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John Elway's mentorship of John Lynch helped set path for 49ers GM

Kimberley A. Martin
Senior NFL writer

MIAMI — John Elway sent the text message last Sunday, knowing that the madness was about to ensue in South Florida.

So, before the San Francisco 49ers would be besieged by an onslaught of activity — media interviews, meetings and late-week game-planning for Super Bowl LIV — Elway delivered a simple message to an old friend he hoped would be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy a week later.

He wanted John Lynch to know that he had his full support. As always. 

“I let him know that all of Denver’s rooting for him,” Elway said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports earlier this week.

Long before Lynch became the general manager of the 49ers, he idolized Elway. Their paths played out in similar fashion a decade apart, beginning first as collegiate quarterbacks and baseball players at Stanford before embarking on NFL careers that included stints in Denver and the elation of a Super Bowl victory. 

And, eventually, Lynch would follow his mentor into a front-office role.

After he stepped off the field in 2008 and into the broadcast booth, he developed a curiosity for the inner workings of organizations. He wanted to be a part of the process, understand how teams evaluate talent, build rosters and foster winning cultures. He wanted to be the person shaping the direction of a franchise, but first, he needed to see how it was done. From the inside. 

And, as he had always done in the past, Lynch turned to his role model.

Broncos general manager John Elway and 49ers GM John Lynch have enjoyed each other's company over the years. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Over dinners, rounds of golf, and drinks after leaving the course, Lynch would pepper Elway about the intricacies of the gig.

“He was full of questions about the job — what were the great things about the job, as well as some of the things that were not necessarily something you wanted to do, but came with the job,” said Elway, a two-time Super Bowl champion and XXXIII MVP who became the Broncos general manager in 2011. “So we had many conversations on that. And that’s why John was such a good commentator, because of his work ethic. He covered all of his bases and was very diligent in the work that he did.”

Lynch’s broadcasting career at Fox gave him access to executives around the NFL on a regular basis, and thus more avenues for him to gather general information about being an executive. Those interactions didn’t provide insight into the day-to-day football operations. But, thanks to Elway, he got the full experience in 2013.

“John came to me and asked if he could sit through the draft, watch the draft and also be a part of the evaluations,” said Elway, “and I was all for that because I respected John, especially in the secondary and on the defensive side, I thought he could really add a lot to it. 

“So, I was excited he wanted to do it, and he did a heck of a job and was a big help there. But I think that’s where he kind of got his taste of kind of what, at least the draft and going through that practice was all about.”

The seed was first planted a couple years earlier when Elway, then in his first season as general manager, asked if Lynch could help their draft preparation by studying tape and writing reports on the class of safeties. “Year 1, he said, ‘Hey, I could use another set of eyes. I trust your eyes. Would you look at the safeties?’” Lynch recalled. "And I think he was surprised that I took a lot of pride in how I wrote them up. … I didn’t know how a scout typically writes up a player but I just kind of did it on my own.”

A year later, Lynch’s detailed scouting observations were again in demand. Elway asked him to watch tape of all defensive backs in the 2012 draft class.

The following year — according to Lynch’s retelling — it was Elway who extended the invitation to the Broncos draft room.

“The next year it was, ‘Why don’t you come on in?’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to start paying me, man.’ He’s getting a lot of free labor,” joked the former hard-hitting safety, who, in those meetings, sat next to former Broncos scout Adam Peters. Peters is now the 49ers’ vice president of player personnel.

“But it was good for my broadcast group — the knowledge, just kind of staying up on things, players,” Lynch said. “Just seeing how the process works, it’s interesting. Players have no idea what goes on. … It was the first I had ever seen of it.”

Elway was afforded the same opportunity as well. A decade before he became Denver’s general manager, he had asked his father, John Sr. — the team’s former director of pro scouting — if he could sit in on its 2000 draft meeting. 

“My dad was in the draft meeting, so I got a chance to sit with him for the last month of his life,” said Elway, whose father died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Palm Springs, California at the age of 69.

Both Elway and Lynch were given the chance to be a fly on the wall in the Broncos war room. And both ex-players gleaned the same level of insight being on the inside.

“No. 1, I think you get a feel for evaluations of players,” Elway said. “I enjoyed it while sitting there. It’s a lot of hard work a lot of time, but you find that you enjoy evaluating players, ranking players, you enjoy finding out the differences of opinions among scouts as well as other people involved in the decision-making process; and how different viewpoints can be. 

“That’s when I found out: When you can’t play — for me, that was the next best thing. To be able to use your experiences of playing and put a football team together that would have success. That was fun to do.”

Elway said he wasn’t surprised that Lynch ultimately became a general manager. Known best for his likability (“He’s probably one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. It’s common denominator when you talk about John Lynch — how nice he is,” Elway said), Lynch is also intelligent, diligent and driven. And at his core, he still thinks like a player.

“Obviously, he was a very good commentator,” said Elway, “but as a commentator, there’s really no scoreboard. And I think as players, we get used to having a scoreboard. That is kind of how we’re built. And when you get back to something to where you know, each week you get a test and see how well you’ve done, that’s what we’re used to.”

Lynch was meticulous as a commentator, so Elway knew his longtime friend would do “his homework” when it came to evaluating his own interest in joining a team. Part of that due diligence included long talks with his mentor.

The pair was often spotted together in Denver, before Lynch and his family moved to California. And during those conversations, the intricacies of the job always came up. Lynch, of course, wanted to know what Elway liked and disliked about the job.

“I think the best thing about it is the satisfaction of using your expertise as a player and what you like to see in coaches, what you like to see in players, and how you like seeing things done,” Elway said. 

The most challenging part? Having to emotionally disconnect when faced with making a difficult decision, he said. 

“As a player, you don’t make any decisions on who you’re with in that locker room or who’s coaching you, whereas a GM, you have to make those decisions,” Elway added. “It’s a much different role. You’re not nearly as close to the players because you can’t get emotionally involved with them because you’ve got to be able to make the best decision for the organization and also be able to put the best football team on the field. That is the most difficult thing because you know how it felt as a player. Seeing your teammates that got released and the impact it had on them, and now you’re having to make those decisions that impact players’ lives. That’s very difficult to do.”

Accepting defeat isn’t easier either. 

The 49ers are now viewed as a template for rebuilding a franchise the right way. But a year ago, San Francisco was 4-12. In 2017, Lynch’s first year on the job, the 49ers finished 6-10 and dead-last in the NFC West.

In those early years, Lynch leaned on Elway too.

“Losing in this league is very difficult ’cause there are so many fans of the NFL and each individual team. It’s very tough to lose,” said Elway. “But obviously, they gave him a six-year deal with [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and it’s just a matter of saying, ‘keep your nose to the grindstone, things are going to go well.’ 

“I believe that this job is a zero-sum game where you’re going to have a lot of injuries some years and other years, you’re not going to and we’re all going to end back at zero. [I told him] eventually, things are going to turn for him and to just hang in there, and they’ve been able to do that.”

Lynch has done more than just “hang in there.” After accumulating some draft-day misses of his own, Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have morphed the 49ers into an absolute force on offense and defense, courtesy of a flurry of offseason acquisitions, both on the field — the 2017 midseason trade for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the additions of cornerback Richard Sherman, who had ruptured his Achilles tendon the previous season, and drafting pass rusher Nick Bosa and receiver Deebo Samuel — and off the field too (i.e., hiring defensive line coach Kris Kocurek).

And by Sunday night, Lynch’s path could mirror Elway’s in another way: Winning a Super Bowl as both a player and  general manager.

Elway had an inkling  Lynch might eventually wind up here. 

In the general manager chair. 

Just like him.

“That’s why I thought, once he did all his homework,” Elway said, “he was going to figure out that he was going to enjoy being in this position.”

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