When the San Francisco 49ers defense came onto the field to start the second half on Monday night in St Louis their offense had just spotted them to a three point lead. There was only one small problem. Three All-Pro linebackers were missing. Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman have been missing all season, but now Patrick Willis was out too. This brought rookie Chris Borland onto the field for his first meaningful defensive snaps.
The 49ers defense responded by forcing the Rams to go three and out.
In the process rookie Jimmie Ward was lost for the night to a quad injury forcing Chris Cook into the lineup at left cornerback and moving Perrish Cox into the slot.
No problem. The 49ers defense gave up a first down, but that was it. In the second half without their All-Pro linebackers and starting slot cornerback the 49ers defense held the Rams to 98 yards on 37 plays, and rookie Dontae Johnson put the game away when he returned an interception for a touchdown.
It was a tremendous job by Vic Fangio and his defensive staff to shut down the Rams while juggling an ever changing roster.
It also put a spotlight on the work that Trent Baalke and his scouting staff have done since taking over for Scot McGloughan in March of 2010.
There is still a faction of the 49ers fan base that gives McGloughan more credit for where the 49ers are today than Baalke but make no mistake, these 49ers are definitely Baalke's creation. Only eight players on the current roster were brought in before Baalke took over.
Baalke's detractor's will point to his draft day misses. The 2012 draft in particular stands out. What's interesting about that draft is while only Joe Looney remains with the 49ers, five of the other six players are still on NFL rosters.
The draft is only one part of an NFL general managers job responsibilities and focusing only on that area is a bit myopic. In addition to the draft they need to manage the selection of undrafted free agents, bringing in free agents from other teams, and who they want to retain among their own free agents.
This is the part of the job where Baalke has excelled. Ian Williams, Michael Wilhoite, and Tramaine Brock are all undrafted free agents who have earned starting roles, while Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, L.J. McCray and Dillon Farrell have also earned positions on the current 53-man roster.
Baalke has used free agency to bring in Antoine Bethea, Dan Skuta, Perrish Cox, Craig Dahl, Chris Cook, Brandon Lloyd, Phil Dawson, Kyle Nelson and Kassim Osgood. All players who fill key rolls on the active game day roster.
One of the biggest knocks against Baalke has been his lack of success with acquiring wide receivers through the draft. A.J. Jenkins was the poster child for draft mistakes. There was even a whiff in free agency when he brought in Braylon Edwards in 2011. Those mistakes have been made up for with trades the last two offseasons for Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson.
A strong argument can be made that the 49ers have the best 1-5 receiving corps in the NFL.
Beating up on the St Louis Rams and a quarterback making his fourth career start is one thing. Doing it against the defending AFC Champions who have a future hall of fame quarterback on the road is a much more daunting task.
If the 49ers are able to defeat the Broncos on Sunday night it should put an end to the debate, and they should just hand Baalke the executive of the year award on the spot.
Date: October 18, 2014 at 11:55 PM
Comment: Great write-up overall. I especially appreciated how you brought up that the draft is only a percentage of the overall impact a GM has, although Baalke has done well in that department. He got several starters in 2011, and these last two drafts also have a lot of promise. People are saying ridiculous things like "aside from Reid, who's been a major contributor in the last two drafts?" The Niners are stacked with veterans, so even their first round picks outside of Reid, who was drafted specifically to replace Dashon Goldson, are having a hard time getting snaps. Check out these names, though: Carradine, Vance McDonald, Lemonier, Patton, Dial, Lattimore, Ward, Hyde, Marcus Martin, Borland, Brandon Thomas, Ellington, Dontae Johnson, Lynch. All these guys have a chance to be significant contributors within the next 3-4 years. Baalke's also gotten key free agents all while keeping the cap under control for a perennial title contender.
Date: October 17, 2014 at 3:51 PM
Comment: Another great blog, Jack - keep em coming
How about this - Harvin to the Jets -
Date: October 17, 2014 at 12:52 PM
Comment: Jack, I truly enjoy reading your blogs, thank you very much for your contribution to the web. Once a bayarea native, its shocking for me to read all the bs and crying about Baalke and the coaching staff by the media. its interesting since I live in the midwest as a die hard 49er fan most people apporch me also very surprised with all the media hatred towards Jim H and Baalke. I completely agree with you that Baalke has done a great job if you look at his performance from a global perspective. People forget Baalke 's responsibility is not just drafting new players but its the entire roster as well as the coaching staff. After watching my beloved team for 8 years of misery its amazing how so many people complain about three NFC championship appearances. Jed York would be crazy if he does not extend Jim H for the next several years. I do not care if Baalke and Jim H like each other but what they have put on the field for us has been tremendous in the past few years. GO NINERS
Date: October 17, 2014 at 9:40 AM
Comment: I'm just bringing up the point that it doesn't have to be one guy who gets all the credit and his best move is still Harbaugh.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 7:04 PM
Comment: Regarding T's comment that the 8 guys from the old regime are our best players. First, it isn't surprising they are some of our best or they wouldn't have been kept. That can be said about any team's long term vets. Baalke shouldn't be downgraded for keeping the best players from a previous regime. Second, those players only form part of our nucleus of best players. Kaep, Bowman, Aldon, Boldin, Iupati, Anthony Davis, Reid, Bethea all deserve to be mentioned as some of our best players, and have been brought in by Baalke.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 5:59 PM
Comment: You forgot Antoine Bethea who is having probably the best season of his career and in 2011 David Akers was the best K of the league.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 5:39 PM
Comment: Old regime deserves credit as well, those 8 players are still our best players and the roster that was here before Baalke started drafting got us a fumble away from the Super Bowl. Not saying Trent hasn't done well, he's got us good players. Especially with Kap, a qood Maybe great QB for the next decade, even though Kap is Harbaugh's pick.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 4:51 PM
Comment: Really enjoy your articles. You also forgot the Alex Smith trade which I think was a great trade at the time considering Alex was not going to start. I love the work that McCloughan did but I agree that Baalke has been very solid. People like to point to the Seahawks drafts but lets not forget that their home field advantage and a little luck (thanks refs) helped them get over the top. The Niners are a few blown calls away from being back-to-back champs. Keep up the good work.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 1:47 PM
Comment: Great article Jack. The vocals that like to knock the job Baalke has done tend to be very unrealistic in their expectations of draft success, and as you say, myopic about the job Baalke does as being entirely draft focussed. Also, dan the man says only 17 guys Baalke drafted are were on the 53 man roster last week, but that doesn't do the drafting credit. At a quick count I saw 31 guys that are on one of the 49ers rosters (active, injured, suspended, PS) that were drafted by the 49ers between 2010 and 2014. When you then add in the undrafted FAs that number goes up to around 45 to 50 (depending on how you look at some of the guys on the PS they claimed off other roster cuts). Then you add in the FA acquisitions. He's done an excellent job of building a strong roster around a core group of players. Also, people claiming the 2013 draft looks like a bust, I strongly recommend waiting until 2015 to make that claim. The depth on this roster has meant some of these guys haven't been getting a go. On most rosters they would be. Lets wait and see what they can do when given a chance.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 1:17 PM
Comment: Agreed Jack on the Bronco's and every other NFL roster having questionable players. Big Al (former 49er) was straightening DMac out on the radio here about the situation and reminded him that D Thomas paid a gal off so he didn't go to trial. It wasn't my point to say we were worse than anyone else. My point was simply a question about character and how 2nd chances play into things. Its nothing new that athletes get more chances than the rest of us. Maybe there's a bigger vision here with Baalke and Harbaugh to build character in guys at a low point in they're life. If that's the case I am down with that.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 11:54 AM
Comment: re: dan the 9er man: In your eventual praise for the Squaks and Broncos, do not forget to include the high dollar signings of Sydney Rice and Percy Harvin (not to mention the crazy QB carousel the Squaks were on prior to Wilson) on the one hand, and Manning, Welker, Sanders and 1/3 of the entire starting D on the other. No doubt those 2 organizations have put themselves in good positions to win over the past 2-3 years, but I think Jack has it right when you look at all the ways in which Baalke has acquired and retained talent. They may not be sexy moves, but he has NOT gone out and made huge FA signings (despite the cries from many 9ers fans for players like Mike Wallace, Eric Decker, Revis, etc.); NOT given terrible, team crippling deals to 1-hit wonders, players that can't stay healthy or players in the twilight of their careers, and NOT mortgaged the teams draft future by pulling a Ditka and trading away entire drafts for "can't miss" prospects.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:41 AM
Comment: Jack, another good write-up. It's one thing for a team to say, "Next man up!" and quite another for that player to perform at a level where you can be confident that he will handle the job. Of course, many of these players will go back to being back-ups, but then there are others like Borland and Johnson who you can see will likely become starters eventually.
By: dan the 9er man
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:35 AM
Comment: I don't know man, as much as i would like to give Baalke credit, I see holes in your argument. Of the current 53 man roster as of last week, only 17 came from a Baalke draft. Or an even better illustration: Of the 51 players drafted by Baalke since he became GM 5 years ago, only 17 are playing for the Forty Niners on game day.
The draft and subsequent talent evaluation is way more important than FA's imo. Home grown talent that doesn't come with a hefty price tag the first 4 years is the key to along "dynasty" run for a franchise. We have whiffed way more than we've hit in the draft and FA. We're way under a 50% success rate on both fronts.
I didn't have the time to check Seattle or Denver or other top tier teams to see how they've fared on draft day over the same time period but I'll do some homework and will let you know. I do think I'll find that other GM's have had better success over the same period.
2012 was a killer for us. Seattle gained multiple pro bowlers and at least 5 high value starters from one draft where we have Looney, a back up guard. IMO, that is the sole reason Seattle won the SB. The 2012 draft.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:32 AM
Comment: Baalke deserves credit, but let's also recognize the input from the coaches/scouts. The thought of breaking up this dynamic duo is risible. Fangio is a mastermind and knows how to defend Manning. Expect another stellar performance if Roman can fulfill his assignment by restricting their minutes on the elevated field....
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:28 AM
Comment: Good reminder of why we have great talent and are deep at most positions. That group that wants life to go back to the way it was under Nolan and McGloughan isn't interested in facts.
My only bone to pick with Baalke is the number of discounted price guys with sketchy pasts that have great talent he signs. The guys here in Denver are going nuts over P Cox's former legal issues. We have some high character guys on this team. I can't speak for Cox now but his past is well known that he got off from some bad stuff here in Denver. The Bronco's wanted no part of his antics. Not crazy about having a guy who raped a woman while she's passed out and got off because they couldn't prove it.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:24 AM
Comment: Good read. I would have included LaMichael as a whiff. McDonald is also looking like a whiff. Kyle Williams anyone? But I do agree, he's done well Baalke.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:22 AM
Comment: Problem is, except for Eric Reid, the 2013 draft looks like a bust also. Baalke has definitely done a good job with the FAs. BTW, you missed Phil Dawson. But it must also be pointed out that those 8 remaining players are high level impact players.
I believe the jury is still out on Trent Baalke.
By: Paul Sibek
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:17 AM
Comment: If we can beat Manning with the decimated defense we currently have, they should get a parade down Market St.
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:13 AM
Comment: Great write-up Jack.
I could not have more appreciation for Baalke at this point. For our defense to play the way that it has with all the adversity it has faced is a great testament to Baalke, Fangio, and Harbaugh. I have complete confidence in these guys and look forward to the furture of this team with all the young talent across the board. This team is loaded, and whether we get the sixth this year or not, I know we'll have many more opportunities going forward.
I'm not going to lie to you and say I wasn't worried after week 1 though ;)
Date: October 16, 2014 at 10:01 AM
Comment: Thanx, Jack … good read