Yahoo’s Charles Robinson was granted mega-access to Trent Baalke … relatively speaking. Baalke generally guards pertinent information like he would his draft board, but he made some comments to Robinson that we wouldn’t normally expect from the 49ers’ gravel-voiced general manager. Comments that could even indicate that he experiences pain.
It’s all spin, of course. Baalke is no longer in a position of unquestioned power, no longer considered one of the top executives in the NFL, no longer safe in Santa Clara.
“It felt like Muhammad Ali in the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’” Baalke said last week. “Every time I came off the ropes, something else happened.”
“Something else” is the most generic reference possible for one of the worst offseasons in NFL history. One where the fallout from the Jim Harbaugh divorce reached almost biblical fervor. Where Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retired; and Anthony Davis took a one-year hiatus. Where Aldon Smith rendered himself radioactive and key free agents cashed in elsewhere. And the morale? Well, it wasn’t a Siberian labor camp. There was always that to fall back on.
A little over a year later, Baalke still has only one pragmatic gear when it comes to all of this.
“You deal with it,” he said. “Through the process you learn. You try to make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again. But some things are just unpredictable.”
Here’s what is predictable about the 49ers right now: they are in a rebuild.
One man’s bad luck is another man’s poor preparation. Or, put another way, it’s debatable whether the 49ers were cursed (as they want us to believe) or soundly punished for their decisions — like plotting against Harbaugh, installing an overmatched company man as head coach, and coddling a talented yet supremely troubled outside linebacker. But what’s done is done, and the 49ers’ only chance for redemption is to stop harping on the past and embark on an ascendance similar to the one they experienced in 2011.
Baalke and the 49ers are preaching patience (“He says things like ‘Winning in March doesn’t matter’ and ‘I’ve got great patience,'” wrote Robinson.), and the fans are going to need an enormous amount to get through what looks to be a grueling and still yet-to-be-started rebuilding process. Because, as Robinson notes, Baalke can spend all day hyping the upcoming extensions we’ll see for “The Aaron Lynchs. The Jimmie Wards. The Carlos Hydes.” (It’s pretty remarkable that Baalke is still so bullish about “The Lynchs” after his suspension, by the way.)
However, rebuilding begins and ends with the starting quarterback. And, as we could already surmise, the job belongs to Blaine Gabbert until further notice.
All of that is great, of course – not having a roster totally devoid of talent. But there is also a pressing reality that some fundamental building blocks are still unknown. For now, it’s simplest to stick with the quarterback. All offseason and through Sunday’s preseason opener against the Houston Texans, the discussion has been about Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. This one feels transparent at this stage. Gabbert has gotten no shortage of positive reviews from head coach Chip Kelly at this point. And there is no indication that any of the lingering questions about Kaepernick – leadership, accuracy, health – have been definitively answered. It seems Gabbert would have to crater to lose his sizable lead on the starting nod.
Kaepernick reportedly isn’t even throwing today, so his “dead arm” diagnosis appears to be severe enough to prevent him from playing against Denver this weekend. That leaves Gabbert and Jeff Driskel as the 49ers’ two healthy quarterbacks, which … isn’t good. Unless you like the idea of “Driskel and Gabbert” as a fun new TV show where two lowly-touted signal callers review movies. I give it two thumbs WAY up!
Baalke might disagree with the following, because — as Tim Kawakami reports — he’s a huge believer in Gabbert (perhaps more so than Kelly). But with the current state of affairs, the 49ers have two choices.
- Hope for a lot of things. Like Gabbert and Chip Kelly making beautiful music together, the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals all having down years, and about a dozen young 49ers making huge leaps in 2016.
- Tank. And I don’t mean Carradine.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson will probably be the top quarterback available in next year’s draft, although these things are fluid and someone else could surpass him, like Brad Kaaya of Miami. Either way, after standing pat at No. 7 (which could turn out to look quite smart if DeForest Buckner turns into Justin Smith 2.0 and Jared Goff and Carson Wentz stink), the 49ers can’t sit out another draft at the most important position on every team’s roster. And no, taking Driskel in the sixth round in hopes he’ll be the next Tom Brady doesn’t count as an aggressive move to acquire their quarterback of the future.
“That’s historically what wins,” Baalke said. “It’s tough to buy championships in any sport [but] it’s damn near impossible in the National Football League. … We absolutely have a young core group of guys that are going to move into their second contracts here. And I think people will see that this year as it unfolds.”
So, Baalke gave us his rationale for not spending in free agency (although that might be a directive that comes from somewhere higher in the 49ers food chain), and we know he doesn’t like to package the picks he hoards to move up to one of the top draft spots. If the 49ers keep Baalke around beyond this season — and that’s clearly up in the air — they’re going to need the team to play poorly enough in 2016 to snag one of the top quarterbacks … and even then Baalke might draft a defensive player anyway.