This is my Sunday column.
What about Trent Baalke?
Sure, the 49ers probably will dump Jim Harbaugh at the end of the season. His quarterback isn’t improving and his offense stinks and he ticks people off. We get all that.
But what about Baalke? Who’s to say the Niners won’t dump him, too? What makes him worth keeping?
Let’s evaluate his contribution to the franchise. Let’s figure out how many key players he has added to the team. To help us, I brought in a guest speaker. His name is Sam Wyche. Say hello to Sam.
Mr. Wyche is the former head coach of the Bengals. Before that, he was an assistant coach on the 49ers’ first Super Bowl team. He helped develop Joe Montana.
Mr. Wyche, please explain how to grade a general manager, the person who gets the players.
Wyche: “You’d better have among the best players in the league at five positions if you want a chance to win the Super Bowl. If you don’t have those positions taken care of — all of them — your odds of winning the Super Bowl are really slim. Teams will attack your weakness if you don’t have those bases covered.”
Got it? If the general manager doesn’t get studs to play every key position, the team doesn’t have much of a chance to win the Super Bowl. I am grading the key positions on a simple pass-fail system.
Position No. 1.
Wyche: “Got to have a good quarterback. Rarely do you win the Super Bowl with an ordinary quarterback.”
GRADE: Fail. Colin Kaepernick currently is not good enough to win a Super Bowl — he proved that already. And he’s getting worse. His 78.6 passer rating in November was among the worst in the league. It was even worse than Robert Griffin’s rating, and Griffin got benched.
Kaepernick may improve, in which case so would Baalke’s grade. Or would it? How much credit does Baalke really deserve for drafting Kaepernick in 2011?
Based on conversations around the league I’ve conducted, draft gurus initially believed Baalke wanted to draft Christian Ponder. All of a sudden, Kaepernick showed up on the Niners’ radar when Harbaugh went to Reno to work him out. It makes you wonder.
Position No. 2.
Wyche: “You need a go-to guy on offense — running back, wide receiver, maybe it’s a tight end on occasion. Any guy that the defense has to double-team, they have to account for.”
GRADE: Pass, but barely. Anquan Boldin qualifies as a go-to guy. Defenses know the 49ers are going to throw the ball to Boldin on third down and they still can’t stop him. Baalke traded a 6th-round pick for him in 2013 – great trade, the best of Baalke’s career.
But Boldin already was proven. He already had gone to three Pro Bowls. His audition tape was the Super Bowl in which he destroyed the 49ers. Baalke didn’t have to discover Boldin or scout him or project how he would perform in the pros.
And one other thing. Boldin is no deep threat, cannot stretch the field. The 49ers don’t have someone like that – Vernon Davis has become the Invisible Man. So, Boldin is only a partial, some-of-the-time go-to guy.
Baalke never has drafted a go-to guy on offense. He has tried and failed 12 times. Check out the list: A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James, Vance McDonald, Marcus Lattimore, Quinton Patton, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, Bruce Ellington, Anthony Dixon, Nate Byham, Kyle Williams and Ronald Johnson.
The best offensive players Baalke ever drafted were Mike Iupati and Bruce Miller – a guard and a fullback.
Position No. 3.
Wyche: “You need the backside tackle — the left tackle for a right-handed quarterback, the right tackle for a left-handed quarterback.”
GRADE: Pass, even though Baalke never actually acquired one. He inherited one of the best blind-side protectors in football, Joe Staley. Baalke had the good sense to extend his contract, and Baalke gets credit for that.
Position No. 4.
Wyche: “On defense, you need a dominating pass rusher, somebody they’ve got to slide the line to, they’ve got to chip, they’ve got to move their tight end over to help block. It could be a down linemen or it could be a linebacker if he’s coming off the edge.”
GRADE: Pass. Baalke drafted Aldon Smith. Most left tackles cannot block Smith one-on-one. Even Staley struggles to block Smith when they face off in training camp.
Position No. 5.
Wyche: “You also need a takeaway corner, someone you can put in man-to-man coverage on their best player, erase him, take him away, and you can double somebody else.
GRADE: Fail. The 49ers have average corners who play well against average wide receivers, but are over-matched against the NFL’s best. The Niners had no answer for Boldin in the Super Bowl, and that’s one of the reasons why they lost.
Last year, Baalke chose to spend his first-round draft pick on Eric Reid, a free safety — not one of Wyche’s five key positions. Reid went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but he has played just so-so this season. Instead of Reid, Baalke should have drafted Desmond Trufant or Xavier Rhodes. They are two of the best corners in the NFL right now, and they were available when Baalke picked Reid.
This year, Baalke did it again, drafted a safety instead of a cornerback in the first round. Baalke took Jimmie Ward, who’s on the Injured Reserve list, over Bradly Roby, who’s starting for the Broncos.
BONUS: Position No. 6.
Wyche: “The last position you might want to put in there is a defensive quarterback. That’s usually the middle linebacker, somebody that makes sure the defense is always in the right spot.”
GRADE: Pass. Baalke didn’t draft Patrick Willis, but he drafted NaVorro Bowman, one of the best inside linebackers in the league before he tore up his knee. And now that Bowman and Willis are injured, Michael Wilhoite has become the quarterback of the defense. And the defense is ranked No. 4, so Wilhoite must be doing a good job.
DOUBLE BONUS: Position No. 7.
There is one more key position Wyche forgot to mention – a kicker. A team better have a kicker who can make the easy field goals or that team is in trouble.
GRADE: Pass. Phil Dawson is one of the most accurate kickers of all time. None of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl teams had a kicker as good as Dawson.
FINAL GRADE: Incomplete.
Acquiring five out of seven key positions is good, but not good enough. Baalke is still searching for a franchise quarterback and a shutdown corner and a deep-threat receiver. He has shown no ability to find those players and the inconsistency of the 49ers reflects that.
If Baalke does not improve his performance in the next draft and free-agent market, let someone else find the key players. Baalke could be running out of time.
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.