On the precipice of free agency and the draft, I figured we'd take a look back at the 49er front office's meteoric rise from incompetence to excellence. The three-headed monster of Trent Baalke, Paraag Marathe, and Jim Harbaugh represents a standard by which other franchises can be judged-the decision-making, cap-structuring, and talent-evaluating skills this trio has are off the charts. But things weren't always so rosy at 4949 Centennial Blvd.
The Donahue Disaster: 2001-2005
Terry Donahue's appointment to general manager stands as one of Bill Walsh's only follies, but boy was it a colossal one. Donahue was wholly abysmal-up and down the draft and in every other facet of GM responsibility. How on earth he allowed Terrell Owens to leave town for a 3rd round pick and...get ready for it... Brandon Whiting, baffles me to this day. He brought clueless Dennis Erickson on board to replace a successful Steve Mariucci, granted third-rate players Ahmed Plummer and Kevan Barlow a combined $19 MILLION in signing bonuses, and headed up 49ers rosters in 2004 and 2005 that would be considered miserable by expansion team standards.
The Nolan Nightmare: 2005-2008
Mike Nolan, to be fair, had a tall order ahead of him being a first time head coach. To pile GM responsibilities on top was asking for trouble. Despite that, Nolan (with Scot McCloughan handling the draft) made a few decent moves-namely, bringing defensive stalwarts Justin Smith and Patrick Willis to town. But all too often during his tenure, the 49ers found themselves whiffing on draft picks and unable (at times unwilling) to attract quality free agent talent.
There are two lasting images of this era-Nolan throwing his own pick, Alex Smith, under the bus-and Kentwan Balmer's face. Need I say more?
McCloughan's Misguidance: 2008-2010
Scot McCloughan was the new sheriff in town upon Nolan's dismissal as head coach/GM. Things remained somewhat status quo since McCloughan was already in charge of the draft during Nolan's regime. His 2009 draft yielded Michael Crabtree and Ricky Jean-Francois but both took a fair amount of time to develop, and he misfired on every other player (paging Glen Coffee). Despite a mostly unsuccessful run, McCloughan does get credit for some spotty draft success and a big tip of the cap for promoting scout Trent Baalke to Vice President of Player Personnel. The move elevated Baalke's stake within the organization and paved the way for his eventual promotion to general manager once McCloughan was unceremoniously sent off in the night.
For nearly a decade, fans justifiably scrutinized and condemned the front office's every move. Sadly, it seemed evident that even the averagely knowledgeable fan could run the team more effectively and draft better players. This (more so than the detestable on-field performance) is what truly dropped the 49ers into the doldrums and made them the butt of a league-wide joke. Yes, San Francisco was the laughing stock of the league-veritable kryptonite to free agents-but Trent Baalke jumped headfirst into the fire.
Enter Trent Baalke: 2010-Present
Swiftly and judiciously, Trent Baalke took the reigns of the team during its dark days, navigating them out of the storm and back to the top of the heap. He galvanized a dramatic change in the franchise's culture as soon as he stepped onto the scene.
Just five weeks prior to the 2010 draft, he was entrusted to lead the 49ers in a crucial draft upon McCloughan's swift dismissal. In his inaugural draft as GM, Baalke proved the moment was not too big and nabbed right tackle Anthony Davis and left guard Mike Iupati in the first round. While some others may have felt the pressure to add a playmaker, Baalke had the smarts, patience, and foresight to know that the Niners' future success hinged on a dominant line. That foresight also led to the signing of undrafted free agent Alex Boone, a mammoth offensive lineman from Ohio State with equally sizable talent, but a questionable track record of alcohol abuse.
But if any one move speaks to Baalke's ability, it was his recruitment of Jim Harbaugh. Despite eight years of losing, ownership that had oft been the target of public scrutiny, and a team that Scott Linehan once turned down, Baalke somehow impressed Harbaugh enough to come join him in his massive undertaking. The rest reads like a storybook. Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller and Chris Culliver highlight a historic 2011 draft class-one that Baalke put together with the aforementioned rookie head coach...during a locked out season. Players that were deemed "projects" were quickly developed and provided very early returns. Hell, Bruce Miller was a 7th round defensive end who they converted to starting fullback in a matter of weeks. That's a huge credit to him and Harbaugh working together and determining what each player brings to the table, where they fit in, and how quickly they can contribute. Then in free agency, he signed Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner to modest contracts and watched as they went on to become Pro Bowl players.
Despite a relatively quieter 2012 draft, Baalke somehow managed to keep the vaunted Niners defense in tact. On top of that, he signed NaVorro Bowman to an extension and brought Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to the Bay Area to bolster the WR corps. In the end, his first two years on the job very nearly produced a sixth franchise Lombardi trophy.
The true genius comes through in Baalke's steadfast ability to evaluate players by both skill and value, and manage the roster accordingly. He's got the gumption to cut ties for long-term benefit without sacrificing the short-term and proved that he won't back down from players with character issues. All of this has allowed him to make a fairly seamless transition from Singletary to Harbaugh and establish a sustainable model of success for the 49ers.
Now, the savvy savant looks ahead to a big-time offseason and true to form, he is standing pat thus far. He's allowing Dashon Goldson to hit the market-he doesn't appear to be interested in taking on a hobbled Darrelle Revis or his monster contract demands-and he may have to let both of his nose tackles (Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois) hit the road too. Calm, cool, and collected, Baalke will likely continue to bargain shop in free agency and build his sustainable core through the draft. So be sure to grab your popcorn come April; because with 15 selections all eyes will be on the Niners, and their general manager figures to do some serious wheeling-and-dealing.