NFL

Lack of transparency is a losing strategy for Trent Baalke

Trent Baalke San Francisco 49ers

Over the weekend, stories were published in both major Bay Area newspapers that came with very similar headlines.

It’s been quite the turnaround for Baalke, the 2011 NFL Executive of the Year. (You know who won that award in 2014? Jerry Jones.) It’s no mystery why the local scribes have started to peck at Baalke’s rigid exterior, seeing as the 49ers are winning at a .238 clip over their last 21 games and Baalke is the longest-tenured member of the organization who converses with the media on a semi-regular basis.

Baalke is losing the PR battle with fans as well, because he doesn’t understand that part of the job of being a general manager is to explain the team’s strategy — especially when it isn’t working.

Winning GMs don’t need to explain a damned thing, because everything is probably going according to plan. But a GM doesn’t just scout and draft players; in this era he also needs to make a cursory attempt to soothe nerves. Some fans believe in Baalke after what they saw in 2011-13, but most seem very, very skeptical. And now the local media is right there with them.

I’m not referring to myself … I was on the “Baalke just might be criminally overrated” train after doing a thorough grading of his tenure after the 2014 season, and what he did in 2015 (free agency in particular) didn’t do much to change my mind. But I am not a beat writer, and it’s interesting that the most noteworthy passages of each Baalke-on-the-clock piece from two prominent beat writers (BANG’s Cam Inman and the Chron’s Eric Branch) had something to do with how Baalke deals with the media.

(Note: Emphasis is mine.)

Inman:

“He’s built championship rosters in the past,” York added, alluding to division championships in 2011 and 2012 and the NFC title in 2012. “He’s got the respect of folks around the league and his peers.”

Is that still so? Colleagues indeed talk about how hard Baalke works, how he canvases college campuses to inspect prospects and how he abhors the media spotlight. But others also wonder why Baalke couldn’t smooth things out with Jim Harbaugh, or why Baalke struggles at drafting offensive talent.

Branch:

Brandon Thomas was a third-round pick in 2014, but he didn’t play a snap last year despite the 49ers’ problems at right guard.

In fact, the 49ers promoted Andrew Tiller from the practice squad in October to shore up the position instead of turning to Thomas. That didn’t reflect well on Thomas, and recently inspired this question to general manager Trent Baalke: Why has the former third-rounder struggled in the NFL?

Baalke said Thomas has been learning a new position at the next level.

“I think the position change is one thing,” Baalke said. “He’d never played inside. He’s always been a tackle. That’s not an easy transition.”

Sounds reasonable, right? The problem: It’s inaccurate.

Thomas started nine games at left guard as a sophomore at Clemson before finishing his career at left tackle. Thomas also played both guard and tackle as a college freshman, and he spent his first two high school seasons at guard. Consider this from Thomas’ bio at Clemson: “Saw a lot of action at both guard and tackle during his career.”

So did Baalke simply misspeak? Or did he deliberately gloss over the facts to defend a suspect draft pick?

Whatever the case, the episode illustrates how increasingly there are questions surrounding Baalke, the 2011 NFL Executive of the Year whose ensuing four drafts haven’t earned him any more awards.

This seems like a good time to throw in the most famous (and accurate) quote from Baalke since he became the team’s general manager. In fact, I’ll include the question (from the infamous York/Baalke “mutual parting” press conference on 12/29/14) since it was asked by one of the writers mentioned in this post.

Q: Trent, how transparent is this search going to be? Are we going to know what candidates you’re bringing in?

TB: Who was that for?

Q: For you.

TB: Are we ever transparent in what we do? [Laughter] I think, [Bay Area News Group writer] Cam [Inman], to answer that, you’ll know what I think everybody else knows.

Baalke is hardly unique among NFL executives or coaches. It’s as if they’re all working to protect national security, fighting their own individual wars on terror, and they could lose their lives if any bit of free information somehow lands in the wrong hands.

I didn’t need to interact with Baalke (I’ve asked him a grand total of two questions, ever) to know that he has had a difficult time acquiring star players, especially on offense. But those who deal with him more often are obviously annoyed, perhaps because Baalke is willfully deceitful on just about everything. Take his press conference on Jan. 4, for instance.

Q: When did you get your last contract extension?

TB: The last time, I’d have to go back and check, but the last time I signed a deal was probably 2012 or 2013 maybe.

Q: And it runs through when? How long are you under contract?

TB: Honestly, I don’t know. I think it’s two more seasons I believe. But, I’d have to check.

Q: Didn’t your contract matchup with Tomsula’s, that you’re both signed through 2018?

TB: Honestly, I do not know. It’s either at the conclusion of the 2017 season or possibly the 2018 season. It’s one of the two.

Q: So, your deal wasn’t redone in conjunction with Jim’s four year contract last year?

TB: No. What I don’t want to do, I’m not going to get into my contract details. But I believe, for transparency reasons, I want to say there was an option year that was exercised, but I honestly don’t know if that was ‘17 or ‘18.

If you’re keeping track, we’ve got one “probably,” one “maybe,” one “possibly,” one “transparency,” and three uses of the word “honestly.” That adds up to a big batch of “Baalke was trying awfully hard to get everyone to believe he didn’t know how long his contract lasted,” as if a GENERAL MANAGER OF A PROFESSIONAL SPORTS FRANCHISE WOULDN’T KEEP TRACK OF HIS OWN CONTRACT.

In the grand scheme, like a lot of sports stories, this is all media B.S. Fans didn’t care if the media liked Jim Harbaugh (most of them didn’t while he was here). They certainly won’t hold any of this against Baalke if he pulls a 1981 Bill Walsh draft class out of his behind this week and leads the 49ers to bigger and better things much sooner than any of us thought possible. But Baalke has struggled a bit in recent years, and his strategy of either playing dumb or being dishonest isn’t helping him in the slightest. His demeanor hasn’t mattered yet, but if enough SBL-holders and sponsors walk away, and Baalke gets cited as a reason often enough, York won’t have any choice but to find a new GM.

If it seems impossible to win on the field and the PR front, just look at the local competition. Brian Sabean is as blunt as they come. His successor, Bobby Evans, is a bit more discreet, but he makes up for that with outstanding accessibility. Even when the Warriors were losing, Larry Riley (who should get more credit than he does for the Warriors’ success, seeing as he was in favor of drafting Steph Curry) was handled with kid gloves by the media because he was personable and did his best to explain the team’s decisions. Bob Myers took that to a new level — the media absolutely loves him, because he gives an inside glimpse into both the locker room and the conference room. Even Billy Beane, who has never seen a star he wouldn’t trade, is adored by local reporters and columnists because he’s charming and funny, and he puts effort into his explanations.

(If we’re looking for football comparisons, it took people a few years to get a grip on the Raiders after Al Davis died, and once they finally did, Reggie McKenzie started drafting well.)

Baalke isn’t Beane (a former player), Myers (a former scout) or Sabean (a grizzled vet who worked for George Steinbrenner). Baalke is a scout, he’s cold, and he treats everyone like they’re too stupid to understand what it’s like to watch tape, or sit in some small school’s bleachers on a Saturday afternoon, or put together a 53-man roster.

He’s correct. None of us are NFL GMs … for several reasons. But it doesn’t take an eye for hip fluidity, arm length or hand size to realize that if a GM isn’t doing a particularly good job of putting together a roster, and he still acts like he’s doing the combined work of a brain surgeon and a Navy SEAL, and he spends his rare media appearances uttering bogus excuses for obvious errors (the Thomas thing) or speaking to reporters like they’re children (the contract thing), he isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt when he needs it most.

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