The 49ers enter Sunday’s game in Denver limping like Yankee Doodle.
There’s linebacker Patrick Willis, clattering along with a walking boot on his left foot. Marching beside him is guard Mike Iupati nursing a head injury. Five of the team’s six cornerbacks – including nickelback Jimmie Ward – are on the injury report this week.
The 49ers’ depth will be tested like never before in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as the 49ers’ coach, which shines a light on the team’s 2014 draft class. Ward, running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Chris Borland, cornerback Dontae Johnson and pass rusher Aaron Lynch had key roles in Monday’s win over the Rams, and the group promises to play even more against the Broncos.
It’s still early, but the 49ers’ rookie class seems nearly as talented as the team’s famed 2011 draft class that produced Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Bruce Miller, among others.
And that shines a light on the man who selected those players, Trent Baalke.
At Candlestick Park, the general manager watched games in a room in the rickety, old press box. It was located at the top of the structure, immediately above where the reporters sat. When the 49ers gave up a big play or nearly missed out on one of their own, there was a rumble of stomping so loud it was as if a herd of Clydesdales was galloping across the floorboards above.
A visiting reporter might have thought the din was thunder or even an earthquake. No, it was a different force of nature: Baalke.
Levi’s Stadium isn’t nearly as intimate. Baalke and other team officials have their own booth and are separated from the rest of the world.
Ah, but Baalke can’t be contained on the road.
Before Monday’s game in St. Louis, the 49ers’ general manager chatted and laughed with Harbaugh. During it, he was in the Edward Jones Dome press box, one row behind the reporters.
Most NFL press boxes have inch-and-a-half-thick glass that shields the media from the noise of the crowd. St. Louis’ press box, however, is one of the few with no barrier. It’s essentially in the stands. You hear every decibel, feel every momentum change, experience each surge of electricity.
For someone like Baalke, it’s impossible to remain reserved.
He sat through most of the first half. But by the second, when the 49ers took the lead but had trouble putting away the Rams, Baalke was on his feet. He exhorted his team, pounded his fists, stamped his feet.
That’s not a slam on Baalke. Instead it’s a reminder that he and Harbaugh are kindred spirits.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday said Harbaugh was the most televised head coach in the league. Cameras love to focus on Harbaugh’s worst-poker-face-ever expressions and reactions.
But while Harbaugh spins, grimaces and gesticulates on the field, Baalke goes through the same dance a few stories above him. They are mirror images, secret sharers, brothers up in arms.
The conventional thinking as the 49ers head to an end-of-season showdown with Harbaugh over his contract is that two men with such determined, Type-A personalties can’t coexist.
Is that true? Reports of Harbaugh’s bad behavior have come in the past two years when the two sides were in a contract dispute. During such negotiations, people tend to dissemble, exaggerate and stretch the truth in an effort to gain leverage, which makes you wonder if the situation is as rancid as has been portrayed.
Clearly, Baalke and Harbaugh have been very good for each other when it comes to the product on the field. Harbaugh arrived in 2011 to find a roster loaded by the previous general manager, Scot McCloughan, and Baalke. As the 49ers’ first six games have shown, Baalke has kept the team well stocked.
But Baalke’s greatest triumph wasn’t drafting Smith or Eric Reid or Carlos Hyde or, through a series of draft-day trades, turning a second-round pick into two second-round picks and one third-rounder.
His best move was landing Harbaugh. The two sat in a quiet room and talked football, literally, until the sun went down. The story line at the time was that Baalke beat out Harbaugh’s other suitors because, at their core, they were the same.
Has anything really changed?
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.