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I was thinking about Eddie DeBartolo Jr., which got me thinking about Jed York, which got me thinking about Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo, and the fickle nature of our sports fandom.

Eddie D has been in the news. You may have noticed. He is being linked to the Carolina Panthers, who will soon have new ownership because the current boss, Jerry Richardson, has been exposed as an old creep and needs $2 billion to purchase a giant rock to crawl under.

On Monday, ESPN reporter Jim Trotter tweeted this: “I’m told Eddie DeBartolo definitely is exploring the possibility of putting together a group to purchase the Panthers. He will have competition if he goes forward.”

Perhaps competition from a collective that would include hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, Warriors superstar and North Carolina native Stephen Curry, and former 49ers quarterback and cultural litmus test Colin Kaepernick. I know, that sounds like three names drawn at random from a hat, but all three men publicly floated the idea of a Justice League-style superteam on Twitter.

We think of DeBartolo as a San Francisco icon, but he is not tied to this area. He grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and now lives primarily in Florida. Buying a team in Charlotte, North Carolina, wouldn’t be as strange for him as running one in the Bay Area, as he did from 1977 to 2000, before he ceded the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, following a corruption scandal.

Eddie DeBartolo remains wildly popular among veteran Niners fans. And when I read about his latest dalliance, my first thought was that some of those disgruntled fans might immediately start to root for the Panthers if Eddie D were to change his affiliation. Then I caught myself. That thinking is so 2016.

It dawned on me that I have hardly thought of Jed York this fall. Most local sports fans probably haven’t either. And what a wonderful development that must be for the CEO.

Starting in 2014, and increasing like a jungle drumbeat in an old Tarzan movie, 49ers followers began to turn on York. They were disappointed by his highly anticipated new stadium in Santa Clara, which had turf issues in its first season, and pricing and retina-scorching sun issues in every season. Mostly, though, people were ticked off about the state of the team.

After three consecutive trips to the NFC championship game under coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011-13, with a Super Bowl appearance sandwiched in the middle of that run, the 49ers wilted like a leaky football – falling to 8-8 in 2014, 5-11 in 2015 and 2-14 in 2016.

Fans snickered at Jim Tomsula and rolled their eyes at Chip Kelly, but most of their ire landed on York and his general manager, Trent Baalke. When Harbaugh began feuding with Baalke, York sided with his GM and helped to smear the coach. The faithful noticed. They got sick of York of sitting before the media after another dreadful season and making what sounded like empty promises.

I’m not claiming that the 49ers fan base has done a 180 on York. Many still see him as a Little Lord Fauntleroy who inherited the team from his uncle and his mom and oversaw the decline of a great franchise. In fact, I have seen plenty of tweets in the past 24 hours urging York to buy the Carolina Panthers and sell the Niners to DeBartolo.

But the reaction is mixed now. And it’s muted. Tailgaters aren’t singing songs about Jed York in the Levi’s parking lot before games, but they’re not flying airplanes over the stadium with JED MUST GO banners these days, either.

That alone should encourage York to send weekly bottles of scotch to Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.

York oversaw their hiring, and deserves credit for that. But he was pretty active in hiring Chip Kelly, too – and remember, that move received a lot of praise when it happened. The point is that you don’t always know what you’re getting at the time. And to be frank, we still don’t know what we have in Lynch and Shanahan. But early results are encouraging, obviously. The 49ers have improved dramatically since the start of the season, despite heavy injuries, and the coach actually sounds like he can design and explain a game plan.

And now Garoppolo is on the scene, and #Garoppolooza is in full swing. I seriously can’t remember a 4-10 football team generating this much excitement. Downtrodden a couple of months ago, 49ers fans can’t wait for their next game, and their next season.

And York is being pulled along for the ride in this Tunnel of Love. What’s that? He threw Harbaugh under the bus by publicly apologizing for the 49ers’ performance after a Thanksgiving loss to the Seahawks in 2014? He was rumored to be the leaker of much of the anti-Harbaugh sentiment emanating from Santa Clara that year? Ah, let it go. Jimmy G is here!

York, for his part, has kept to the shadows this season. That’s a pretty good formula for an NFL owner to follow.

It wasn’t DeBartolo’s formula. As young as some of his players when his father bought the 49ers, Eddie wore his passion on his sleeve and wasn’t bashful about leveling criticism, even at the great Bill Walsh, when he thought it was warranted.

But the world, and the NFL, have changed since then. Most of the team owners who are front and center these days — like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, Washington’s Daniel Snyder and the Colts’ Jim Irsay — are seen as egotistical meddlers more than visionaries. The owner/leader model worked great in Al Davis’ early years, but it was a disaster for most of his final decade. His son, Mark, keeps a lower profile, and the team has been more competitive in his reign.

York would do well to take Mark Davis’ cue and melt into the background. Let Lynch draft, let Shanahan coach, let Garoppolo throw the ball and bask in their glory if it all works out as planned. York has done almost nothing to spark the 49ers’ turnaround in 2017 – and that’s exactly what we have come to want from our NFL owners.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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