If 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke strode into CEO Jed York’s office and said, “We can’t work together. One of us has to go.”
York would probably take Baalke and that would be the right answer. As former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson has repeatedly said, the most important person in your football building is the guy assembling talent. It could be argued that the 49ers are the most talented team in the league.
By last year’s own internal evaluations, the 49ers deemed that none of the team’s 22 starters were below average. Baalke was leading the team’s draft when they chose tackle Anthony Davis, guard Mike Iupati, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, linebacker Aldon Smith, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, fullback Bruce Miller, safety Eric Reid and wide receiver Quinton Patton.
In free agency, the 49ers have signed defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, cornerback Carlos Rogers, kicker Phil Dawson, safety Donte Whitner, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and center Jonathan Goodwin.
The team rarely developed undrafted free agents before Baalke gained control of the roster in 2010. Now nose tackle Ian Williams, defensive back C.J. Spillman, linebacker Michael Wilhoite and defensive linemen Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jarrod-Eddie provide the team with depth and special teams talent.
The 49ers tied the Chiefs with eight players elected to this year’s Pro Bowl; they also had five alternates chosen for a whopping 13 in all. And for some odd reason, strong safety Donte Whitner, coming off a much improved season than 2013, was left off the Pro Bowl roster. Whitner was elected in 2013.
Baalke also continues to be a masterful, draft-day manipulator, stacking the team with 14 picks last year and 12 this season, including five in the first three rounds.
However, Baalke doesn’t get much credit for all of this because he rarely speaks to the media, and when he does, it’s typically a forgettable experience. Harbaugh can dazzle a crowd when he wants to, while Baalke often seems uncomfortable in his media sessions.
Harbaugh is often credited with turning the 49ers back into a playoff power. He helped develop Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick into winning quarterbacks. He instilled the team with swagger and a winning attitude. His coaching staff is stocked with well-regarded veterans and fast-rising stars.
But Harbaugh is also forceful, demanding and moody, which can alienate management and players.
Also Harbaugh’s late-game management in two crucial instances, in last year’s Super Bowl and this year’s NFL title game, contributed to crushing losses in both games.
Play transmission and game management often define a head coach, and Harbaugh is lacking in both areas.
Baalke is far from perfect, the inability to draft a play-maker at wide receiver and the potential washout of the 2012 draft are noteworthy stumbles.
Nevertheless, talent wins in the NFL as Jimmy Johnson knows. And Baalke’s ability to garner it is nearly unmatched.