SANTA CLARA — The 49ers held a press conference Friday, and there were three seats at the Levi’s Stadium dais.
One for general manager John Lynch. One for head coach Kyle Shanahan. And one for the team’s $137.5 million dollar man, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who signed a contract that will make him the highest-paid player in NFL history on Thursday.
Notably absent from the proceedings were neckties and 49ers CEO Jed York.
The lack of ties didn’t say anything — it’s California, baby. But the lack of York was telling.
It’s a sign that the team’s oft-posturing owner might have figured out how to get out of his own way.
It also signaled that the team, though it might still be owned by York’s family, is clearly controlled by Shanahan and Lynch.
My, how things have changed in Santa Clara.
For the past three years, at this juncture of the offseason, the 49ers have held a press conference to formally announce a new head coach. A year ago Friday, York formally introduced Shanahan and his hand-picked GM, Lynch. In January of 2016, York introduced Chip Kelly as the team’s head coach. The year before that, it was Jim Tomsula’s presser. (Remember when Jim Tomsula was the head coach of the 49ers? What a time that was…)
All of those press conferences promised a new era of 49ers football was on the way, and they all featured York, front and center, selling that narrative and, by proxy, himself.
But York didn’t feel the need to be up at the podium Friday. He could have put four chairs on the stage and taken credit for the fact that the 49ers are, finally, back on the right track after years of self-sabotage. And cutting a proverbial $137.5 million check certainly buys more than a quick post-presser photo op — it can buy you live video next to Garoppolo (though you have to feel really confident in your appearance to sit next to Jimmy GQ for extended periods of time). One could argue that Friday would have been a good opportunity for York to take a victory lap or declare “I told you so” to everyone who doubted his ability to run the team over the last four years — a group that includes, well, just about everybody.
But York didn’t do that. He did what he’s done for the last year — stood on the sidelines and let Lynch and Shanahan run the show.
“We have people around that I trust in Kyle and John, and if it’s my job to sign the checks, that’s what I’ll do,” York told me after Friday’s presser.
Wait a minute. This is the same guy who fired Jim Harbaugh — the coach who was instrumental in getting a moribund franchise a new, cash-printing stadium — for personal reasons. The guy who declared that Tomsula and Kelly would return the 49ers to glory. The guy who 13 months ago combatively declared “I own this football team. You don’t dismiss owners.”
This same guy is happy just signing the checks?
I know it’s hard to believe, but I think we all have to believe it.
York had ample opportunity to show that hawkish personality that we’ve come to know over the last few years on Friday, but instead, we only heard about how much work the team has to do over the next few months and years.
Oh my goodness, according to York, there is so much work that needs to be done.
He let us all know with generic platitudes like:
“I think people know what my standards are and I want to make sure that I have people that are around that feel the same way that I do about this team, that are going to put everything that they have into this organization and get us to where we need to be. Knowing Kyle, knowing John, knowing the people that they put around them, I feel really good about this group. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
“I need to make sure what I do is to put everything we can into this team to give us a chance to get successful and I think we’re starting to get that foundation, but now it’s all about the work.”
This guy used to be a pretty juicy quote — I know Garoppolo doesn’t give much in press conferences, but I didn’t think his speak-without-saying-much style would rub off on the team owner so fast.
And it’s not as if York was unaware or unwilling to acknowledge how press conferences this time of year typically go for him — he even took a shot at himself Friday:
“It’s weird [to have a positive press conference] because I rarely make mistakes,” York said.
[My favorite part of that was the half-second pause before us media hacks realized that it was, in fact, a joke. (And a decent one, too.)]
I don’t know if this is a truly humbled version of York — it’s easy to play it all cool when times are good, and compared to the last four years, these are glory days — but then again, he did stay out of the fray when the team was 0-9, and that didn’t change when the team won its final five games. Those were decent tests of York’s temperament, and he passed them both.
Yes, one year into the tenure of his eighth head coach, there’s evidence that he’s following through on his implied promise to get the hell out of the way and let the football experts do their jobs.
That should have 49ers fans downright giddy.
Forget the quarterback with the fat, new contract (which is already a bargain, by the way), or the draft, or free agency, or the 53-man roster as its currently constructed. Success and failure emanate from the top. York has presided over winners and losers, and his involvement in football operations has a direct correlation to the team’s success rate.
If York has come to realize that truth on his own, only good things can come. But he’s going to have to stand on the sidelines a lot longer for anyone to trust that this new Jed York is a permanent model.
For now, York is staying out of football matters. He says he’s happy just being the guy who writes the checks. And so long as that remains the arrangement — or, more precisely, so long as York trusts Shanahan and Lynch to make the right moves (I don’t know if he can help himself otherwise) — the 49ers stand a chance to return to the NFL’s elite.
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