to safety.
Ironically, a 49ers legend helped shape his decision. As Lynch recalled during a conference call Monday, head coach Bill Walsh, back for his second stint at Stanford, “begged me to come back for my senior year because he thought I could become a Pro Bowl safety. I thought coach Walsh was crazy at the time. But he convinced me to do it.”
Walsh wasn’t crazy. Lynch made five Pro Bowls in his first 11 seasons with Tampa Bay, also helping lead the once-downtrodden Buccaneers to a win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Released by Tampa Bay in 2003, Lynch signed with the Broncos and made the Pro Bowl in all four of his seasons in Denver.
Known for his punishing hits on ballcarriers, Lynch also made an impression on teammates. Brad Johnson, the quarterback who roomed with Lynch when both played in Tampa, told 95.7 The Game this week that Lynch was “respected by everyone” and “always looking for tips, looking for clues.” He recalled Lynch regularly rising for early-morning workouts – even at the Pro Bowl.
“That’s who he was – he was a workaholic kind of guy,” Johnson said. “You almost had to slow him down at times.”
Lynch is a fourth-time finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and could cap a banner week if he is among the enshrinees announced Saturday. He referenced the path of his playing career on Monday’s conference call.
“There’s a lot of things in my life,” Lynch said, “that haven’t been conventional.”
Deep football insight
In a way, that made Burkhardt a fitting broadcast partner. Burkhardt had been reporting on the New York Mets before joining FOX in 2013 to do play-by-play for NFL games. Paired with Lynch as an analyst, the two quickly became the network’s No. 2 team.
One aspect of working with Lynch, Burkhardt said in a phone interview, surfaced during their preparation for calling a game.
“I’d always learn something about the team, and learn something about football, that I didn’t know, I didn’t catch from watching and that certainly hadn’t been talked about or written before,” Burkhardt said.
Burkhardt offered a recent example. Before calling the Falcons’ win over the Seahawks in the NFC divisional round, Lynch called Burkhardt over to a film monitor and pointed out a strategy that Shanahan, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, had used in Atlanta’s previous meeting against Seattle.
“The Seahawks don’t normally blitz much, but they started to blitz more this year than they ever had,” Burkhardt said. “And (Lynch is) like, ‘Most teams are going to do this in protection, or they’re going to keep a back in to help protect, to stop the blitz.’
“He’s like, ‘Watch what Kyle does. He brings in a two-back set. And he throws (running backs Devonta) Freeman and (Tevin) Coleman out on a route. So now you’re blitzing – but you are dead if you don’t get to the quarterback.’ And sure enough, in the playoff game, that bore fruit, because (Seattle) did it a couple times and got torched on it.”
Burkhardt said in recent years he had chatted with Lynch about the latter’s interest in a front-office job, and “I think I thought at some point he would be running a team.” Still, for many, the news was unexpected. While the 49ers interviewed some publicly known candidates for their GM role in recent weeks, they kept Lynch’s candidacy largely quiet.
Later, Lynch admitted he’d requested that from the 49ers, who in recent years have been known for information leaks, putting his potential new employer to the test.
“I made a big deal that this stay quiet,” Lynch said on KNBR radio. “Part of the rumors are things fly out of that building. So I wanted to see, could I trust that building? So that was part of my thinking.”
‘He’s going to be fine’
At the same time, Lynch said he was open with the 49ers about his limitations. Multiple times during Monday’s call with reporters he stated, “I know what I don’t know.” His background has already led some to posit a spectrum for his success, with two recent GMs at the poles.
One is John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who became Denver’s executive vice president of football operations in 2011 and from 2012 to 2015 led the Broncos to four division titles and two Super Bowls, including a win in Super Bowl 50. Though new to NFL management then, Elway did have some previous experience in a front office, as a co-owner of the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush.
Lynch has been open about Elway’s influence on him, which included inviting Lynch to observe the Broncos’ operation during a recent offseason, and indicated in a recent TV appearance that Elway may have helped plant the seed of his career change in his mind.
“He always challenged me,” Lynch said on FS1. “ ‘This is something you need to do. You can do this – and you can do it well.’ ”
The other is Matt Millen, a former linebacker who went directly from a FOX booth to the Detroit Lions’ front office in 2001. In seven-plus seasons with Millen as their top football executive, the Lions went 31-84, firing Millen three games into the 2008 season, which they finished 0-16.
Millen told The Associated Press this week that he was surprised by how little the GM role involved football strategy. “What you had to do,” he said, “was manage your people so you could get the right people and manage your coaches so you could perform at the highest level. It’s a people job. It’s about human capital.”
Is Lynch prepared for that role? Yes, according to Jon Gruden, his former coach in Tampa Bay.
“Forget about his talent as a player, the statistics, the longevity, the durability, the instincts and all that stuff,” Gruden told the East Bay Times. “He’s a leader of men, and he’s a great communicator. And those are two things that are critical at the general manager position.
“Most importantly, he’s got a great work ethic, and he’s charismatic. If you’re a leader, can communicate and have a great work ethic, those are the things you’re looking for. He’s going to be fine.”
Return to a winning culture?
The 49ers have finished a season 2-14 three other times in franchise history. One of those was Walsh’s first as head coach. Two years later, they won a Super Bowl, starting a heady run of five championships in 13 years.
Recent times have been leaner, outside of three consecutive NFC title game appearances from 2011 to 2013 under coach Jim Harbaugh. And for Steve Young, the hiring of Lynch represents an attempt by the 49ers to hearken back to the type of culture Walsh created.
“I think (Lynch) learned a ton of what fell out and came out of the roots of what the Niners did in those years,” Young said on KNBR this week. “It feels like we’re getting back to that rooted-ness, and I’m happy about that.”
In a statement announcing Lynch’s hire, 49ers CEO Jed York lauded his new GM as a “Hall of Fame-caliber man, one who people are compelled to follow.”
Where exactly Lynch will lead the 49ers is unknown. Of his qualifications for the job, the most valuable may also be the hardest to quantify.
“I’ll tell you this,” said Burkhardt, the FOX broadcaster. “We’re doing these games on Sunday, and of course we’re all wanting to kick (butt) and do a great job for ourselves, for our team, all of that. But I felt like Sunday, I needed to do a good job for him.
“Look, I’m obviously going to push myself anyway. But he just gave it that other level. You felt like you’re inspired by him, and you need to try to up your game to be around him. I don’t think a lot of people have that quality. It’s just different.”