Our General Manager Is Smarter Than You

Apr 29, 2012 at 1:37 PM

Some, it seems, will never learn.

A year ago, like every year, the various "experts" had their say. Speaking with one, collective voice, they gave Trent Baalke his limited options. With your first-round pick, Trent, you can take this guy, or that guy, or maybe a third. But you'd better not take anyone else. You might have the fancy title, but we're the ones with the Twitter accounts, and therefore we decide what's right.

We've told you who's worthy of your first-round pick. You don't want to face our wrath.

Baalke, of course, went off the grid, defying every "expert" prediction. And face their wrath he certainly did. "Reach!," they screamed, as if he'd jumped the gun by six rounds. He tried to explain that the league's actual decision-makers thought differently, that his selection would've been off the board only four picks later. The "experts" blinked for a minute or two, and then their voices rose up again: "See? You could've traded down three picks! Reach!"

Fast-forward a year. Due in large part to that first-round pick, Baalke was the league's top executive. Yet the "experts" had their say again. With your first-round pick, Trent, you can take Stephen Hill, a wide receiver; Coby Fleener, a tight end; or (with Kevin Zeitler off the board) Amini Silatolu, a guard. But you'd better not take anyone else....

Caught up in all the hysteria, I weighed our limited options. Forget Silatolu: right guard's our only starter unknown, but last year we'd traded up for Dan Kilgore; obviously we should give him a try before we go and draft his replacement. Forget Fleener: athletic tight-ends are all the rage, but we've already got two of the best.

So it had to be Hill. Heading into the offseason, wideouts were clearly our greatest need. We made some waves by replacing Josh Morgan with Mario Manningham, and Braylon Edwards with Randy Moss. But needless to say, those moves didn't guarantee any improvement. We needed more. So it had to be Hill.

Yet Baalke again went off the grid. He agreed with the idea for a wideout, but instead of Hill he picked A.J. Jenkins, whom most "experts" had tagged for the second or third. "Reach!," they screamed. Baalke tried to explain that Jenkins too had been underrated, and indeed, the papers immediately reported that the Rams would've taken him only three picks later. Plus, when the Rams did pick, they took Brian Quick, passing on Hill. In the end, even the thought of Hill (with his 49 catches for 1,248 yards through three years of college) over Jenkins (with his 90 catches for 1,276 yards last year alone) seemed largely absurd.

But the "experts" still would not go quietly. One local writer went out of his mind, wailing that Baalke had "blown" the pick and branding him with a scarlet F. (An F!) And it goes to show you how they think. Never mind that Baalke had added an explosive playmaker to a team that needed nothing more. He'd done it, you see, with a pick that hadn't been "preapproved." And though last year he'd done precisely the same, he had to face the wrath again.

Some, it seems, will never learn.

Undaunted by the cacophony, Baalke soldiered on. Dissatisfied with merely one explosive playmaker, he added a second, in LaMichael James. Reviews of this selection were generally more favorable—the aforementioned local writer allowed that Baalke had "partially redeemed" himself—but still there were those who dismissed James as merely a third-down back. Evidently they were unaware that James was unquestionably this draft's closest thing to Darren Sproles, an every-down utility man whose mere presence opens up both the run and the pass.

With these two picks, Baalke's message was perfectly clear and clearly perfect. Last season, as we were grinding out win after win on the strength of an endless procession of field goals, these same "experts"—who moonlight during the season as "experts" on the game itself—applauded Jim Harbaugh for what they thought was his old-school style, as if he was trying to stay out of the end zone. Baalke, of course, knew differently: our field-goal O was a product of need, not choice. Indeed, with enough weapons—and with, please God, continued progress by his quarterback—Harbaugh would simply crush his opponents.

And Baalke was perfectly fine with that. "What we've tried to do," he said matter-of-factly, "is add speed and explosiveness to this offense." A speedy, explosive offense, to match with the league's best defense and special-teams? That's a draft vision that any "expert" should understand.

Having executed that vision, Baalke went on to add the expected depth: on the offensive line, at outside 'backer, at safety. Sure, it would've been nice to add a bit on the defensive line and at cornerback, but hey, with seven picks you can't do it all. (Especially when, as Baalke wisely does, you refuse to take a less talented player just because he plays a position you'd ideally prefer.) Add it all up, and Baalke changed our offensive culture, deepened the roster in three areas of need, and racked up three extra picks in '13.

Yet the early grades from the "experts" are no better than a B, and sometimes much worse. You just can't help but shake your head.

Trust me, I see the irony. When Baalke was new, I was perhaps his most vocal critic. And to make my case, I relied on the same "experts" I'm bashing now. But Baalke now has proven himself. He's proven his understanding, of those most basic things: of players' talents, of his coaches' abilities to enhance those talents, of what his roster truly needs. He's just proven he gets it.

As we've learned through painful experience, this isn't the case with every GM. That's why the "experts" make their dough; occasionally they do know more. But in Baalke's case, they just don't. And thus their little industry of first- and second-guessing—their mocks, their analyses, their instant grades—it just becomes ridiculous.

The unwashed masses can trust the "experts."

I myself will trust Trent Baalke.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • William T Bird
    A GREAT NFL Head Coach can make an average GM look pretty good. But I don't think that's the case with Baalke. In fact, I think he and Harbaugh make a darn fine team. The finest team the 49ers have had since the days of Bill Walsh and John McVay. Baalke proved his chops before Harbaugh arrived. That first draft yielded two starting offensive linemen, including what just might be the best guard to play in the NFL today. Bowman came out of that draft class. So did Adams. All of them played solid roles last season. That 2010 draft is shaping up to be an excellent one indeed. And, of course, last year gave us Aldon Smith. He gave us that edge pass rush we haven't had since Haley. Short and sweet? I have a lot of faith in Trent Baalke. I agree with you Mr. Kaplan. Our GM is smarter than you are. He's smarter than anyone who dumped on our 2012 draft, 2011 draft, and 2010 draft. I know we won't surprise anyone next season, but I still see the 49ers as the "team to beat." Not many will, and that's my prediction.
    May 31, 2012 at 2:16 PM
  • AZ 9er
    I think it's healthy to question mgmt moves. Nobody is always right. The end of the 49ers' dynasty was partly due to bad drafting. Even Walsh and Seifert made bad picks. Was Baalke too confident? He passed on many top-rated (overrated) players. (But if they don't do anything in college, can you expect them to be great pros?) Does moving Boone to OG mean last year's/this year's drafted OLs can't be the starting OG? Curious, why draft Looney when they know he has a foot injury? I think the Coach will get the most out of Jenkins and LaMichael. Besides those players, you don't see any starters yet. Time will tell.
    May 22, 2012 at 9:01 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, Based on the comments I have read you have successfully accomplished a Vulcan Mindmeld with your readers. And based on past comments (mine included), the more you start thinking like your audience, the more you have to worry about. Keep them coming, Jeff!
    May 9, 2012 at 8:45 PM
    Response: Thanks for the warning, Phil. But here's the thing. Despite what so many readers seemed to think during those awful years, I was never "negative" just to be negative; I was negative only because the Niners stunk. And so, now that the Niners are good--REALLY good--I'm no longer negative. That is to say, it's not that I've come around to "thinking like my audience." As I see it, I was realistic then, and I'm realistic now. It just so happens that today's reality is one that ALL Niner fans--from the sunniest cheerleader to the most hardened cynic--are happy to see.
    Jeff: There was a time when I couldn't wait to share my disagreements with you. It seems now that we are very much on the same page. What that says, more than anything, is that our beloved Niners are again winners and that's a great feeling, right? Nice read. Keep it up. I look for your articles first on here. I did even when I disagreed. Ha!
    May 8, 2012 at 11:49 AM
    Response: A great feeling indeed. Thanks for sticking with me so that we can enjoy it together.
  • FPSoft
    Great article. You hit the nail on the head. In Harbalke we trust.
    May 6, 2012 at 12:06 AM
  • Big M
    Great piece, Jeff. I consider myself a football nerd with a good amount of experience. I try to be fair and wait to pass judgment, so I gave Baalke a chance early on based on the premise that he knows more than I do and he has access to better resources. I will say, though, that I still have my own philosophy about how a team should be built, based on what I've seen other franchises do (both good and bad), and Baalke impressed me out of the gate. Anyway, it's refreshing to see such a level-headed, logical opinion piece on here. I'm so used to the knee-jerk reactions from fans and pundits alike, so your piece is a breath of fresh air. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.
    May 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM
  • wwrivers
    Thank you!
    May 3, 2012 at 11:32 AM
  • Benitez
    Great Post... I'm glad I took the time to read this... I see another Lombardi trophy coming to us at least one more time before our big move to santa clara... #GoNiners
    May 1, 2012 at 6:10 PM
  • Steve
    Jeff, I find it remarkable how eerily similar our thoughts and opinions have been these past few seasons. I, too, was converted to a believer after last season - in terms of the front office, coaching, Alex Smith, and draft/scouting abilities. After a 13-3 season like that, no one has earned the right to prematurely criticize front-office decision making. Great read.
    May 1, 2012 at 9:39 AM
    Response: Thanks, Steve.
  • Carmelo
    First let me say - great read! Well done, and finally a good post-draft article. Second, and more importantly, well done Baalke & co.! Not only did they hit another home run with this year's crop of draftees, but he helped to set us up for next year's draft; adding 3 more picks including what may end up being a high 3rd'er. That is a huge move on the positive side which most "experts" have seemed to overlook in their assessment of Baalke's work. Also, it seems everyone has overlooked the little middle finger that Baalke gave the Seahawks, mostly to McCloughan/Carroll, with the pre-draft envelope. In my opinion there was only one reason for Baalke to put the name of the guy they wanted in a sealed envelope pre-draft. The reason was to show the Seahawks' war room that Baalke's smoke screen of his supposed desire to draft Irvin was just that, a smoke screen. Michael Lombardi had even tweeted the day before the draft how the Niners were looking to draft Irvin with their pick, and how we had told him that if he was there we would take him. We also brought him in for a workout. So now that we know firsthand that Baalke never was truly looking to take him, at least not with the first pick, it's obvious to me that Baalke was putting up a smoke screen and showing false interest in the hopes that others would bite. Well they did; the Seahawks bit hook, line and sinker. Why else do the whole envelope exercise? You don't need to prove to yourself who you really wanted. It was purely done to show the Hawks' war room that Baalke didn't and never wanted the guy they drafted. It was a very sly way of telling them that he pulled one off at their expense. Yet just one more genius move by Baalke in this very well orchestrated 2012 draft.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 9:44 PM
  • Spitblood
    Grant should be flogged. I tried to help him by letting him know that even a blogger must be reasonable. What the Cohn Zone is really trying to do is be controversial to get blog hits. It's so transparent that knowledgeable 49er fans will just walk away, and if it all gets too offensive to the senses (like it really did last weekend), advertising dollars will also walk away from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (like they should), and the owners of the paper will pull the plug on Grant (not Lowell). The end result is that whatever your handle - blogger, beat writer, author of the provocative opinion piece - there has to be substance, and you have to move forward like Harbaugh so often says, "With a humble heart." The Cohn Zone isn't smart, and it isn't humble.... so there isn't much future in it. And in my humble hearted opinion, Grant Cohn has killed his future in the Bay Area covering the 49ers.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 2:20 PM
  • J. Kearney
    I remember you being tough on Trent last year. Glad to see you "see the light". The FO knows what the beat writers and fans hope will be their team's picks. Takes guts to go with your conviction and go "UNPOPULAR". We will just have to get used to annual bad grades and end of the year praise for our GM.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 11:51 AM
    Response: Baalke's quote to Peter King was perfect: "We're not trying to win in the court of public opinion, or win in the media. We're trying to win games over the long haul and build a team for sustained success." Indeed.
  • Paul
    Jeff, Spot on... And nice article as always.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 10:44 AM
  • Adrian
    Some experts are retards. The only way I'd give this draft an "F" grade is if they drafted a kicker in the first and a punter in the second. Nice read, Jeff. Go Niners.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 9:46 AM
  • Rick S.
    Mr. Kaplan, I have to say GREAT ARTICLE. I think you should go and replace one of those "experts" at ESPN or the NFLN.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 8:41 AM
    Response: ;)
  • Darrell G
    Bang-on assessment Jeff. I give them an A. They got speed with the top two picks, added depth in all the right areas, and managed to scoop some draft ammo for next year with a few contracts expiring. I'm very happy with the draft. I have always wondered how the Mike Mayocks of the world get the title of "draft guru", where a player's stock can rise and fall based on the opinions of arm-chair experts that have the accuracy of weathermen and in some cases never worked as a scout or successful GM. Thank God Baalke knows better than to draft "workout warriors" and sticks to "good football players".
    Apr 30, 2012 at 6:03 AM
  • Edmond
    Oh, I agree with that, Kap. And he will progress. It was your tone! ha! There have been some off-season interviews with Alex Smith that could probably win anyone over. His live Q&A the other night was pretty fantastic. ps. please don't call me Ed. we need more syllables these days. vocabularies are suffering.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 1:18 AM
  • Dr. D
    I wouldn't say he is smarter. But he and his team sure have a whole lot more time to look at film and talk to the prospects. Also the process they have in place seems to be working well and they seem to stick to it and avoid being cute, which is crucial as well...
    Apr 30, 2012 at 12:29 AM
  • James
    Maiocco and Barrows don't pretend to know everything, which I love. They even made jokes about their mock drafts, saying things like "This mock is guaranteed 100% accurate" just to be funny. The Cohn Zone, on the other hand, is a zone of idiocy and backseat quarterbacking. (Yes, that is the opposite of Monday morning driving.) Grant is essentially a prepubescent fanboy who cries when he gets a different action figure for his birthday than the one he saw in the store... the one he threw an absolute fit about not having that very instant.
    Apr 30, 2012 at 12:27 AM
  • AJ Dembroski
    I like your columns more every time I see 'em lately, Jeff:)
    Apr 29, 2012 at 10:48 PM
  • AZ-9er
    It's easier to think the draft is better when they pick highly ranked players. Picking a lot of no-names means the value is unknown. The #1 pick can easily be a bust. Picking the best available is a safer thing to do. Jenkins was rated as a 2-4 round WR. Taking a WR #1 is risky. Remember JJ Stokes or Rashaun Woods, even Crabtree hasn't done a lot. Worthy (DT) was still available. Could we use a backup for McDonald or Smith. Manningham has proven himself. Crabtree has barely proven himself. If Moss has anything left, Jenkins will be the 4th WR on the team. Getting $$$ to be a backup. The 49ers could put James in the slot too. Don't see how Jenkins will be much of an impact.... Unless he can beat out Moss or Crabtree. Maybe, this is to light a fire under Crabtree. His contract is coming up soon.
    Apr 29, 2012 at 10:25 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    Ok, Who the hell are these guys? The only guys I have seen play are James and Fleming. And one more question, Why did half the guys I picked get drafted in the fifth rd. and the other half are free agents? What the hell is going on here?
    Apr 29, 2012 at 9:50 PM
  • Ryan
    I've always found Grant to be prone to emotions in assessing most things - calling the A.J. pick an 'F' was evidence of this. Perhaps it could run in the family, similar to his Pop's vendetta against Coach, likely because Coach wasn't too welcoming of his 'pinkie' question. All that said, I'm not particularly bothered with the picks, and I wholeheartedly trust Trent. After all, I'm not the one overseeing a battery of scouts on the grind for 364 days eh? In TRENT we trust. #Faithful
    Apr 29, 2012 at 9:13 PM
  • Genus49
    Very well put. The draft grade thing has always been a joke when none of the players have even put on an NFL jersey let alone play in a game but to bash these picks when last year proved to be one of the best drafts in a long time, you'd think this front office would get more trust from people.
    Apr 29, 2012 at 8:22 PM
  • Spiketronic
    I don't think Grant truly believes everything he writes. There are plenty of rational, measured writers commenting on the 9ers, I think Grant has staked out the contrarian territory, which is wide open now that Jeff is on board. I value Grant's success in the time-honored tradition of internet trolls, posting something outrageous and then sitting back and watching everyone froth at the mouth. How boring would it be if every voice spoke in unremitting praise. Then we'd be in Norman, Oklahoma.
    Apr 29, 2012 at 8:12 PM
  • Richard
    Good read, I was a little puzzled at first with AJ but I have total faith in our GM. We added great depth and value all across the board. We are now fully loaded coming into OTA's and camp, what a great draft. Go Niners!!!
    Apr 29, 2012 at 7:42 PM
  • Edmond
    unfortunately, you guys are probably giving losers like gc (no caps necessary) and his stupid dad power by typing their names. Jeff, you were on that track until you seemed to finally see the light and realize that this team, this whole group, isn't in need of making picks their fans or any idiot writer thinks they should. Don't become a writer 'we don't speak of', whose name isn't worth the key stroke. you were on thin ice, but with this turnaround and your past apology to Baalke, I don't mind reading your posts. The others whom we don't speak of, could learn something here. That said, your little jab on Alex Smith was nearly deserving of a lashing. This is a competent coaching staff and front office, and in my opinion you're either with the team or against it. Being against one player is being against the team. Good post, Jeff. keep up the good work going against those we don't speak of. "Long live Camelot"
    Apr 29, 2012 at 6:46 PM
    Response: For the record, Ed, I support Alex Smith. As I said afterward, he stole my heart in that Saints game. All I said here was that he needs to continue to progress. I can't imagine that you disagree.
  • Rawdel
    Great read!
    Apr 29, 2012 at 6:38 PM
  • The_Real_Randy
    Obviously we won't be able to make a real analysis of this draft until at least 3 yrs later. But part of the art of drafting is knowing not just what you want but what other teams want too. Baalke clearly has a problem with this. He traded up one spot to get Anthony Davis when there was no chance of him being taken by that team. And while Aldon Smith ended up being a great pick, he still could have been taken a few spots later. And from what I'm hearing Jenkins may very well have been there when we were picking in round 2. Baalke may be a good evaluator of talent but value is something he struggles with. I am bubbling with excitement for LaMichael James though.
    Apr 29, 2012 at 6:37 PM
  • ddmur
    I have been a 49er fan for more than 50 years, but I have been forced to live in the midwest. People who follow Big Ten football will assure that AJ Jenkins was no "reach." One can make a strong case that he was the best receiver in the draft this year.
    Apr 29, 2012 at 6:36 PM

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