Do not worry, 49ers Faithful. The 2016 season is coming to a close, and retribution will be exacted for the painful and humiliating season you've had to endure. On every level of the organization, a unified voice declares that changes will be coming. The roster will undoubtedly experience significant turnover and the coaching staff will change. It's likely that one or more coordinators (if not the head coach himself) will get swept up in that change. While many fans have called for the owners of the team, Denise DeBartlo-York and Dr. John York, to remove control of football operation from their son, Jed, that continues to look like the unlikeliest of outcomes. It would appear that the highest-reaching adjustment to the power structure that the Yorks will tolerate is the possible firing of Trent Baalke as the general manager of the 49ers.
While Baalke's time as the 49ers' GM has had highs (winning the NFL's Executive of the Year award) and lows ("Fire Trent Baalke" signs and the win-loss records over the last two seasons), there is sentiment in some league circles that firing him would be a mistake by the 49ers. For 49er fans, that sentiment could seem crazy, as Baalke has presided over the 49ers' brief rise to success and rapid fall to ineptitude. The 49ers are a terrible football team, and someone must be held responsible. In this two-part argument, we'll look at reasons why Baalke should or should not be a part of the necessary purge looming in the near future for the 49ers. Here, in Part One, we will look at the reasons why Baalke deserves to be fired.
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This argument seems straightforward and fairly easy to write. Again, the current 49ers are terrible, and Trent Baalke made them. He selected the players and interviewed the coaches that have combined to produce what the Yorks are trying to sell on Sundays. Rather than simply stating, "The team is bad, so Baalke's bad," let's itemize his failures to more appropriately weigh the case against him. WHY are the 49ers currently 2-13? Why have so many of the same issues persisted, even when coaching staffs have changed?
Baalke is a grinder. Even though he has paid scouts, whose jobs depend on their ability to see all relevant players within their region in person and offer detailed and objective reports on the skills and talents demonstrated by each of those players, Baalke still attends games in person to do the same thing. He's old school, and that's part of the reason why he is held in such high esteem by long-time executives throughout the league. That means he also seeks to employ old-school football: win on defense. Let the offense do just enough to outscore the other team. Stop their running game; dominate them with your running game. Possess the ball; control the clock. Spend the whole season playing the type of football that tends to succeed in January and February. There's a fundamental issue with old school philosophy: it's old. If a strategy exists long enough, someone will have figured out how to beat it, and the league has chewed up run-only teams for over a decade. Make no mistake, run-first teams can be very successful if they have the weapons and offensive structure to hurt a defense deep when the box gets loaded, but these 49ers aren't built that way. They lack a legitimate and consistent passing threat that will force defenses to play balanced, which presents opportunities for both the run and the pass. That is on Baalke. He built the roster, and he made a point with every head coach he has worked with to make the statement that the offense will be built to run the ball.
The good news for Baalke: he can't be blamed for Mike Singletary. By all indication, that move was 100% Jed York, and Baalke can't be skewered for those nearly two seasons of ineptitude. That's where the good news ends. Baalke presided over the interview processes that led the 49ers to hire Jim Tomsula, Chip Kelly, and Jim Harbaugh.
Jim Tomsula was a bad hire. That move had the distinction of weakening the 49ers in multiple ways. First, it placed a man in the most influential position within the organization who was not prepared to fill that position. Second, it cost the 49ers two wonderful assistant coaches, as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wasn't going to work as a subordinate to one of his assistants and there was no way to retain Tomsula in his previous defensive line position after his head-coaching tenure predictably fell apart. Third, it was so obvious that he was underqualified for the position that potential assistant coaches were wary of working for him because his likely struggles would threaten their job security. As a result, the 49ers had a patchwork coaching staff, an under-performing defense, and a lack of identity on offense. Tomsula had to be fired after one bad season, and hiring Tomsula necessitated letting Adam Gase get away, eventually making his way down to coach the Miami Dolphins, where he is now a strong contender to win the NFL's Coach of the Year award. The most embarrassing aspect of failing to secure Gase: he wanted to coach the 49ers, and he was an assistant with the team in 2008. They knew him. He was familiar with the 49ers decision-makers, and they still let him walk out of the building, in favor of Jim Tomsula.
Chip Kelly certainly walked into a tough situation. The roster was full of young players who needed to learn how to be professionals, and the veteran leaders on the team were overwhelmingly the "lead by example" type, who generally didn't call out their peers for any perceived lack of intensity, toughness, desire, or work ethic. Questions about Kelly's system and the strain it places on defenses made it difficult to secure a respected defensive coordinator. He didn't have enough at quarterback to make productive use of his effective passing scheme that was frequently getting wide receivers open in the secondary.
While Kelly was able to develop a successful running game (4th most yards in the NFL), his philosophy still ran contrary to Baalke's. While both Kelly and Baalke prefer to have the offense rely on a productive rushing attack, Kelly wants to win on offense. He wants to score points. He wants to score a lot of points, and he wants to win because his is the best offense on the field every week. One of the analytical benefits to Kelly's preferred offensive tempo is that increasing the number of total snaps taken in a game reduces the overall effect of lucky plays. Essentially, one fluke play matters more in a game with 80 total snaps than it would in a game with 120 total snaps. If Kelly has the best offense on the field, he wins more often in a high-tempo matchup. Where Baalke wants the defense to win the game, Kelly has generally called upon his defenses to be just good enough to not lose the game. Run or pass, there is a huge lack of continuity between the two philosophies, which immediately affected Kelly's odds for success. Though the team was assembled to win on defense, Kelly's reputation for wearing out his defenses didn't allow him to secure a defensive coordinator who would win games for him. With the defense as the more talented, but weaker, half of the team, Kelly had to try and win on offense without the tools to do so. Even though Kelly is a highly intelligent football coach with the courage to innovate, he was a bad match for Trent Baalke on a fundamental level, which makes this a bad hire.
Jim Harbaugh was ultimately a bad hire, too. I'm not going to harp on the few weak points in Jim Harbaugh's coaching style. I am aware that he was either too loyal to Greg Roman, who could turn wins into losses with overly conservative play-calling or that Harbaugh himself was far too conservative himself, forcing Roman to sit on a small lead as early as the 2nd quarter in some games. I am aware that the 49ers bled timeouts and collected delay of game penalties while Harbaugh was the coach. I'm aware that the 49ers' offensive scheme failed to change or adjust as opposing defenses became more efficient at stopping it. I'm aware that many players and other personnel in the building felt worn down by Harbaugh's unrelenting intensity, demands, and stubbornness. I simply don't care much about these weaknesses, because Harbaugh has always managed to push through those shortcomings and win, wherever he has coached. The reason that Harbaugh was a bad hire is because he was always going to get fired. Jed York and Jim Harbaugh were never going to coexist for long, and Baalke should have known that.
Baalke knows Jed York. He knows that York is young, sensitive, and prone to making emotional decisions (like promoting Mike Singletary to head coach in the wake of a few emotionally-charged wins as the interim head coach). Baalke also knew Jim Harbaugh. Baalke was attending Stanford practices back when Singletary was still the head coach of the 49ers. He wasn't doing that just to scout Stanford players. He didn't even draft any Stanford players. He was watching Harbaugh coach, talking football with him, and building the foundation of a relationship he would try to leverage during the interview process at the end of the season. It was a calculated and cold-blooded strategy that didn't pay much respect to Singletary, but it positioned the 49ers well to secure the most coveted head coaching candidate in the NFL for 2011. I don't hate the strategy. It was ruthless, but it was effective. It ultimately failed because, as Baalke got to know Harbaugh, he should have realized how completely Harbaugh would upset York, how Harbaugh would openly pout when he felt Stanford leadership couldn't grant any wild request he made that he felt would provide a competitive advantage, and how Harbaugh seemed to have no sense of, nor patience for, pageantry. Jed York wants results, but he is just as concerned with image. Harbaugh could not care what you call him, as long as "winner" is included in there somewhere. That's a recipe for the exact conflict that built up to Harbaugh's early exit from the 49ers and the destructive upheaval caused by the infighting and politicking that played out through the whole 2014 season.
Knowing his owner, and knowing that the owner was not leaving the team, it fell upon Baalke to find a coach who could win and be image-conscious at the same time. He needed a candidate who was capable of demanding a lot from his players, but who didn't take it as a loss when he had to acquiesce to reasonable, if somewhat irritating, demands from the owner, such as rescheduling one practice so the players could all be present at the dedication of the new stadium. Baalke failed to find a coach who could meet both conditions, or he grossly overestimated his own ability to broker a lasting peace between two stubborn personalities with widely different priorities. Either way, this was an error by Baalke.
PERCEPTION OF THE OWNERS
This is a big responsibility of an NFL general manager that is rarely discussed. Trent Baalke's job is to make the Yorks look good. They don't. Baalke has ultimately failed to steer the organization in such a fashion that the fan base respects and reveres the owners of their team. It wasn't very long ago that Jed York was viewed as a breath of fresh air. His exuberance and confidence seemed like an exhilarating and dramatic change from the distant indifference projected by his mother and father. He set to work securing a stadium deal, he gave the players the head coach they wanted and rallied behind, quickly realized his error and replaced him with a competent coach whose unyielding confidence instantly spread through the team, the building, and the fan base. The 49ers were winning playoff games again. Now the Yorks are viewed as a comedy of errors, paralyzed with indecision and unqualified to make football decisions. The turnover with head coaches makes the Yorks look reactionary and impatient. The sudden decline of the 49ers as a football team makes Jed York look tremendously immature, foolish, and far too sensitive to preside over a franchise in a business characterized by toughness and deliberation. Baalke failed his owners in this regard. From their perspective, he was entrusted with their image, and he was hired to make football decisions that kept the team winning and the fans happy (and spending). The team isn't winning, the fans aren't happy, the fans' money is being spent on embarrassing banners, and the owners look terrible.
Here's the big one. While the roster-gutting exodus of the 2015 offseason would have been nearly impossible to predict and to prepare for, the roster was still too weak and the depth too poor. While it isn't possible to immediately replace the top-end talent that the 49ers lost in 2015, there is no excuse for any team with the 49ers' salary cap space to lack competent backups throughout the roster. Depth personnel and role players are not expensive, but the 49ers' lack of depth has been exposed this season, as injuries have removed several starters, and their replacements have generally been terrible. A 3-4 defense that is forced to start the season without an actual nose tackle is going to struggle, even if all of the players understand the scheme well enough to play quickly and effectively (they didn't). A precision passing offense without precise quarterbacks is going to have problems. An offense whose threat of QB runs results in a lot of man coverage will struggle to complete passes when most of the wide receivers can't consistently beat man coverage.
These shortcomings were present on the roster back when Kelly was hired in January, months before free agency and the draft. Trent Baalke didn't secure a nose tackle in free agency, he signed a career backup QB who was familiar with Kelly's system (primarily just to help the offense transition to Kelly's scheme, not to compete for snaps), and he leaned heavily on Kelly's influence to secure a CFL WR who had already been bounced out of the NFL, after allowing Anquan Boldin, the team's most physical and productive WR, both in general and against man coverage, to leave as a free agent. No nose tackle was drafted, and quarterback and wide receiver weren't addressed in the draft until the 6th. In fact, Baalke only drafted one quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) before the 6th round in his six years running the 49ers' drafts. By comparison, the New England Patriots, who currently have a 1st ballot Hall of Fame QB starting for them, have drafted quarterbacks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds over the same span. Baalke has drafted one WR prior to the 4th round during his entire tenure, and that pick (AJ Jenkins) was a 1st round bust.
A man needs to know his limitations. It's an old adage, and it's absolutely true. While Baalke has a assembled a good offensive line and routinely uncovered mid-late round steals (Rashard Robinson, Aaron Lynch, Ronald Blair, etc.) on the defensive side of the ball, he's demonstrated a blind spot with offensive skill players. His highest-drafted QB, Kaepernick, hasn't developed as everyone hoped after a breakout season in 2012 and his struggles to read defenses and move swiftly through progressions could have been anticipated by watching his college performances. His highest-drafted RB, Carlos Hyde, has carried the offense this season, but he struggles with injuries that may often be attributed to his physical running style. Baalke's only highly drafted WR, AJ Jenkins was fast, but clearly lacked the functional strength, toughness, and intensity to succeed in the NFL. Choosing not to risk valuable early picks on positions he's struggled with seems like a way to ensure that the team's early picks result in players who help the team, but that strategy has gutted the 49ers offense.
In all of the facets of his job, in every area of responsibility that a general manager can be entrusted with, Baalke has come up short. His strategy for winning appears outdated, he hasn't shown that he can secure effective coaching, the roster has declined on his watch, and the owners look like uncaring buffoons. He appears to be at a philosophical impasse with the most recent head coach he has hired, as his desire to win on defense seems to be at odds with the aggressive offensive innovator he hired. The image of the owners can't likely endure the stigma of having to find a 4th coach in four seasons, so the general manager becomes the most expendable of the two men. Baalke has to go.
Please check in tomorrow for my look at the reasons why Baalke should not be fired. I'll work hard to come up with convincing reasons. It should be fun.