A Baalke Change Up
There’s a learning curve in every new situation, even owning an NFL team. Shad Khan admits he’s learned a few things, sometimes jarring and big things, since taking control of the Jaguars in 2012.
Those things he’s learned have given him enough experience to have his own perspective on what works in the NFL. He’s tried a few different things but save for 2017, nothing’s really worked. That’s why he’s stopped using consultants and advisors in the hiring process and is leaning on his gut instinct.
“My whole aspect,” Khan said recently in a statement of his philosophy, “(Is) that we need to be a coach-centric team and organization, where the head coach really has to lead the kind of players he wants, the kind of team we need to be.”
Khan thinks Urban Meyer is the right coach for this situation, which makes his hire of Trent Baalke as the team’s general manager very interesting because of the chain of command Shad wants to use going forward. Both Meyer and Baalke will report directly to Khan.
Baalke is getting a second chance, and even he knows that’s rare in the high adrenaline world of the NFL. And as the complimentary counterpart to Urban Meyer’s personality, Baalke’s current take on what he’s learned and what his job is fits under Meyer’s view as the overseer of the whole operation.
“I’m a resource for coach, that’s the way I look at it,” he said Thursday when asked where he fit in the Jaguars hierarchy. “I provide a service where he can come in, he can bounce things off of me, because there’s going to be a lot of questions, there’s going to be a lot of things that are going to be first time for him.”
Baalke was named the Director of Player Personnel last year and in late November he took over as the interim General Manager when Khan fired Dave Caldwell. He knows the current Jaguars roster and which players might fit into Meyer’s now famous, “A to B, four to six” mantra. And with the average NFL roster turning over twenty players each year, picking the right players is paramount.
His resume is impressive, but his results are uneven. After twelve years with the 49ers, six as General Manager, Baalke was fired. And he thought it was the right thing to do.
“Sometimes you need to reset the culture. When you have a winning culture, which we did in 2011, ’12, ’13 and ’14, (there are) a lot of good football players,” he said shortly after he was let go. “Then you transition. At some point, those veteran guys move on. Blending in with younger guys, and sometimes it takes a little longer than you’d like. And this is probably one of those situations.”
That’s a rare amount of humility in the world of the NFL.
His 2012 and 2013 drafts were called “lackluster” by most draft experts and the following results showed. The ‘Niners quickly went from Super Bowl contenders to NFL also-rans. He clashed with head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly and it cost him his job.
He didn’t think he’d ever get another chance to be a General Manager and again, and he’s right, that rarely happens. But paying some penance on the staff in Jacksonville, Baalke was in the right place at the right time.
More importantly, he says he’s changed. He’s learned lessons from his mistakes.
“I’ve learned a lot about dealing and working with coaches, a lot about dealing and working with players, a lot about team building and what it takes,” he said on Thursday. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I think learning is a journey, and I think every day you wake up—if you’re not waking up with the mentality that you’re going to learn something, you’re missing something.”
And there’s nothing like being on the outside looking in that can give perspective in football. Guys who have made football their life don’t want to be on the outside.
“When you’re out of the business, you get to look at the business through a different lens. When you’re in it, you don’t have that luxury. Things are happening a lot quicker; you’ve got to make a lot of quicker decisions. And I grew, I think, more from being outside of this business looking in, than I ever grew inside of this business.”
So, Baalke has learned, he’s working in a situation that he wants to be in, and he now has a specific, and notably different, philosophy than when he was running the Niners.
There he took some chances, reached and even tried drafting injured players to stockpile them for the future. Marcus Lattimore, a running back from South Carolina is a prime example. Baalke took him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft despite serious knee injuries in his sophomore and junior years in Columbia. He never played a down in the NFL.
Losing his job, being on the outside, and knowing what didn’t work seems to have altered his idea of what makes a good football team.
“I think the focus is always on the draft and building your team through the draft,” he said. “I think you use the other avenues to supplement your roster. I think you’re always searching to build your roster whether it’s from the top down or the bottom up or somewhere in the middle.”
“We’re a value-based team, not a needs-based,” he added. “You always have needs regardless of when you set the fifty-three, so the best player available is usually the direction you want to go.”
One thing Baalke is, is a departure from the Jaguars personnel decision-makers in the past. He’s been there before, been around the league and has been the final word on personnel decisions.
Tom Coughlin had personnel responsibilities when the Jaguars first hired him and not being willing to share those responsibilities probably cost him a chance to keep his job in the early 2000’s. When he went to the Giants, somebody else had the final say on who came and who went on their roster. James Harris never had the General Manager title and was a pro personnel executive in Baltimore before coming here. Gene Smith was considered a “super scout” and was elevated to the GM job coming up through the ranks of the Jaguars scouting system. Dave Caldwell was an assistant in Atlanta and considered a rising star, but Jacksonville was his first, “The Buck Stops Here,” job.
Baalke at least has some experience behind him as the decision-maker. Sometimes you have to find out what doesn’t work to figure out what does.
“In this league there are thirty-two teams and I honestly believe twenty-six to twenty-eight of them beat themselves before they ever even hit the field, for various reasons, and I’ve been a part of them,” he said Thursday.
Baalke says he’s fine being criticized and has developed a thick skin. He’ll need it in his job, trying to build the Jaguars back to a relevant NFL franchise. One scribe in San Francisco listed making Baalke the General Manager as “the worst decision the franchise has made in the last decade.” Harbaugh didn’t have much nice to say about his GM after his departure from the Niners when he took the Michigan job.
Baalke seems unfazed, and perhaps, even changed.
“I know this,” he said. “We share a vision here, between ownership, between the head coach, myself, that I think we’re very focused in on and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”