Here is a link to my Friday column about 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. The full column appears below:
SANTA CLARA – Trent Baalke slipped quietly into the 49ers’ facility around noon on Thursday. The coaches and players were furiously preparing for the Seahawks and talking to media from all over the country, but Baalke had been on the road. On the road even this week.
He attended college all-star games in Tampa and L.A. Doing his job. Performing due diligence for the future as the present unfolds.
He used to go on the road more often, scouting prospects. Even now, in a typical week, he’ll pack his bag and fly somewhere a few days and be back in time for the game on Sunday.
But Thursday he was in his office, a neat, organized room way down at the end of the hall in the Niners’ headquarters, that hall library quiet, his office overlooking the practice fields — a sky view.
We had not talked in a while, although last Sunday in Charlotte, I was trying to book a plane ticket online to Seattle and I kept failing at the final step. I was getting frustrated and from right behind me in the press box, I heard that familiar Baalke voice — tires on gravel — “You have to hit re-select.” I hit re-select and it worked and later he told me, “I let you flounder around a while and then I had to say something.”
So, we were in his office and I wanted to ask about some players he had drafted. “He” was the word that stopped him right away. Then he stopped me. “This isn’t a one-man decision-making process,” he said, setting things straight. “I really like to stay away from that’s-my-guy mentality. It’s not what it is. It’s an our-guy mentality.”
He was issuing a disclaimer. He didn’t draft anyone. It was him and his scouts and the coaches. He has a horror of taking all the credit for the most loaded team in the NFL.
“I promise not to make it seem like you’re the one genius sitting in a room and there’s no one else,” I said.
“Well, there’s some you’re probably going to name that won’t make me the genius.”
Then he laughed.
“There’s one,” I said.
And now we both were laughing. And we were talking.
“Ultimately, the final decision does rest in my hands,” he said. “You take the good with the bad. In this business, you’re never going to be right 100 percent. The great Ron Wolf (Raiders, Green Bay), who I think is one of the best who’s ever done this, told me a long time ago — I was standing with him at a New York Jets practice and Bill Parcells was there as well — Ron looked at me and said, ‘If you’re right one out of four times in this business, you’re really good at what you do.’ I looked at him. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, one out of four. Surely, you can bat better than that. But there’s a lot of truth to that.”
“I’ll name a player your people drafted,” I said, “and you tell me what the group thought of him.”
Baalke was OK with that.
“Raw talent. That comes to mind. Passion. Tremendous competitive fire. A lot of things, but those stand out.”
“Rare traits. Unique leverage, unique length, unique power. Just a lot of rare physical traits that you could see on film. And another guy with great passion for the game.”
“You smiled as you spoke about him,” I said.
“There’s a lot to smile about.”
“Instincts, rare instincts for the football. Another guy with rare competitive fire. A guy that really enjoys playing the game, great passion for it. You could see that in his play. Tremendous physical traits. Ability to stay extremely compact in all of his movements. A guy that could be a three-down linebacker naturally.”
“Just rare size and power are the two traits that stood out. He had dominance at that level (in college). When you evaluate a player at a smaller school — Idaho is a smaller school; it’s not the SEC or the Pac-12. Smaller-school guys have to dominate the competition. And he did like none other that I’ve personally scouted. A rare ability to just manhandle the people he went up against.”
“You were also smiling when you talked about him.”
“These guys are all easy to smile about. It’s hard not to like these guys.”
Baalke and I kept going. He hung in with me and I appreciated that.
“Do the 49ers have a particular personality?”
“Absolutely. I think that’s the trademark, that’s the profile of what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that in our coaches, in our scouts, in our football operations. We’re certainly looking for that in our players. The passion, the competitive fire, the will to win. Those are all things that you can’t hide and you can’t fake.”
“Would a synonym for that be ‘tough,’ a tough team? Or is ‘tough’ too limited?”
“I’m trying to give this some thought,” Baalke said. Sincere.
“Please,” I said. Sincere.
Another pause. He started to speak. Stopped himself.
Finally, he said, “I think you can fake toughness. It will get exposed over time. It will get exposed, the fakeness of it. I don’t think you can fake will. I think our guys show a tremendous amount of willpower. I think our coaches show a tremendous amount of willpower. Our support staff shows a tremendous amount of willpower. And they have to to survive here.”
“To survive in this place or in the league?”
“I’m speaking about the 49er organization.”
I said, “This is the only tough question. When you look back at the A.J. Jenkins draft pick, when it’s quiet at night and you think about it, what are your thoughts?”
“Well, first of all, those aren’t tough questions. That’s part of the business. What comes to mind is you’re constantly evaluating yourself, everything that you do, everything we do as an organization. When you look at the why’s — ‘Why wasn’t he successful?’ — time is going to play out. Time has a way of measuring everybody and everything that you’re doing. Just like Jonathan Baldwin (traded for Jenkins). Over time, we’re going to find out exactly what Jonathan Baldwin is. We’re going to find out exactly what A.J. Jenkins is as a player. It’s too early to say what went wrong. The bottom line is it wasn’t working here. We go through the why’s and I think, internally, we understand some of the things that went wrong. We’ll use that moving forward in future decisions.”
I mentioned former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, now in Seattle, helped build the current Niners — Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley. There are more. Does Baalke ever think about the odd circumstance of McCloughan having a hand in developing the rival Niners and Seahawks?
“Do I think about that?” Baalke said. “I guess not from that angle. A lot of people have had a hand in building this team. It certainly isn’t just Scot and me. Coach (Mike) Nolan came here with the profile and the philosophy of how we were going to take over the NFC West down the road. We still follow what he was trying to build. What he had set out to build here is still in play. That’s why so many of the players are still here. They were the building blocks for this foundation and we have continued to build to that foundation.”
“Trent, what do you do that’s not football?”
“I don’t have any hobbies. Football is my hobby. To enjoy coming to work every day, to me, that’s a hobby. What else do I need?”
And then I left. Not along the silent hallway. Through a door in Baalke’s office onto a large redwood deck, down a flight of stairs to the practice fields. The fields right there.
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