There are so few comparisons for what John Lynch is stepping into with the San Francisco 49ers, mostly because companies generally don’t hire people for jobs when they have absolutely no experience at that job.
Hiring Lynch is a crazy risk for the 49ers. Lynch has never worked in a front office. Now he’s running one. That doesn’t mean it won’t work. But in a league that generally detests and rejects straying from the norm when it comes to hiring, this is entirely off the accepted path.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” 49ers owner Jed York told The MMQB. “But 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. John has watched John Elway, and how he’s built a team in Denver. As easy as it is to say he hasn’t built a team yet—I get that—I talk to Kyle, and he says John is the most prepared of all the TV [people] he meets in the production meetings before games. We understand we’ll have to live with growing pains, but I’m willing to do that because I believe the upside with both of them is so great.”
The Elway mention is interesting because he’s the best-case scenario for success. The worst-case scenario is easy: Matt Millen.
Even Elway had a little bit of football front office experience before the Denver Broncos turned to him to save them from the Josh McDaniels debacle. Elway was a co-owner and ran the front office for the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush for six seasons. But that’s not the same as being an NFL GM, and even he was wary of jumping into those waters.
“I’m not interested in being a general manager,” Elway said shortly before the Broncos hired him in 2010, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t have that kind of experience to be able to pick those players day in and day out and such.”
But then Elway became one of the best general managers in football. His competitiveness as a player translated very well to his executive role. He also has had a lot of help from a strong personnel team around him, something Lynch will need.
The easiest comparison for Lynch is Millen. Millen, a fantastic defensive player and Super Bowl champion during his NFL days, came out of the Fox broadcast booth to become the Detroit Lions’ general manager. Lynch, a fantastic defensive player and Super Bowl champion during his NFL days, is coming out of the Fox broadcast booth too. Both worked games with play-by-play man Dick Stockton, if you want to dig a little deeper. Neither had experience as an executive.
Millen became a punchline, the general manager who blew many draft picks and built the only 0-16 team in NFL history. Millen knows what Lynch is up against.
“When I heard the news, good luck,” Millen told the Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett. “He’s a bright guy. I mean, the parallels are kind of funny, actually. He was a defensive guy, he was a really good player. All those things, all that crap. But none of those things are factors. The things that are factors are, can you manage people? Can you get everybody on the same page? Can you handle the politics? If you got that, fine. If you don’t have it, then it’ll turn out the way it turns out.”
In baseball circles, the story of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson is a cautionary tale. Harrelson was a former player who was hired out of the broadcasting booth (incredibly enough, he also was once a color guy with Stockton) to be the Chicago White Sox general manager in 1986. Among his missteps were firing manager Tony La Russa, one of the most successful managers in MLB history, and firing assistant general manager Dave Dombrowski, who has since spent almost 30 years as a GM and built the 1997 Florida Marlins’ championship team. The 1986 White Sox went 72-90, Harrelson lasted only one season as GM (he gone!) and Chicago made the playoffs only one more time the rest of the century.
There have been other instances of a general manager being hired without much front-office experience, or surprise hirings from related jobs like the Cleveland Browns giving general counsel Sashi Brown control over the roster last year. But the NFL, and all sports, generally hire someone who has been a scout or working in a personnel department for the GM job. Lynch was a great safety, a fine leader and a smart guy, and he’ll be a great public face for a franchise that hasn’t had much positive publicity in a while. But what he’s being asked to do is incredibly rare. And it’s fair to assume longtime personnel people around the NFL who have been grinding in hopes of getting a chance to run a team will not be rooting for Lynch.
York is correct: Opportunities can be missed because the league is almost entirely against doing anything different. If Lynch succeeds, maybe his and Elway’s success stories will provide a new way for teams to find GMs. And if Lynch fails, he and Millen will have another thing in common.
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