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When this agonizingly, protracted Jaguars’ coaching search is over, or even as it’s still ongoing, you have to wonder if owner Shad Khan has even once had a smattering of regret about keeping general manager Trent Baalke employed.
At least Khan recognized what a colossal blunder he made in hiring Urban Meyer, so he jettisoned the Jaguars’ head coach on December 16 after just 13 games.
But his insistence on retaining Baalke, at least for now, may well go down as the most baffling decision of his decade-long tenure.
It defies explanation, mainly because the 2021 season debacle seemed like the ideal circumstance to completely wipe the organizational slate clean. As this coaching search goes on, in retrospect, it makes even less sense.
Now put aside for a moment that the idea of working with Baalke clearly gave several Jaguars coaching candidates, including perceived frontrunner Byron Leftwich, a lot of pause about taking the job with him in control of personnel.
Who is Byron Leftwich?: Jaguars coaching search: 5 things to know about Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich
It’s no secret Baalke has a well-known reputation around the NFL as being too much of a power player, which was a big problem in his GM days with the San Francisco 49ers (2011-16) and caused successful head coach Jim Harbaugh to bolt for Michigan.
That reputation has followed him to Jacksonville, where Baalke’s career was resurrected when former GM Dave Caldwell hired him in February 2020, as Director of Player Personnel. It resurfaced in a big way when Baalke managed to get elevated to permanent GM, after Caldwell’s firing, and then survived a tumultuous 2021 season that will go down as the biggest underachieving year in franchise history.
The fans’ ire over his continued presence compelled a small segment of them to wear clown suits or faces to the season-ending victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Since Baalke remains part of the coaching interview process, which began one month ago Sunday with former Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson on December 30, the vitriol directed him on social media has not subsided.
Social media firestorm for Jaguars fans
There’s little debate Baalke’s presence is regarded throughout the NFL as some kind of impediment in finding the right coach, which only creates a larger optics problem for Khan.
The fans’ apoplectic state about Baalke reached a new level the past few days, especially after a jump-the-gun tweet Tuesday night by one fan indicated a Leftwich hire was imminent. That rumor spread quickly and had most people rejoicing because, not surprisingly, the Byron bandwagon began filling up once traction for early favorites Doug Pederson and Jim Caldwell started losing momentum.
One day later, Arizona Cardinals website reporter Mike Jurecki added fuel to the fire. He came out saying, both on Twitter and in an interview with the Jaguars’ official 1010XL radio station – as strongly as being “99.9 percent” certain – that the team’s Vice-President of Pro Personnel, Adrian Wilson, would be hired as the GM, presumably because Leftwich wanted him.
All this happened despite dead silence from NFL national media big-hitters like Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport, who gave no hint of an impending Leftwich or Wilson hire. Times-Union sources indicated similarly.
Since then, Baalke vitriol continues unabated because of the belief that his presence may possibly sabotage Leftwich getting hired, along with the fans’ hope of Baalke being replaced.
Now all of this outside speculation, which may or may not eventually come true, is completely secondary to the much bigger question: why is Baalke still here in the first place?
Khan doesn’t appear ready to reverse course and suddenly fire him in the middle of a coaching search. No, the real shame is that he didn’t part ways with Baalke a lot sooner.
Khan missed on Black Monday
The real missed opportunity to separate from Baalke was on the morning of January 10, otherwise known as the NFL’s annual Black Monday, the first day of the offseason when coaches and general managers on a hot seat often get fired.
On that day, both the head coach and GM of the Minnesota Vikings (Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman) and Chicago Bears (Matt Nagy, Ryan Pace), along with Miami Dolphins’ coach Brian Flores, got the pink slip.
But not Teflon Trent. Somehow, whether it was Khan’s fierce loyalty or Baalke’s powers of persuasion, he survived.
That was the perfect time to cut ties with Baalke for myriad reasons. Not the least of which was his part – neither great or small – in the team’s 4-29 record over his two-year tenure as Vice-President of Pro Personnel, interim general manager after Dave Caldwell’s firing, and then GM for the past 12 months.
Nobody has any kind of personal vendetta against Baalke, it’s just that – well before all this back-and-forth with the coaching search and social media angst – he should have been gone.
Why? Because he hadn’t done much of anything to earn keeping the job. Not unless you classify the free-agent signings of cornerback Shaquill Griffin, safety Rayshawn Jenkins, defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris, receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and return specialist Jamal Agnew as a major coup — because the results on the field say otherwise.
Also, as the Jaguars’ season unraveled, Baalke made no significant moves to upgrade the roster or get help for quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Some would suggest there was no point because the Jaguars weren’t anywhere near a playoff contender.
However, Baalke has to bear some responsibility for an offense completely devoid of playmakers and a draft class (Travis Etienne’s Lisfranc injury being an exception) that was so-so at best, though it still has time to ascend.
Jaguars need coach-GM alignment
More than anything else, look at what could be different if Baalke had been fired as soon as the season ended. Instead of this clumsy-looking coach search, Khan could have put a new GM in place that would have none of Baalke’s baggage, then let him hire a coach without candidates being wary of a sketchy alliance with the front office.
That’s exactly what the Vikings and Bears did. They conducted simultaneous searches for both a GM and head coach, with the Bears first hiring GM Ryan Poles on Tuesday. He conducted a second interview with Jaguars' candidate Matt Eberflus on Wednesday before the Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator accepted the Bears’ job the following day.
Minnesota hired GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah from the Cleveland Browns’ front office on Wednesday, and now he’s now part of their coaching search.
The point being, here’s two NFC North teams who were far more competitive than the Jaguars this season, yet they had no problem cutting ties with men holding the two most important non-playing positions in their organization. They smartly hit the reset button.
In the Jaguars’ case, especially since there was so much dysfunction, it was more imperative to start fresh because there’s a better chance of a new GM and new head coach being truly aligned.
There was no indication of that being the case with holdover Baalke and newcomer Meyer, so why not usher both of them out the door? That way, when the new regime comes in together at the same time, the Jaguars would have a better chance in 2022 at a drama-free and backstabbing-free environment.
In no way should Baalke be given more blame than Meyer for this past season’s 3-14 record, but he can hardly be given a free pass either. He was part of the problem and didn’t deserve a chance to be part of a future solution.
Baalke shouldn’t have been allowed to set one foot in the room during any of the Jaguars’ coaching interviews. Now he’s part of an awkward search that may lose its most viable candidate unless a better option emerges in the coming week.
Granted, Leftwich has only five years of NFL coaching experience and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator cannot be classified a home-run hire. But the former Jaguars’ quarterback is as eminently qualified for a head coaching opportunity as many of the other candidates in this hiring cycle. There’d be legitimate excitement from the fan base, until proven otherwise, about his potential to transform a broken franchise.
If the Jaguars don’t hire Leftwich, and every indication is he wants the job without having Baalke as GM, then who will Khan land that can make these bad optics go away? And don’t forget, the longer this search goes on, the more the coaching pool for assistants the new coach wants will diminish.
Shad Khan is in a tough spot now. All because he let a golden opportunity slip by when he didn’t give Baalke his walking papers three weeks ago.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Baalke fan controversy: Shad Khan should have fired Jaguars GM