The media and the San Francisco 49ers’ fanbase went into a state of uproar a week ago, when news broke that the 49ers and the Cleveland Browns nearly executed a deal that would have sent head coach Jim Harbaugh to the Browns, in exchange for multiple draft picks. Following the initial report, 49er CEO Jed York rebutted by saying the rumors were untrue. Just as we were all ready to label this as media hype, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam claimed that Cleveland had the opportunity to make a deal, but it never ended up materializing. York then responded by saying that the Browns had reached out to the Niners, but the organization had no intention of continuing talks.
While we can attempt to achieve peace of mind by writing off these rumors, there is no discounting the fact that there is tension brewing in the 49er front office. Once considered the two driving forces behind the Niners’ revitalization, friction now exists between Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. Both Harbaugh and Baalke are big personalities, so it should come as no surprise that they occasionally butt heads over personnel decisions. The question is – can the team continue to find success even with the GM and head coach at odds?
After six years with the organization, Baalke took over the general manager position for the 49ers in 2011 after the firing of former head coach Mike Singletary. With thirteen years of scouting and player personnel management experience, he looked to be the perfect candidate for the 49ers to lure prospective head coach Jim Harbaugh away from Stanford.
Below is a list of the most successful draft picks Baalke has made, both as a GM and as the director/VP of player personnel in the 49ers organization:
2009 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #10: WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
2010 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #11: OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers
2010 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #17: OG Mike Iupati, Idaho
2010 Draft – Round 3 – Pick #91: ILB NaVorro Bowman, Penn State
2011 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #7: DE/OLB Aldon Smith, Missouri
2011 Draft – Round 2 – Pick #36: QB Colin Kaepernick, Nevada
2011 Draft – Round 3 – Pick #80: CB Chris Culliver, South Carolina
2011 Draft – Round 4 – Pick #115: RB Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
2011 Draft – Round 7 – Pick #211: FB Bruce Miller, Central Florida
2013 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #18: FS Eric Reid, Louisiana State
Baalke has a big personality and has proven to be very aggressive when it comes to player personnel. Paired with his shrewdness, that aggressiveness has proven successful over the past few years, as he has drafted several core components of the team. This includes the 2011 Draft where he hit several home runs, hauling in Aldon Smith, Kaepernick, and Bruce Miller. However, with his aggressive nature, Baalke has also had several bad swing-and-misses, and several of these misses stand out. Below are the most prominent busts in the Baalke era:
2008 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #28 – DT/DE Kentwan Balmer, North Carolina
2008 Draft – Round 2 – Pick #39 – OG Chilo Rachal, Southern California
2008 Draft – Round 3 – Pick #75 – S Reggie Smith, Oklahoma
2010 Draft – Round 2 – Pick #49 – SS Taylor Mays, Southern California
2012 Draft – Round 1 – Pick #30 – WR A.J. Jenkins, Illinois
2012 Draft – Round 2 – Pick #61 – RB LaMichael James, Oregon
2012 Draft – Round 4 – Pick #117 – OG Joe Looney, Wake Forest
As the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials would say – “Trent Baalke doesn’t always botch picks, but when he does, he prefers to make them big”. In the six drafts in which he was a major player, Baalke didn’t miss too many. The problem is that his misses were stingers. DT Kentwan Balmer in 2008 was a highly regarded defensive line prospect who never fit in the Niners’ scheme. Safety Taylor Mays out of Southern California was supposed to be the second coming of Adrian Wilson, but he was put in a logjam at the safety position during his time in San Fran. The worst of all, of course, is the drafting of wide receiver AJ Jenkins, who infamously didn’t catch a single ball with the Niners.
Baalke is one of the most talented GM’s in the league in terms of assessing talent. He has proven that with the draftings of Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, and Michael Crabtree. However, his aggressive mindset has also burned the Niners with busts like the aforementioned Jenkins.
In his three seasons in the National Football League, Jim Harbaugh has proven to be one of the most enigmatic coaches in the league. He has proven himself to be a football genius with his dynamic schemes and his management of his players, but he has also portrayed himself as an off-putting, stubborn, and argumentative individual. Though I’m sure these characteristics have made him one of the most disliked coaches in the league, his personality and mindset have fit well with the 49ers’ smash-mouth identity and have brought success on the field. The place it has not brought success is in his encounters with the front office.
It is not unreasonable for the front office to draw a line for Harbaugh’s antics. Despite all his success on the field, his stubbornness and his flair for the dramatic likely burns out the individuals who are working with him, namely Trent Baalke. Baalke is a big personality, but Harbaugh redefines the words “big personality.”
During his tenure as 49ers’ head coach, Harbaugh has made enemies with Pete Carroll, Jim Schwartz, Richard Sherman, and Doug Baldwin, just to name a few. Of course, let’s not forget the countless poor officials he has blasted every game. His antics have also occasionally cost the team on the field. Harbaugh is infamous for throwing ill-advised challenge flags because he is too obstinate to let unfavorable plays stand. His unruly behavior on the sidelines and uninterested disposition with the media additionally reflects poorly on the entire 49er organization.
So, can the Baalke-Harbaugh dynamic continue to work? My gut tells me it can. Individuals are bound to have different perspectives. It is not uncommon for GMs and head coaches to butt heads. In fact, the fact that both are aggressive-minded can be considered positive for the franchise, with Baalke applying it to the draft and Harbaugh emphasizing it on the field. As long as the team continues to have success, Niner fans should have no worries.