Baalke has the eye of the tiger behind the scenes
Trent Baalke has been practically an invisible figure around the 49ers this season, but the product of his work is out there for all to see. In his first year as San Francisco’s general manager, Baalke has become a candidate for NFL Executive of the Year honors after making the moves and adding the parts that have transformed the Niners into a winner and team to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
Within days of being promoted last year, Baalke faced the daunting task of landing Jim Harbaugh as the team's new head coach.
People around the 49ers were losing patience with all the losing – and demanded an immediate turnaround after an eight-year drought without a winning season or playoff berth.
Amid speculation that Harbaugh might leave Stanford for the Miami Dolphins or even his alma mater, Michigan, Baalke delivered the Niners' high-profile new man. It brought Baalke some instant credibility, just as all the other spot-on moves along the way has since then.
From landing free agents such as cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner to center Jonathan Goodwin and kicker David Akers, Baalke fit all the right pieces into an already talented roster that has bought into Harbaugh's style.
Baalke and Harbaugh also had the wherewithal to bring back quarterback Alex Smith on a one-year deal as a free agent even after the years of boos and inconsistency that characterized Smith’s first six seasons in San Francisco. Now they have plays to re-sign Smith for 2012, too, after his poised and confident play guiding the offense produced San Francisco’s best regular-season finish since 1997.
“It's great to see Trent," Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott said. "We haven't talked a lot about Trent. A lot of people haven't really acknowledged that bringing in Rogers, bringing in (NaVorro) Bowman, going with (Aldon) Smith in the first round. The team is faster than what it was. It's more aggressive than what it was. So Baalke saw something that I didn't see and that the average fan didn't see. He replaced a couple of components that needed to be replaced."
Those tweaks worked, all right. San Francisco (13-3) won the NFC West and earned the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye, going 6-2 on the road with four of those victories in comeback fashion.
How about that for silencing critics who questioned whether Baalke made enough splashy moves in free agency to improve his roster after the lockout?
"Now it's a splash," Whitner said. "It's not a splash when everybody else is looking. But once you make the playoffs and you're sitting at home with a bye week and you have an opportunity to win two games and be in the Super Bowl, then it's a splash. That's how success happens. A lot of times, people aren't going to believe until they actually see it."
Before this season not many outside team headquarters knew much about Baalke – just the way he likes it as an anonymous figure doing his job to help run a franchise.
Walk past him and he practically disappears, finding ways to avoid the public eye aside from the occasional casual conversation. He declines interview requests and keeps to himself on the sidelines during practice. He is so focused before games it's as if he hardly notices his surroundings.
"Trent's done a great job doing his job," tight end Vernon Davis said. "I commend him. He's doing great for us and he definitely deserves everything that comes his way. I give him high praise."
Baalke, who has picked up some things through a close friendship with Packers GM Ted Thompson, goes about his business quietly behind the scenes – though he does speak openly during his weekly radio show, for which he has a contractual obligation.
Baalke would prefer that any credit for the turnaround go elsewhere.
"I appreciate the compliment, guys, but in all honesty it really comes down to the efforts of the coaches and players," Baalke said this week on 95.7 FM The Game. "They've done an outstanding job coming together, believing in each other, believing we could get this thing accomplished. When things didn't look good in certain games, they kept with it, kept grinding. The coaches kept searching for answers and the players kept believing. So when you've got that kind of dynamic, the rest of it is pretty easy."
Last January, Baalke was elevated from his previous post of vice president of player personnel. After team president Jed York vowed to open an exhaustive national search for a general manager, he ultimately decided to go with the familiar guy who had shown plenty of leadership and reliable decision-making already.
York took heat for it, too, as some believed he had settled for Baalke over a bigger name. Some saw it as the 49ers making the same conformist decisions that had characterized the franchise over much of the past decade and kept it in a rut since the team’s last playoff appearance in 2002.
Yet it was Baalke who orchestrated the contract extensions for two key 49ers last season: five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis and Davis, a Pro Bowl starter in 2009 who has been named a Pro Bowl alternate the past two seasons. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore got his coveted new deal before the 2011 season.
Considering the dedication of the front office to assembling a talented, team-first locker room, the years of consistent losing became all the more difficult.
"That's why it was so gut-wrenching in the past," defensive line coach Jim Tomsula said. "Not to review the past, but where we are right now, they've worked through this long haul, they've kept it together. That's why you appreciate Jim Harbaugh, Trent Baalke and (player personnel director) Tommy Gamble and all the things that are going on."
Baalke, a former college coach who also worked four years in the scouting department for the Washington Redskins prior to coming to San Francisco, is always committed to finding the "best player available" and not falling for the trendy choice.
Baalke's two first-round draft picks from 2010 – Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati – became instant starters on the offensive line. This season's rookies have done their part: Aldon Smith with 14 sacks, Kendall Hunter as Gore's reliable backup, and Bruce Miller shining as a defensive end turned fullback. Chris Culliver also has become a valuable member of the secondary as the team’s nickel back.
Baalke also added special teams standout Blake Costanzo and scooped up Akers - who was named to his sixth Pro Bowl this season – when the Eagles decided he was expendable. All Akers did for the 49ers this year is set a new NFL record with 44 field goals and lead the NFL in scoring with 166 points, a league record for a kicker.
"He had a plan, and he stuck with it," said safety Dashon Goldson, who made the Pro Bowl this year after Baalke coaxed him to return to San Francisco on a one-year, $1 million deal after Goldson had been waiting late into August for a big-money deal in free agency. “And look where we’re at now.”
Goldson said in conclusion: "We always had the players here. He does a good job of getting the players in here. He kept building and adding the little pieces to it, and we're in the playoffs for the first time in how long. He's a GM and he knows what we have and the players are out here playing but, at the same time, he's definitely a big part of the success that we're having."
Because he’s the one that finally put together a winner for the 49ers after several before him had failed.