San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke are supremely competitive, confident individuals who often bypass pleasantries and sometimes disagree on important football matters. But a power struggle? Both deny it
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If the 49ers are headed toward some sort of seismic divorce between general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh, they’re hiding it very well.
Football people are very good at what they do. They are not, however, good actors. I’ve been around enough stressful situations in NFL organizations to know that they don’t do a very good job of putting on a happy face in bad times. No matter what people say, you can see or sense underlying tension.
While spending a few days around the 49ers’ facility on a couple of different projects, I’ve talked separately with Baalke, Harbaugh, team president Paraag Maranthe and CEO Jed York about a variety of subjects. The Baalke-Harbaugh relationship obviously came up. There have been various reports about tension between the two along the way, such as this one from ProFootballTalk.com and another from Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. Even before the GM-coach relationship got a public airing this offseason after the Browns inquired about Harbaugh’s availability, sources had told me that Harbaugh has a tendency to grate on people and that the 49ers wouldn’t be too disappointed if Harbaugh ended up taking another opportunity somewhere else down the line.
We’ll get to that in a minute, but the only tension I sensed around the 49ers’ facility had to do with a strong desire to push through and deliver a sixth Super Bowl title for an organization whose three consecutive NFC Championship appearances (one conference title) doesn’t suffice, even after missing the playoffs the previous eight years. I never sensed any strain between Harbaugh and Baalke, or among those who work with them day in and day out. If two alpha males are clashing to the point of it being a problem, it usually filters throughout the rest of the building and it’s difficult to mask. Either everyone working for the 49ers is a great actor, or there isn’t a huge problem between Baalke and Harbaugh. At least not right now.
“It’s a highly competitive industry with Type A people involved,” Baalke says. “But to say it’s a constant battle in this organization for power is totally false and misrepresented, because it’s not that way.”
“So much has been written and said that—unfortunately—it’s been written and been said by people that have never sat down with me, or personally sat down with Jim, or ever been in the building to see how the dynamics of this building work,” Baalke said this week. “Our relationship is good. And it’s been good. But like any relationship there have certainly been times when decisions need to be made and all the things that go with those decisions come into play and there’s banter, and it’s good.
“I’ve seen so much written that it doesn’t make sense to me. They don’t know us. And to put words into our mouths is unfair. To read into it is unfair. This is a competitive business, and the only way to survive is to be highly competitive. And everyone in this organization is highly competitive, just like any other. It’s a highly competitive environment. We like that. That’s what we thrive on. So to say that the relationship is strained or it’s a relationship that can’t coexist is totally off base. Totally off base.”
I found it interesting that when I tried to go at both Baalke and Harbaugh from different directions about their relationship, both picked up on what I was trying to do and quashed it.
“Just the way you posed the question, you seemed to indicate that it’s a confrontational perception about our relationship,” Harbaugh said. “It is teamwork and that’s what it has been, and that’s what it continues to be and that’s what it has to be moving forward. That’s our belief. We’ve done a good job executing that and making it about what’s best for the team and the San Francisco 49ers. We’re lockstep in that understanding.”
Said Baalke: “Even the way you worded it, it’s like we’re two rams butting heads every day. We rarely butt heads. We work together 365 days a year. We’re together more than we’re with our wives and families. The dynamic that’s being discussed isn’t the dynamic that’s taking place. It’s a highly competitive industry with Type A people involved. But to say it’s a constant battle in this organization for power is totally false and misrepresented, because it’s not that way.”
Here’s my read on the state of the Baalke-Harbaugh relationship.
You’re talking about two highly competitive individuals who are supremely confident in their abilities. You’re also dealing with two individuals who, while seemingly good and affable people at their core, don’t possess the greatest interpersonal skills in the world. They are seemingly unaware, at least at times, of how they can come off to people—including to each other—and at the end of the day I don’t really think they care because both are football lifers who care most about competing and winning a Super Bowl title. Not much matters to them beyond that.
To outsiders that seems strange and an indication that things aren’t going well. Really, in most organizations that’s how it goes. Sure, there are places where coaches and general managers are best buddies or at least appear that way, such as the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll and John Schneider and the Saints’ Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis. But those are the exceptions. If Baalke and Harbaugh mugged a little bit more for the cameras, they might not be getting some of the blowback they’re receiving. That’s just not in the DNA of either of them. At all. If it’s not helping them win football games, neither guy has the patience for it.
There are certainly times that Baalke and Harbaugh go at each other, but it’s less than what has been reported and it doesn’t seem to be rooted in some sort of power struggle. It’s just that each man has been successful and possesses strong beliefs. If they disagree about a player, they’ll go to the film and watch together. Yes, there will be some strong banter back and forth, but either can be persuaded with a strong and sound argument. Then it’s over and they’re on to the next thing.
“It’s been very healthy,” Harbaugh said. “We each can express our view and opinion and then when we’re finished, that’s the decision and then we’re in lockstep as an organization for how we pursue our goals and our next thing that we have to resolve, or the next thing we have to anticipate. But it’s been successful in that regard.”
As for Harbaugh’s future with the 49ers, he has two years left on his contract, and he’s watched Carroll and John Fox recently receive contract extensions. The 49ers don’t talk about contracts, but the impression I got is that if Harbaugh wins a Super Bowl and wants to be paid accordingly, San Francisco will make it happen. (Harbaugh wanting more personnel power has never been brought up, by the way). In the same manner, if Harbaugh wants to leave for another college or pro job, he can do that as well. But that’s not about anything Harbaugh has or hasn’t done, or Baalke. That’s about the 49ers as an organization.
They believe they have a great situation, from infrastructure to personnel, which is something Harbaugh touted as well. If Harbaugh wants to be there, terrific for all involved. If he doesn’t, then the 49ers would be confident moving on. Nothing is forever in the NFL; it’s the price of doing business. But make no mistake: The 49ers aren’t having fleeting thoughts of a future without Harbaugh.
“I’ve seen so much written that it doesn’t make sense to me. They don’t know us. And to put words into our mouths is unfair,” Baalke says. “ . . . to say that the relationship is strained or it’s a relationship that can’t coexist is totally off base.”
“He is a damn good football coach, and he works extremely hard at what he does,” Baalke said of Harbaugh’s future. “That’s certainly an area that needs to be addressed, and will be addressed, and is being addressed. But as far as putting a timetable on it, there is no timetable in effect. I think that’s the most I want to say on it.”
Look, maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe the 49ers snowed me on a story they didn’t know I was writing ahead of time; I requested to talk to Harbaugh for a Baalke story and he didn’t flinch at giving me time. But my overriding thought leaving the 49ers is that Baalke and Harbaugh have a fine working relationship as far as the NFL goes, and they’ll continue to work together for a while longer. They’re just two highly competitive and confident guys who don’t possesses the warmest of personalities and don’t do a lot of hugging and mugging for the cameras, which means their relationship can be easily misconstrued.
“How do you define long term?” York said when asked about the perception that the Baalke-Harbaugh relationship might not be sustainable. “My uncle Eddie [DeBartolo] and Bill Walsh, between one firing and one quitting, I think [those types of clashes] happened seven or eight times in like a 10-year run. So I don’t know what sustainable means in people’s minds. I think both these guys are in the primes of their career and have the ability to work together for a very long time. It remains to be seen whether that happens, but the results have been proven on the field.
“I don’t think there are many better combinations than Trent and Jim as a GM-head coach relationship, and I think they realize they work pretty well together. The results speak for themselves and they know what the other one does. ... They realize it may not be perfect but they really respect each other and they do like working together. They might get heated once or twice a season. But when you’re competing for a Super Bowl—it’s football. To me, it’s part of it, it’s good and it’s healthy.”
1. The other major issue hanging over the 49ers is outside linebacker Aldon Smith’s myriad legal issues. There's a lot of concern for Smith the person, and Smith the football player isn't really a consideration at this point. The team doesn't know what's going to happen on the legal end, but as far as football goes, it seems that Smith will at some point become an active member of the team again. Though that may take a while. And it won't happen unless Smith makes meaningful progress away from football.
2. It will be really interesting to see if Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff goes ahead and trades up from the sixth spot to land defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. There’s no question Clowney would fill a huge need for Atlanta, but are the Falcons so close to contending for a Super Bowl that it would be smart to use more draft picks to acquire one player? No one will ever question Dimitroff’s intestinal fortitude, that’s for sure. Between the Julio Jones trade and a potential deal for Clowney, his tenure is either going to be boom or bust, with not much room for error. (Speaking of the Falcons, is it a good omen or a bad one that two churches are being demolished to make way for the team’s new stadium?)
3. If Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton doesn’t get the contract extension he wants before the season, he’ll certainly get a chance to prove his mettle with a tougher slate of games than Cincinnati’s tied-for-No. 23 strength of schedule shows. How’s this for quarterback matchups: Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice in December), Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, plus Alex Smith and Carson Palmer going against his former team. Both the Falcons and Texans should be much better than last year and give that schedule a boost. Go get that money, young man.
4. Great stat from ESPN.com’s Mike Sando: “The Minnesota Vikings have selected 61 players since Rick Spielman took over their draft room in 2006. Eight of the 61 have earned Pro Bowl honors. The Green Bay Packers have drafted 87 players since Ted Thompson became their general manager in 2005. Seven of the 87 have become Pro Bowlers. That’s 13 percent for Spielman and 8 percent for Thompson.” Although I’m cautious to measure anything with Pro Bowl selections, this does go toward proving the old adage that if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have anything.
5. Tough break for Broncos fans and Peyton Manning fans: Because of construction on the team’s training facility, there were will be no fan access to training camp, according to Mike Klis of the Denver Post. The team will, however, have three practices at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where admission and parking will be free.