The Jacksonville Jaguars have announced their second major personnel hire of the offseason. The first came seven days ago when Urban Meyer became the team’s head coach. The second came Thursday afternoon with the hiring of general manager Trent Baalke, who formerly held the same post with the San Francisco 49ers.
The first could be a major boon to the franchise given the right circumstances. The second? Not so much.
Trent Baalke built a Super Bowl contender
Baalke took the role of general manager with the 49ers for the 2011 season, after spending six seasons with the team in other administrative positions.
At first, it looked like Baalke put together a winner. It was his decision to hire Jim Harbaugh as head coach, which started the ball rolling for the 49ers’ early-2010s run of success. In 2011, San Francisco won 13 games and the NFC West title, a sharp improvement from their 6-10 record the season before. The team reached the NFC Championship Game, which they lost in overtime to the New York Giants. For his efforts in leading the team’s transformation, Baalke won the Executive of the Year award from the Pro Football Writers Association.
The next year was even more of a success. Despite a quarterback controversy, with Colin Kaepernick replacing Alex Smith mid-season, the 49ers again took home the division title. This time, the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl, only to lose in controversial fashion to the Baltimore Ravens.
They came close again the following year, but once again fell short in the NFC Championship — this time to the Seattle Seahawks. This would be the final playoff appearance of both Baalke and Harbaugh’s tenure in San Francisco.
Baalke lost control of a potential champion
After 2013, the wheels came off for the team that Baalke put together. A rift developed between him and Harbaugh, the head coach that he himself had hired. While neither side has been 100% transparent about the nature of their conflict, team owner Jed York consistently sided with his general manager over his head coach. This would prove to be a mistake.
Meanwhile — and this is most important, Jacksonville — Baalke lost his touch when it came to player development.
It’s important to note that the nucleus of the 2012 49ers Super Bowl team was actually assembled by Baalke’s predecessor, Scott McCloughan. This includes players such as Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree. However, Baalke was responsible for bringing in Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith in the 2011 draft.
His next few drafts didn’t go nearly as well. Of his 61 draft picks between 2011 and 2015, only three — Aldon Smith, Eric Reid, and DeForest Buckner — have made the Pro Bowl. One of those picks, Chris Borland, famously retired after only one season.
The 49ers fell to 8-8 in 2014, giving Baalke the perfect excuse to push Harbaugh out the door. If he thought Harbaugh’s removal would help the team improve, he was sorely mistaken, as the once-promising 49ers went from a Super Bowl contender to a laughingstock. The final straw came with their 2-14 finish in 2016, tied for the worst season in franchise history.
This was Baalke’s last season in San Francisco. He took up an advisory role with the NFL, a post he held until 2020.
Did Jacksonville find the right man?
Since the hiring became official, many in sports media have delighted in the irony that the man who ran Jim Harbaugh out of San Francisco will now work alongside Harbaugh’s old college nemesis. But who’s to say that Baalke won’t cause the same problems in Jacksonville that transpired with the 49ers?
Jaguars management has stressed that Urban Meyer will be the key decision-maker, above anyone else. Team owner Shad Khan said so himself when he introduced Meyer last week.
“We’re going to be carrying out, obviously, Urban’s vision of the team and the kind of players we want,” said Khan on Friday, as quoted by the Jaguars’ official website.
It should be stressed that Urban Meyer’s only coaching experience to this point has been in college. He is not the general manager. He will need someone to rely on for certain personnel decisions, and Baalke will be that someone. The pair will have roughly three seasons, and maybe not even that long, to find out if Baalke is the right someone for the job.