The reborn San Francisco 49ers owe Johnny Manziel a debt of gratitude.
Manziel, it seems, was more of an NFL matchmaker than NFL playmaker.
In a way, it was he who brought together the dynamic duo of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, the brain trust behind one of the league’s most surprising turnarounds.
Sure, Shanahan and Lynch probably would have forged their professional relationship eventually — after all, Lynch did play for Shanahan’s father in Denver — but the former Cleveland Browns quarterback proved to be the catalyst in forging the friendship.
It was 2014, when Lynch was a promising broadcast analyst at Fox who was assigned to a Green Bay game, and Shanahan was offensive coordinator in Cleveland. Because of the national interest in Manziel, the network called a late audible and sent Lynch to a Browns game.
“Fox pulled me off a dang Aaron Rodgers game on a Thursday, after I had done all my prep,” Lynch recalled this week, easing back into his office chair overlooking San Francisco’s training camp practice fields. “They said, `We are sorry. We know that you’re done with your prep, but Johnny Manziel’s starting and we’ve got to send you to Cleveland.’”
That put Lynch in scramble mode, and Shanahan helped him get up to speed quickly. They had known each other before that, but not well. Shanahan was already a young man by the time Lynch, who had an illustrious 15-year NFL career, was playing for Mike Shanahan in Denver.
That Cleveland encounter poured the foundation for what one day would become a highly productive coach-GM relationship. Nowadays, Lynch is overseeing a franchise that had a tremendous 2017 draft, then flipped a U-turn after losing its first nine games last season to win six of its final seven.
With Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, acquired late in the season by way of a trade with New England, the 49ers have surged back to relevance, as has the storied rivalry with the resurgent Rams.
“When you look at the Rams and 49ers, they both have good up-and-coming young quarterbacks, they both have smart, offensive-minded head coaches, and that’s kind of what the West Coast is about,” 49ers owner Jed York said. “You see that rivalry starting, one that I think the fan base in California can really get behind.”
Both Shanahan and York have referred to the clean-cut Lynch as “Captain America,” a nickname long ago given to Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys. It fits Lynch too, with his easy smile and gregarious personality standing in stark contrast to his rugged, big-hitting style at Stanford and later with Tampa Bay and Denver. He’s one of seven players in NFL history named to at least four Pro Bowls with two franchises; five with the Buccaneers, and four with the Broncos.
Lynch has a second-floor office at 49ers headquarters, with a sprawling balcony that overlooks the practice fields. Just below the balcony is a network of raised logs and stumps that players use as part of their training. That’s reminiscent of some of the early training Lynch did as a kid in San Diego, where even as a high schooler he worked out with NFL players, including the legendary Junior Seau, on a makeshift obstacle course of logs and fences.
He never suspected he’d be running a team decades later. But it was he who approached Shanahan with the novel idea of going from the TV booth to the corner office. By that time, Lynch had worked his way up to the No. 2 crew at Fox, and had worked several Atlanta games, where Shanahan was offensive coordinator for the Falcons.
In one of their many conversations, Shanahan, the leading candidate for the San Francisco coaching vacancy, mentioned that he needed to find the right kind of GM, the type who would be the best fit for him. That was early 2017.
“I kind of just stored that away,” Lynch said. “It stuck with me. My season was essentially over as a broadcaster, and that should be a time where you just go chill. But I had three or four straight nights where I couldn’t go to bed. Something was on my mind. I didn’t even know what it was.
“Finally, I was like, `Dang, maybe I should give him a call.’ I just had so much respect for what he was doing offensively.”
Was he tired of being a broadcaster?
“No, not at all,” Lynch said. “I was loving it. And there were things on the horizon, ‘Thursday Night Football,’ which they kept saying, `Hey, hang in there. You’ll be doing these games.’ So it was going the right trajectory.”
But there were other opportunities. He had spent an offseason with the Broncos, learning the management ropes behind the scenes at the elbow of John Elway. He said someone else, an unnamed “prospective owner” asked if he’d be interested in coming to another franchise. Eventually, though, Lynch set his sights on the 49ers.
“I finally called Kyle and said, `Hey, this may sound crazy to you, but what about me?’” Lynch said. “He was like, `What are you talking about? For the GM?’ But he thought about it, played the [NFC championship] the next week, and called back and said, `I think that would be awesome.’ The rest is history.”
What’s plain to see with the 49ers is there’s no glory grab between Shanahan and Lynch. Both are happy to credit the other, and they both field nonstop media requests. They are both high profile, whereas in lots of clubs the GM goes largely unrecognized by the general public.
As for his TV experience, that has helped Lynch in ways he did not necessarily expect.
“In this league, you normally get a very insular look at how you do things — I knew how Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan did things,” Lynch said, referring to his two coaches with the Buccaneers and one with the Broncos. “You don’t know what’s going on out there. There’s a lot of different ways to be successful.
“One of the most helpful things is going places as part of the seventh [broadcast] crew that aren’t winning and haven’t won for years. When you’re there, you start to understand why. Then you go to the Seattles that have been good for a long time, the Broncos, you start going around and taking notes… There’s a lot of good lessons to be had if you just watch and observe.”
And a few years later, he emerged as the Bay Area’s true Johnny Football.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer