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What the NFL’s Other Owners Can Learn From 49ers’ Jed York

Not that long ago, San Francisco had feuds between the coach and GM and one of the worst-constructed rosters in the league. How did the team’s CEO manage to turn it all around to reach the Super Bowl seven years after its last appearance? And what did he learn from the Patriots?

MIAMI — Daniel Snyder’s team isn’t here. Neither is Woody Johnson’s. Jimmy Haslam’s? It’s amazing the Browns made it to all their regular-season games. Yet there is hope for the NFL’s failing billionaires, the owners who are reviled by their own fan base, and his name is Jed York.

York’s San Francisco 49ers are back in the Super Bowl, and there is a lesson here for any losing owner who wants to hear it: You don’t have to stink at this, guys. Really.

Jed York

When teams win championships, owners get trophies too. But owners do not actually win championships, even though most of them think they do. What owners can do is small and subtle, but it’s essential: Hire the right people, keep them all on the right long-term track, know when to step in and know when to step back—which is most of the time.

Three years and a month ago, York had made a mess of his own franchise. His team reached Super Bowl XLVII in the 2012 season and nearly won, but they couldn’t get there again; general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh had a lousy relationship, fissures became fractures and it all fell apart.

York played a big role. He chose Baalke’s side and got increasingly angry at Harbaugh—on at least one occasion, he tweeted criticizing the team. Rather than get the best from everybody and find ways for them to work together, York created a culture where seemingly everyone in the organization was seen as on one side or the other. It seems obvious now—and it was obvious to many on the outside then—that choosing the GM’s side of a fight while retaining the coach would not work. But when you’re in a bad relationship, you can’t always see straight.

It was so bad that when Harbaugh finally left, York was still trying to win the argument. He shouldn’t have cared if Harbaugh succeeded or failed at Michigan, but he did. He promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach; Tomsula was the interim head coach before Harbaugh got hired, and though he was not meant to be a head coach, it seemed like York wanted to show the team would have done better with him than with Harbaugh.

After that failed, York made two more classic owner mistakes: First he stuck with the guy who was failing, Baalke. Then he hired the guy who would create the most positive headline: Chip Kelly, recently fired by the Eagles. That didn’t work either, and it was pretty clear that the roster Baalke had assembled was one of the worst in the league.

York started getting things right when he realized Baalke had to go. There would be no more inadequate tweaks, blaming of others or clinging to failing plans out of pride. It was time to start over, and it took a bit of humility to see that.

York hired a brilliant coach in Kyle Shanahan. At the time, there were still grumblings that he was just Mike’s over-promoted kid or the beneficiary of great talent in Atlanta, but he is considered one of the coolest coaches in the NFL now. Those who really followed Shanahan back then understood how smart he was. Extremely smart football minds don’t always succeed as head coaches, but that’s a good place to start.

York also allowed Shanahan to have input in hiring the general manager. John Lynch was unproven, but he had two qualities Baalke did not: He got along well with people, and he was comfortable being the public face of a team when it was struggling. York gave them both six-year deals, which told them, the fan base, the media and York himself that this overhaul would take time—and they were all in it together.

Jed York

Today, York’s ownership tenure looks a lot like the first few years of Robert Kraft’s tenure in New England. Remember? Kraft took over the Patriots, got a stadium built, hired a famous coach (Bill Parcells), lost a Super Bowl, chose the wrong side in a dispute between coach and personnel chief, feuded with the coach and then watched his team flounder. Kraft fixed it by hiring a brilliant coach, Bill Belichick.

It’s fair to wonder how much Robert Kraft actually contributed to New England’s six Super Bowl wins. He doesn’t deserve the credit that Belichick and Tom Brady deserve. He might not deserve as much as he gets. But when you have an organization full of people who prioritize winning, then everybody is happy when you win.

That is where the 49ers are today. They had some luck, like getting Jimmy Garoppolo for a second-round pick and landing the second pick when one of the best pass-rushing prospects of the decade, Nick Bosa, was available. And they made some mistakes, like passing over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson so they could draft defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, or taking a chance other teams wouldn’t have taken on linebacker Reuben Foster.

But when Foster got in legal trouble, Lynch cut him and said “I have to own it.” The 49ers have gotten enough right that the mistakes do not haunt them. The internal power dynamic works: Lynch does not feel threatened by Shanahan’s intelligence, and Shanahan does not look down on Lynch for his lack of executive experience. And in that circle is Jed York, who made a few really smart decisions and then watched his organization bloom from there. You may wonder much he has done for the 49ers. The answer: Just enough.

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