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Down on the turf of Monster Park, the supposed face of everything wrong with the San Francisco 49ers is hidden behind a pair of Ray-Bans, half-watching as the collection of undervalued assets and overpriced commodities known as a professional football team goes briskly about the business of warming up. Paraag Marathe, the Niners' director of football operations, a handsome 28-year-old wearing a crisp navy blue suit and looking like something out of Mergers & Acquisitions, stands on the sideline next to the team's bench, talking about things like "inflows and outflows" and "constrained resources." He is explaining, in his bright and energetic manner, his approach to managing the budget and personnel of a National Football League franchise, while the assorted personnel of one such franchise, the Arizona Cardinals, grunt and grab themselves in front of him. "It's like a private equity fund," Marathe says -- and to know how far the NFL has come and where the league is today, one need only imagine the same words issuing from Vince Lombardi's mouth.
Here in San Francisco, Week 13 of the NFL's 86th season opens on a clear December Sunday that soon turns gray and cold. The 49ers are to play the Cardinals in an hour or so, a contest of interest only to gamblers and draft-order prognosticators and the drivers enjoying the unusually light game-day traffic on 101, a matchup whose lack of appeal Marathe explains thusly: "It's 2-9 versus 3-8." That's a nice way of saying that over the next three hours, the two teams will perpetrate a game only intermittently resembling professional football in a stadium at least 10,000 people shy of capacity.
Such is the sad state of affairs in San Francisco, where this year the excitement over a new coach, Mike Nolan, and a No. 1 draft pick, quarterback Alex Smith, has dissipated with every snap. Having won only three times thus far (with one game remaining) -- after two victories last year and seven the year before -- the 49ers are now well established as a league patsy, a depressing fate for a team that in the 1980s and '90s seemed to have a timeshare on the Super Bowl. It's no surprise, then, that a 49ers game these days is an exercise in nostalgia for a not-so-distant past. The fans who bother to show up at Monster Park merely serve as reminders of what the burgundy-and-gold once were, outfitted as they are like the back wall of a sports memorabilia store: The jerseys all read "LOTT" and "RICE" and "YOUNG" and "MONTANA," and sometimes even "OWENS." No other football team is as subsumed by the shadow of its own reputation.
Here on the sideline, behind the Niners' bench, is the man who has come to embody that faded luster: Paraag Marathe, Stanford MBA, former management consultant, salary-cap whiz, football's version of a CFO, and quite possibly the most defenseless scapegoat ever to enter the clutches of the Bay Area's preternaturally dense sports media.
Marathe's name -- his first sounds like "Prague," his last is pronounced "ma-RA-tay" -- first began to crop up last year, during the 49ers' much-fretted-over coaching search, of which he was a primary architect in just his fourth season with the Niners. Having provided a variety of statistical analyses for the team during his tenure, he'd already been tagged sneeringly as a "Moneyball guy," a reference to the Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A's and their rational, stats-based approach to building a baseball team. All of this made Marathe an easy target, and the press delivered a facile and predictable caricature. Here was someone "with no football background," a guy with a "kryptonite-powered laptop" and a name that suggested, for one writer, "a middle-of-the-pack member of the PGA's European Tour." The San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler wrote, "[E]very time the 49ers make a big 'people' decision, the public-address announcer in my head says, 'Now batting for Bill Walsh ... Paraag Marathe!'"
Marathe and Terry Tumey, the Niners' director of football administration (and also owner of an MBA), were often lumped together. An anonymous critic described them to a Web site as "book-smart guys ... making football decisions with no knowledge of football" and as "smart people who think they're smarter than they are." While both apparently are "very smart guys," wrote Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News, they just "aren't seasoned NFL men. ...." Another writer was more emphatic: Marathe and Tumey "are not real football people." And what were Marathe and his kind, then, if not real football people? "Computer guys," Killion offered in another column, going on to quote an anonymous former executive: "They're like fantasy football guys." Marathe's bent for numbers sent one reporter running to his Bartlett's to disinter a quote from that noted football mind, Henry Clay: "Statistics are no substitute for judgment," though it's not clear who was arguing they were in the first place. "Who Is Paraag Marathe?" the Chron asked in a headline. It might as well have read, "Who Does Paraag Marathe Think He Is?"
Marathe, standing on the sideline, laughs at his portrayal in the newspapers. "Well, people are just threatened, you know?" he says. "Especially the coaching thing, because who the hell am I" -- a "random Indian guy," as he'd put it earlier -- "to go interview coaches? You should be using an old football guy and all that stuff.