This is my Friday column.
It was a test.
I knew the correct answer to the question I was going to ask Trent Baalke. I wanted to see if Baalke knew the answer, too.
Baalke was sitting in the 49ers’ media room facing a semi-circle of reporters, answering questions about the state of the franchise.
This was Wednesday, March 11 — the day after Patrick Willis retired.
Losing Willis is no small matter. Willis was one of the greatest inside linebackers of all time. He was the Bo Jackson of inside linebackers.
When Jim Harbaugh was the 49ers’ head coach, he compared Willis to Willie Mays. Harbaugh liked to use baseball terminology to describe Willis’ greatness. Football terminology couldn’t quite capture it.
“The five facets of being a great baseball player:” Harbaugh said at a press conference in 2011, “hit for power, hit for average, catch, run, throw; be able to do those five things at an elite level. Patrick, as a linebacker, played downhill as a linebacker, number one, to be able to drop into coverage, be active and good in the coverage. Be able to tackle in open space, be able to blitz strong with tempo, and also be able to run from sideline to sideline with the agility and the speed to do that and make plays.
“Those five things, he’s doing at an elite level … I think just like Willie Mays. To me, five facets of baseball, Willie Mays is the greatest of all time. Patrick Willis has a chance to be one of the all-time great linebackers.”
There have been very few five-tool linebackers in the history of football. Willis was rare.
How do the 49ers go about replacing him?
I asked Baalke my question in an earnest tone. I didn’t want him to know I was testing him.
“Do you have a linebacker on the roster who can legitimately replace all the things Willis did?” I said.
Baalke sat up straight. “When you’re replacing a great player, a player that has earned that term, that is a true three-down impact player, sometimes you can’t replace that one individual with another. You’ve got to replace those roles with multiple players. So we’re going to look inside. We’re very confident in the ability of Chris (Borland) and Mike (Wilhoite). Obviously they played very well a year ago. And look at other ways within the scheme and the system to cover up for anything that we do lose.”
Perfect answer. No, the 49ers do not have a replacement for Patrick Willis. Willis is irreplaceable, a one-of-a-kind.
The wrong answer would have been, “The defense didn’t miss a beat last season when Chris Borland replaced Willis in the starting lineup. We feel Borland can legitimately replace all of the things Willis did.”
Borland is not a five-tool linebacker. He’s a three-tool linebacker at best.
Borland is a terrific “downhill” run defender. That’s one tool. “Downhill” is Harbaugh’s term. It means running straight to the line of scrimmage and tackling the running back in the hole.
Can Borland run sideline to sideline with the agility and speed to make plays? Absolutely not.
Is he active and good in coverage? No.
Can he tackle in open space? Yes.
Can he blitz? Yes.
Three tools. Not bad, but not Willis.
Borland can replace Willis on first-and-10 if the opponent runs between the tackles. If the opponent runs to the outside, Borland is a liability. If the opponent passes, Borland is a liability.
On third down, Borland should go to the bench. Third down is a passing down. Borland’s tools do not fit passing downs.
That means Baalke must replace Willis with a platoon—Borland on running downs and someone else on passing downs. That someone could be a linebacker, a safety or a cornerback. If it’s a safety or cornerback, that’s called a Dime defense.
“Would you consider using Dime in passing situations?” I asked Baalke. “You haven’t used that much in the past.”
“We’ve been able to play Nickel and not have to jump into Dime very often because the skill level and the different ability levels of the players we had on the field,” Baalke said. “Now, once again, do we have to play a little more dime to cover up for Pat? That all remains to be seen.”
Baalke passed the test.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.