Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports



It's coming. Black Monday, the first day after the NFL regular season ends, is so named because of how many coaching and front office jobs are terminated directly after the season. The 49ers have played poorly for two years, they have missed the playoffs for three years, and changes must be made within the organization to affect change in the on-field product the York family is trying to sell. The roster will be updated dramatically, the coaching staff will evolve, and there will likely be some degree of shakeup within the front office. Whether that change involves firing Trent Baalke, retaining Baalke but stripping him of some power, hiring an experienced football mind as an executive who would advise football decisions and serve as a buffer between the owners and the team, or some combination of these possibilities, the organization of the front office seems destined to change.

In 2011, when the 49ers returned to the playoffs and Baalke was named NFL Executive of the Year, he was held in high esteem by the 49er Faithful. His fall from grace correlates directly with the 49ers decline in success on the field. While 49ers fans widely blame Baalke for the fall of the team, many anonymous voices around the league have contributed to the growing sentiment that most of the 49ers' problems are outside of Baalke's control. In this two-part argument, we'll continue to look at reasons why Baalke should or should not be a part of the necessary purge looming in the near future for the 49ers. Yesterday, in Part One, we looked at the strong argument against keeping Baalke as GM. Here, in Part Two, we will look at the reasons why Baalke deserves to keep his job. We won't spend time on the unexpected post-draft departures of Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Anthony Davis in 2015 that closely followed the expected retirement of Justin Smith and the free agent departure of Frank Gore. Everyone expected that flurry of moves to hurt the 49ers roster, so they don't need to be referenced here as an excuse to keep Baalke in his job.

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THE JIM HARBAUGH SITUATION


While I argued yesterday that Baalke should never have hired Harbaugh, simply because the meltdown that occurred between Harbaugh's hard-headedness and Jed York's fragile ego was so easy to predict, he may have had no choice, either in Harbaugh's hiring or in how the relationship between Harbaugh and the 49ers fell apart. It's likely that Baalke was discussing Harbaugh's effectiveness as a coach with York, back when Baalke was scouting Harbaugh at Stanford practices during the 2010 season. Many media sources have stated that firing Singletary was tremendously difficult and emotional for Jed York, and it's possible that he only resigned himself to that action after gaining assurance from Baalke that they could likely land Harbaugh. After firing Singletary, York may have fixated on hiring Harbaugh. A general manager is the means by which an owner's wishes are carried out. In a good organization, those wishes are vague ("win more"), allowing the GM room to do his job. In bad organizations, those instructions can be specific to the point of meddling with the GM's ability to perform to the best of their ability ("We need a splash hire! I'm trying to build a stadium here!"). In executing York's desire to hire Harbaugh, Baalke again proved shrewd and calculating. Knowing that Harbaugh preferred to stay in California, Baalke requested permission to interview the Raiders' coveted offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson. In the Raiders resulting panic at the prospect of losing Jackson, they quickly promoted him to head coach, removing themselves as candidates in the Harbaugh sweepstakes. Whether or not Harbaugh proved to be the right long-term fit for the 49ers, Baalke proved effective in out-maneuvering the competition to secure Harbaugh. We can't know how involved York was in the hiring process, but we know he was present in the interviews.

After Harbaugh was hired and the 49ers were winning, York got his stadium built and everything was looking good. Rumors started circulating that Harbaugh was disrespectful to York and that York resented Harbaugh. Harbaugh's unwillingness to cancel or reschedule practice so most of the players could be at the stadium's ribbon cutting, Harbaugh reasonably removing the team from the stadium due to unsafe turf conditions during a public practice, and a rumored incident in which Harbaugh insisted York remove himself from a team meeting, all contribute to the narrative that York felt hurt and resentful towards Harbaugh. While national media sources (York's preferred outlet for news) have pushed the narrative that clashes between Baalke and Harbaugh made it impossible for York to keep both with the 49ers, sources closer to the team (including even Tim Kawakami, whose relationship with Baalke has been particularly frosty and contentious) have disagreed. The leading narrative amongst local outlets contends that Trent Baalke was Harbaugh's last loyal ally at 49ers headquarters and that he was growing exhausted trying to broker peace between Harbaugh and York (and the rest of the executive team). Rumors circulated inside the building and in the news before and throughout the 2014 season that the roster was divided and that Harbaugh was not going to coach the team in 2015. If that is true, then the owners, not the GM, are to blame for the mess that made up the disappointing 2014 season and Harbaugh's subsequent exit from the team.

2015 AND 2016 COACHING SEARCHES


In 2015, Baalke conducted an exhaustive coaching search. He appeared to zero in on Adam Gase as his primary target. Baalke spoke with Gase for as long as twelve hours for the first interview, then returned for a follow-up interview that lasted up to eight hours. He even interviewed Peyton Manning to gain more perspective on Gase as a strategist and teacher. By nearly all accounts, Baalke was prepared to offer Gase the job (and Gase was prepared to accept), then Jed York called Gase to inform him that the 49ers were promoting Jim Tomsula to head coach. As reports emerge later, it became probable that York insisted that Gase accept Tomsula as his defensive coordinator, even though he had no experience in that role. Gase logically preferred to retain Vic Fangio, who had been coordinating top-5 defenses for the 49ers since 2011. Gase declined to accept York's conditions, and he is now a leading candidate for the NFL Coach of the Year award as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

In 2016, the 49ers had to replace Tomsula after the team looked lost and uncertain on the field. With several candidates to interview, the 49ers again conducted a drawn-out search. Hue Jackson was rumored to be a leading candidate for the 49ers job, as he had enjoyed significant NFL success as an offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach, and quarterbacks coach. He also had a brief tenure as the Raiders' head coach. After leading the under-talented 2010 Raiders offense to the 6th most yards in the NFL as their offensive coordinator, he had the raiders on track to make a playoff appearance in his one year as head coach in 2011 with a 7-4 record, before a late season slump dropped them to 8-8. Like the man eventually hired to coach the 2016 49ers, Chip Kelly, Hue Jackson was regarded as an offensive innovator who was able to scheme well and coax extra production from quarterbacks. Unlike Kelly, Jackson found offensive success by creatively employing traditional NFL offensive concepts in new combinations, which many analysts determined would make him a better candidate to provide long-term success in the league than Kelly, who was still working to establish sustained production with his college-based offensive concepts. Also different from Kelly, however, was Jackson's large and public ego and brash demeanor with the media. Although Michael Silver, a member of the media who reports on the NFL and has a close personal friendship with Jackson, reported that Jackson would likely accept the 49ers job if it was offered, the 49ers eventually hired the arguably less-qualified and certainly less sought after Kelly (who only interviewed with the 49ers), amongst rumors that Jackson's large personality made him too much like Harbaugh for the 49ers to feel comfortable with him.

LEAGUE PERCEPTION OF BAALKE


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While 49ers fans and many media members see Trent Baalke as a terrible general manager, whose ineptitude has ruined the franchise, he is seen throughout the league as a doggedly determined, no-nonsense executive with an eye for talent and an unrivaled work ethic. He is passionate about the success of the team, he makes shrewd trades, and he is determined in all dealings with other organizations to receive fair value for his franchise. In fact, his dealings with the Denver Broncos in the 2016 offseason are likely a reason why the Broncos' John Elway is rumored to have an executive position waiting for Baalke, should the 49ers fire him (via Matt Maiocco).

When the Broncos wanted to trade for Colin Kaepernick, Baalke likely saw the need the Broncos had at the position, and the potential for Kaepernick to succeed in a run-heavy offense that would frequently roll him out of the pocket and ask him to read only one-half of the defense as a run-pass threat. Baalke demanded more than the Broncos were offering, knowing that Kaepernick was the Broncos' best hope of returning to the playoffs. The Broncos moved on with a player who'd never started before (Trevor Siemian), a career punchline (Mark Sanchez), and a raw rookie who said in his pre-draft media session that he needed time to sit and learn as a backup. Predictably, the Broncos aren't going to be playing in the offseason this year, and Baalke looks pretty good as the man who assessed their need and value for Kaepernick better than they did.

When Jim Harbaugh sat in the 49ers' war room with Baalke for their first NFL Draft together, he was so impressed with Baalke's confidence in player values, determination to win trades, and poise on the phone that he emerged declaring Baalke to be, "a steely-eyed missile man." Every time that Baalke has made a trade that seems to favor the 49ers, which has happened frequently enough to earn him the nickname "Trader Trent," there is another team on the other end of that telephone conversation saying, "damn, that guy's good." Baalke has demonstrated a willingness to walk away from trades that are nearly complete because he doesn't like the value, and because he has the will power to never fall in love with any one deal. That patience and cold calculation have earned him respect throughout the league.

Trent Baalke is almost always described by other NFL executives as a "grinder," intimating that his work ethic is widely accepted to be top-notch. Most personnel executives hold the belief that the right way to become a general manager is to work one's way up through the scouting ranks, exactly as Baalke did. The fact that he continues to scout talent as a general manager, when he is well within his rights to simply rely on the reports generated by his area scouts, draws additional admiration from other league executives. Just as Scot McCloughan was employed the moment his severance agreement with the 49ers ran out, Trent Baalke will have teams calling him, should the York family terminate his employment. When McCloughan left, the 49ers were still losing, but he immediately helped build a championship roster in Seattle, and he has his new team, the Washington Redskins, competing for a playoff berth in his 2nd year as their GM. Should that happen with Baalke, it would be a bad look for the 49ers ownership. That leads us to…

PERCEPTION OF OWNERSHIP


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The hiring of Jim Harbaugh, the Super Bowl appearance, and the construction of a new stadium went a long way to dispel sentiments that Jed York getting control of the team was like handing a spoiled child a toy he wasn't old enough to use properly. With the sloppy handling of the 2014 season, Harbaugh's exit from the organization, and the subsequent hiring and firing of Jim Tomsula, those sentiments have returned in force, as the Yorks have presided over one of the most rapid and dramatic declines of a championship-caliber team in memory. When the Yorks first gained control of the 49ers, Dr. John York's decision to lock up the Gatorade refrigerators so that players could only access free sports drinks during practices was a sharp and bitter contrast to former owner Eddie DeBartlo's generosity. The Yorks earned an image for being cheap, that still persists to this day, even though several of their early penny-pinching decisions have been reversed.

Due to the unseemly end of Harbaugh's tenure with the 49ers, and the apparently odd particulars of the two following coaching searches, the Yorks are seen as meddlesome and impatient owners, which is a horrible combination for how they project their own ability to provide the single most important trait of NFL ownership: stability. Stable ownership requires owners who are patient, reasonable, and thick-skinned enough to endure tough times well enough to see the head coach and/or general manager they hired to execute their plan for success. Undermining and dismissing Harbaugh made the Yorks look immature and emotional. Hiring Tomsula made the Yorks look blindly sentimental. Firing Tomsula after one season made the Yorks look impatient, prone to panic, and reactive. Hiring Kelly made them look desperate. Firing a widely-respected executive like Baalke could look like scapegoating, and could further damage the league's perception of the Yorks as owners, which would raise a concerning question for 49ers fans…

CAN THE YORKS BE TRUSTED TO HIRE A BETTER REPLACEMENT?


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The Yorks have struggled to hire well. When the 49ers were still considered a desirable coaching destination, the Yorks failed miserably by hiring Dennis Erickson. Even worse, the coaching search lasted so long that Erickson had little time to hire assistant coaches, resulting in an overmatched coaching staff and a muddled offensive scheme. When hiring Erickson's (and GM Terry Donahue's) replacement, the Yorks made the odd decision to grant Mike Nolan full control over football operations, even though he was a first-time head coach with no experience on the personnel side. While Mike Nolan helped assemble a strong personnel staff and improve the 49ers' roster, he failed to establish a winning culture, and he was fired during the 2008 season and replaced temporarily by his assistant head coach, Mike Singletary. When Singletary produced a 5-4 record to finish the season, the Yorks made the emotionally-influenced decision to promote the woefully under-qualified Singletary to full-time head coach without conducting a coaching search first. As discussed before, Harbaugh, Tomsula, and Kelly followed, further diminishing league-wide confidence in the Yorks as owners.

Assistant coaches are generally willing to jump into head coaching opportunities, for several reasons. The salaries are high and guaranteed, the allure to run a team is high, and perhaps most importantly, NFL teams are generally willing to hire previous-fired head coaches after they build their reputations back up. General manager candidates must be more choosy, as their salaries are lower and their risk is higher. While NFL head coaches often get second and third chances to run teams (ex-Jaguars and Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is interviewing with the Jaguars), general managers rarely get a 2nd chance to run a team. They must find the right fit for ownership, resources, and existing talent. In this case, the Yorks' difficulty in identifying talented and capable leaders might not even be their biggest concern. Because they have been so quick to replace head coaches, and so consistent in leaking rumors to the national media, they are already seen as presiding over an unstable organization.

Firing a well-regarded GM like Baalke, in spite of his numerous missteps with the 49ers, could make the 49ers' GM position look too precarious. No GM candidate with multiple options would accept a job that won't grant them enough time, control, and stability to have a fair opportunity to succeed, and the Yorks are currently viewed as meddlesome, directionless, and impatient. Leading NFL GM candidates Chris Ballard, Eric DeCosta, Nick Caserio, and Elliot Wolf are all rumored to have turned down requests to interview for GM positions for teams that did not present suitable stability and potential. Although the 49ers' space under the salary cap, young talent, and abundant capital in the 2016 draft provide the potential for rapid improvement, it would be unlikely that many candidates would view the 49ers as a stable destination.

WRAP UP


Trent Baalke has not been a perfect general manager, and a couple of his drafts have been downright awful. He has generally found good defensive talent in the draft, he's built an effective offensive line, and he has consistently and shrewdly found good value in free agency. His trades nearly always work out in the 49ers favor, because he is disciplined enough to kill trades that don't offer at least fair value. He needs help to find effective players at quarterback and wide receiver, but he's managed to field decent starters along the rest of the roster. Trent Baalke is neither the best GM in the league nor is he the unmitigated disaster that many 49ers fans perceive him as. While the 49ers record over the last two years and Baalke's failure to provide enough talent at QB and WR are justification enough to fire him, the Yorks cannot afford to fire him unless they are certain they can replace him with a better candidate. There can be very little confidence that the Yorks are actually able to do that, as they are just as likely to fail at identifying the right candidate as they are to fail in attracting any qualified candidates they may seek. The Yorks cannot afford to fire Baalke until they rehab their own tarnished image enough to attract a better replacement.

I'm fully aware that this conclusion is unlikely to be popular with most fans. Feel free to sound off in the comments.