One Mistake Turns Up The Heat

Aug 21, 2013 at 6:55 AM


It's still there, waiting. Lurking there, just under the surface. You've tried to suppress it, will it away. But then, out of nothing, it strikes. And all of a sudden, there it is, back again, back with a vengeance.

You could be doing anything. Mowing your lawn. Washing your car. And all of a sudden, there it is, standing there with its hideous grin. You try to run, but there's no escape. There it is, as awful as ever. You've tried to suppress it, will it away. But you know it's still there. And no, it isn't done with you.

The pain, I mean.

Five yards. Just five more yards.

The pain's still there, and not just for the obvious reasons. Not just because we were that close, to returning at last to the top of the league. Not just because we were that close, to the perfect ending for the second year straight.

Not just because we were that close. But also because we just don't know, whether we'll get that close again.

Sure, as I've said, this was always a three-year plan; though we came up short those first two years, we weren't supposed to be there at all. We overachieved—wildly—so our window is really just opening now. But the truth is, we just don't know.

In Super Bowl XXV, the Bills lost by a couple of feet. But they still had a Hall of Fame core, which just then was beginning its prime. We'll be back, the Bills proclaimed, just as Colin Kaepernick did. Yet despite four consecutive AFC crowns, the Bills were never that close again.

In this league, as in this life, you just can't count on anything. That's why you've gotta seize your chances, when they come. Logic might say that you'll get some more. But the truth is, you just don't know.

In other words, sh*t happens.

Take this offseason, for example.

When Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles, there was some talk of the Niners' "curse" at wide receiver. Surely such talk shouldn't go too far; after all, the Niners drafted both Rice and Owens, Nos. 1 and 2 in all-time yards. But the frustration was understandable. We hadn't had a legitimate pair of starting receivers, since, you guessed it, Rice and Owens. With Crabtree and Anquan Boldin we did, but only until the very first day of OTAs. The first practice, of the very first day.

Irksome, to be sure, but not as irksome as what it revealed.

Trent Baalke is widely credited with having assembled the most complete roster in the NFL. Yet Crabtree's injury sent the Niners into nearly total disarray. Signings off the street. Competitions among no-names. For a Super Bowl favorite with such a "complete roster," the desperate scrambling was downright pathetic.

Of course, it's not that Baalke hadn't planned for this. It's just that his plan went horribly wrong.

On the eve of last year's draft, the story goes, Baalke placed A.J. Jenkins' name in an envelope and sealed it. After the crow that his critics had eaten in the wake of the 2011 draft, Baalke had earned a display of arrogance. But when you act like you're smarter than everyone else, you raise the stakes for your decisions. And when this particular decision was Jenkins, easily the draft's biggest surprise, the stakes became positively enormous. A little arrogance can be a good thing; but if you defy the conventional wisdom, and if you do it arrogantly, you'd better be right.

Baalke was wrong. Last year Jenkins did nothing, even as our "cursed" receivers were ravaged by injury. That no-showing, though disappointing, was justified as evidence of Baalke's preference for "redshirting" rookies. (A sensible preference, in general.) But when Jenkins failed to seize Crabtree's spot, Jenkins (and Baalke) had no excuse. Nevertheless, we scaled down our hopes; maybe he'd be at least serviceable, maybe he'd partially fill the void. But after two preseason games, he was clearly incapable even of that.

The realization was stupefying. Despite the Niners' desperation, and despite the scraps he was competing against, A.J. Jenkins—so physically feeble, psychologically frail—was already on his way out the door.

You can give Baalke credit for recognizing his mistake and acting immediately. But no matter what Jon Baldwin becomes, there isn't any dressing this up. It's not that Baalke missed with a low first-round pick—Bill Walsh spent two on Todd Shell and Reggie McGrew—it's that he missed so spectacularly. Jenkins wasn't merely a bust; he was literally a total waste. One season, zero catches? It's hard to do any worse than that.

Selfishly, I feel I deserve an explanation. After I ate my crow for 2011, I defended Baalke against all comers. Even before Jim Harbaugh did, I mocked the "experts" who'd questioned the choice: "Some, it seems, will never learn." Now here I am. I've bashed Baalke, and I've praised Baalke—and either way I've looked like a fool. Maybe I'm the one who should learn.

But how I look doesn't matter, of course. What matters is the Niners' success, and Baalke's mistake has this team in the lurch. Crabtree is hurt. Mario Manningham, likewise, is hurt. (Both, we're told, will be back this year (and effective this year), but I'll believe it when I see it.) Obviously, Ds will focus on Boldin (and Vernon Davis), leaving Kaepernick to rely on a strange melange of odds and ends, none of whom have proven reliable. With a Super Bowl title a moral imperative, it isn't a good proposition at all.

Which leads us back to where we began.

You just can't count on anything. That's why you've gotta seize your chances, when they come. Logic might say that you'll get some more. But the truth is, you just don't know.

Just ask Trent Baalke. He could've been a Super Bowl-winning general manager. Instead his seat is a little warm. All because of one decision, equal parts atrocious and arrogant.

And, of course, those five damned yards.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


21 Comments

  • Lucky Phil
    Stories we won't be talking about this NFL season. 1) "Tebowmania" is now just another word for "Lunatic". 2) This may sound trivial but JJ Watt has the smallest package in the NFL... But don't ask him about it. 3) What is it about ex-Chicago Bears players that become Head Coaches.... they're just freaking crazy. 4) Trent Baalke will not send any Christmas cards this year. No one will open the envelope. 5) The Chiefs will have a great season this year...wait a minute, where's that AJ Jenkins guy running to? 6) If someone will just put a ball in this guy's hands, I'm sure this dude is the next Forrest Gump! 7) Who's Got It Better Than Us?...The Ravens. 8) Jim Harbaugh - "Attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." Thank God this guy didn't become a proctologist! Have A Good Day Niner Fans!
    Sep 1, 2013 at 4:01 PM
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  • Lucky Phil
    Welcome Back Jeff! Welcome Back! I'm Ready For Some Football! And to get this season started I thought I would quote some of the all-time great motivational speakers in Niner Lore! "Take A Look At These, Take A Look At These, Gosh Dang It!...This Is A Hall Of Famer's Ball Sack." Thanks for all the good times Mike Singletary, mind if I get a picture of you two with my son? "Does he want me to kick these sons of bitches through the uprights?" Joe Nedney, after Sing's most inspirational speech. Yes, Joe, we want you to kick this Son Of A Bitch out of the building. "I Can't Wait, I can't wait to get out there and smell the breath of these guys." Actual quote from Jim Harbaugh....I just love this crazy bastard! "And the envelope says?" Yes, Trent Baalke, we know, it says we lost a Super Bowl. "You Got That?" A.J. Jenkins. Have A Great Year Niners!
    Sep 1, 2013 at 8:41 AM
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  • GreenReaperTT
    Your love/hate relationship with baalke is ridiculous. you deserve an explanation? that's awesome. you're a hoot.
    Aug 30, 2013 at 8:47 AM
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  • Dallas niner fan
    Told you to watch Patton. You heard it here first.
    Aug 25, 2013 at 6:35 PM
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  • The Duke
    Saying Baalke's seat is the tiniest bit warm is WAY more than a tiny stretch. You're doing Pilates with that one. His seat is more like a chillow, stop trying to create something that's not there.
    Aug 23, 2013 at 9:18 PM
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  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Good article Jeff. You make a good point, why does this franchise dummy up when it comes to WR? In all fairness there have been a lot of injuries to the WR corps, but the bottom line is someone has to step up. I think Patton has a lot of potential, I saw him when he played against SJSU last year, he torched them.
    Aug 23, 2013 at 1:45 PM
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  • Nick S.
    Jeff Kaplan, ladies and gentlemen. How the mighty has fallen.
    Aug 22, 2013 at 11:29 PM
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  • overthemiddle
    Jeff you and I know that the word "IF" is the biggest word in the English language. There were thirty some picks and twenty some picks that did not recognize Kap or Rodgers for their talent. Drafting is a crap shoot. Even though they do their homework sometimes they get it wrong.
    Aug 22, 2013 at 5:18 PM
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    Response: True, OTM. But rarely do they get it THIS wrong. (Even Rashaun Woods mustered SEVEN grabs.) And my fear is that we're going to pay for it. I believe that a championship contender needs a championship-level receiving corps. And I don't think we've got one, not even close.
  • KE
    Old habits die hard I see, my only question is where is all this TB arrogance talk coming from? When I hear him do interviews I have yet to hear arrogance. I realize that youre only a blogger, but even some in the REAL media have adopted these silly tactics of stirring the pot, like L Cohn and his spawn. You guys are like a broken watch that's only right 2 times a day! Were talkin bout a #30 pick, Cmon Mannn ... I would say stuff like this is why Baalke is standoffish with the media, but then I remember... THIS IS NOT real media.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 8:37 PM
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  • Terry B.
    "Until proven otherwise this is like having a great new first rounder!" If we pretend that the last two years aren't "proof" then we have a "great" first rounder! And if we pretend that Michael Crabtree didn't tear his Achilles, then he'll be ready week one! And if we pretend we got those five yards, we won the Super Bowl!
    Aug 21, 2013 at 12:29 PM
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  • Barry Snyder
    Jeff...I think youre a bit over the edge here trying to make a story. The results of Baalke's tenure speak for themselves. He has drafted very well and got Harbaugh into the fold. You really think his seat is getting warm? That is a major stretch.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 12:28 PM
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    Response: Just a "little" warm, Barry. So, at most, just a little stretch.
  • Niner
    Move on already. People complained about Walsh keeping Montana and Clark and getting rid of some drafted wr and trading Steve Deberg. Who cares? I hated the pick but he's gone and Jon has speed height and size. Let Seattle try to bully him. He made great leaping catches in college. We need a 3rd down playmaker a la Dwight Clark. If he makes a td or one first down, we already are ahead. With our improved deeper pass-rush, long drives will help both offense and defense. How can Brady, Manning et al win if they are on the sidelines. Until proven otherwise this is like having a great new first rounder!
    Aug 21, 2013 at 12:09 PM
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  • Cris T
    For one thing i agree 100% on the article!!! Baalke's mistake was merely being pointed out. For that matter look at the whole 2012 draft!! ONLY LMJ MADE A CONTRIBUTION TO THE TEAM!! Don't get me wrong, Baalke made some good drafts but lets not get carried away here! The arrogance of JH and TB is whats irritating some people! UNTIL THIS TEAM WINS A SB THERE WILL BE CRITICISM. Bill Walsh gets a pass making mistakes in the draft because he won 3 SB's. That remains to be seen with the JH/TB tandem. I for one do not believe what JH says in the media anymore.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 11:33 AM
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  • Walter
    Total overreaction. Are you fishing to get people to read your posts? Baalke is going to be around long after the petty commentators find real problems to write about.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 10:31 AM
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  • Frank
    Jeff, Really? Wow, I'll bet if you looked around the league, there'd be a pretty long list of GM's who whiffed on 1st rd picks. The fact Baalke pulled off what should be another excellent trade is what matters. We didn't lose the SB because we had Jenkins...we lost it because our defense and ST's gave up way too many big plays. Sure, it sucks to miss on a 1st rounder...but Baalke's not the first nor will he be the last to do so. Overall, I think he's done an excellent job acquiring talent for Harbaugh to coach. Appropriately, TB drafted/signed plenty of help on defense, most notably beefing up our DL significantly. There's plenty of talent on defense now to avoid any sort of late-season dip in performance. On offense, Kap's not devoid of talent to throw to...by the end of the season, I'd bet McDonald and Vernon will form one of the best TE tandems in the league. Boldin, Williams, Patton, Baldwin, Collie, Moore, et al will get the job done. Manningham's return will supplement them. So, in the big picture, Jenkins was a minor setback, nothing more.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 10:17 AM
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  • JV
    I think the 9ers have done a great job of shoring up the defense this offseason. I think Austin Collie emerges as the #2. Oh and he does have experience and was very productive. I know he has to stay healthy.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 9:29 AM
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  • Terry B.
    When you spend a first-round pick on a fifth-round prospect, you've got to expect some growing pains. And there's no point in trading him for someone who has failed after having even longer to prove himself.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 8:21 AM
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  • Paul A.
    Jeff, Off the top, nice to have you back and to my chagrin on point. It is more than pain, it is also sadness. As a lifelong fan, I want to believe that the team will be back in the SB and win it all. But the curse of being around for all of the SBs is the realization that it is so difficult to get back to the SB, not only does the team need to be great but lucky as well. So today I listen to my heart and I will, as I have done for the last 57 years of following the 9ers, start this new season with hope that all of the magic will come into play and the team will be crowned Champions at the end of the season.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 8:05 AM
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  • NinerFan408
    I think Trent's seat is only warm because he is sitting in it.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 7:45 AM
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  • Stanley
    I can't believe the whole premise of this article blames the 49ers' problems at WR on Baalke's so-called "arrogance" and the failure of a SECOND-YEAR WR who was drafted by a team he wasn't going to start on anyway. "Pathetic, disarray, desperate scrambling," give me a break. You act as if the 49ers are dependent on the pass. Kaep will grow, his presence alone opens things up for the WR's, and the 9ers have the most creative run game in the league. If ANY team lost its top two WR's they'd be in a tough spot. If there's anything "atrocious" it's this article.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 7:44 AM
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  • JK
    Too much focus on those who touch the ball. Defense lost us a SB. Don't tell me Flacco's Ravens were better than Marino's Dolphins. 16 pts vs 34. 28 in nearly a half. 26 points was the record for points scored against us in a SB. Our "super" defense last year blew away that record. This is where our focus should lie.
    Aug 21, 2013 at 7:34 AM
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