I was able to catch up with Trent Baalke, new general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, one afternoon and get his take on the state of the current team.
Trent Baalke began his career as the athletic Director for Shanley High School in Fargo, North Dakota. He transitioned to the NFL as a scout for the New York Jets and then Washington Redskins, where he worked under NFL icons like Bill Parcells and Dick Haley.
Baalke came to the 49ers in 2005 as the Western Region Scout. In 2007 he became the Vice President of Player Personnel, a position he held until his promotion to general manager last January.
You started in the NFL as a scout—what in particular drew you to that position?
"From the day I can remember I've watched football. I followed the game a lot, starting with the old Packers with Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Paul Horning. As much as I was a fan of the Packers though, I was a fan of football. I love watching it, love being around it.
"What has intrigued me the most is the difference in the body types of players. You look at Eric Dickerson who was a tall, lean running back, Barry Sanders who was short and stout, and Earl Campbell, a big bruiser, who have all had incredible success.
"Then you look at quarterbacks. From Bernie Kosar’s throwing motion to what Brett Favre is to what Phillip Rivers is. All the differences that you see is an intriguing aspect of the game to me.
"The way I interpreted my job as a scout was basically to watch all these different types of players with their unique playing styles, and see if they would fit into our organization’s system."
What are two or three intangibles that you think are most important in players?
"Number one, they've got to fit into the locker room. They've got to have the character that you’re looking for in a player. You want to make sure that the position coaches, the system, the players that are currently in that locker room are going to all fit with the new guy, and that the new guy is going to fit with them.
"We’re also looking for intelligent players, who can pick up the scheme and execute it with minimal mistakes. Those are the things that end up killing you, when guys are making assignment errors
"And we’re looking for tough guys, players who have shown durability over the course of time. We go back into their high school days and try to find out how much time they missed then, and match that up with their college days. Generally, players don’t change, barring a catastrophe. If they’re durable in high school and college, they’ll be durable in the NFL."
Are there any players you scouted whom you are particularly proud of finding or recommending because of their future success in the NFL?
"I don’t look at scouting as an individual pursuit of talent. There are a lot of pieces to it. There are the area scouts, the All-Star looks, the combine, and the coach’s evaluation. It’s a group effort.
"It’s very easy for you to point to all the success you've had, but in all fairness you have to turn around and talk about all the ones you got wrong. It’s an imperfect science. There’s a lot of evaluations that you’re proud of when you look back that got drafted high and ended up being what you thought.
"The key is making sure that you settle on the players that best fit your system, that your coaches and personnel people both have a good feeling about. You want those feelings to be married within the building. You don’t want people saying, 'I told you so.'"
Have you learned anything from anyone you have worked for that you treasure to this day?
"From Dick Haley, I’d say more than anything just his patience, and the understanding that you’re not always going to be right. That it’s a tough business and you’re going to make mistakes, and you just got to be able to minimize them and recover from them.
"From Bill Parcells, the understanding that specific players fit specific systems. It’s very important when you’re trying to put a team together that you get individuals on your team that fit your system and exactly what you want to do."
The 49ers made the first “surprise” pick of the 2011 NFL Draft by taking Aldon Smith seventh overall. Which of the most recent draft class are you most excited to see in training camp?
"I know you’re trying to pin me down on one guy, but I can’t stress it enough: this is a team. It’s not about one guy, or about me making the decisions. This is about a team. That’s how Jim and I have operated from day one and will continue to operate.
"We won’t place any more value on one person over another. Everyone’s important to the process, whether that’s a coach, a scout, a player or anyone else in the organization. Everyone has a role, everyone’s important."
What needs do the 49ers have to address in free agency that they missed with the draft?
"There are positions we are looking to add depth and competition to, but we feel good about the core group that we have here. We feel like we can go out and win on Sunday’s with the group we have.
"We’re never done adding to it. We’re always going to try to be as competitive as we can be at every position."
Could you talk a little bit about Alex Smith and the quarterback position?
"The quarterback situation here has been scrutinized more than probably any place in the NFL, and that’s because there have been two Hall of Famers that have come through here recently. With the success they've had we've moved into a time where we haven’t had any success. Jim [Harbaugh] and I have vowed to turn this team around and get it back to its rightful place. In order to do that, we've got to get the quarterback position figured out. There’s no doubt about it, and we’re committed to doing that.
"Our job is to bring in the best three quarterbacks we can. Just like with every other position, we’re trying to make it as competitive as possible, and let the best man win. Whether that is Alex or somebody else, that remains to be seen."
When did you meet Jim Harbaugh and how have you cultivated that relationship?
"I first met Jim years ago at the old All Star game in Las Vegas six or seven years ago. Jim coached in that game. I was a scout for Washington. I got a chance to meet him and just really liked him as a person. I loved the energy he brought to the practices and the fun he was having. It just looked like he had strong passion for the game. He loved to be on the field. He was very engaging with the players. He took a team of rag tag guys and made them a pretty functional group by the end of the week and went on to win the game.
"From that point on I was intrigued by him. I had followed his career as a player, and saw the things he was able to accomplish as a player and see his success at USD, where he was coaching at the time. When I came to the 49ers, Jim got hired at Stanford and was right there in the vicinity. I was going to a lot of games at Stanford and watched him.
"One quality that all good coaches have is to be able to do more with less. It’s not that he had no talent to work with at USD or Stanford. But when you look at what he was able to do, take a team that hadn’t had a lot of success at San Diego and made them successful, and then take a team that was struggling at Stanford and make them successful—that’s a rare quality that a lot of good coaches have."