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Opinion: Jaguars owner's loyalty to controversial GM Trent Baalke could cast shadow on team's future

·6 min read
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As the NFL enters the final week of its regular season, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ search for the next head coach continues amid a degree of uncertainty and controversy.

Thus far, the names of former Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson and well-respected offensive mind Jim Caldwell, who also has head-coaching experience with the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, have been identified as people of interest. So, too, have NFL coordinators Byron Leftwich (Jacksonville's first-round pick in 2003), Todd Bowles, Kellen Moore, Matt Eberflus, Nathaniel Hackett and Dan Quinn. But the entire process has yet to kick into high gear.

As it does, members of the NFL community and Jacksonville’s fan base are watching with intrigue to see how successful the team will be in luring the top coaching candidates.

After firing Urban Meyer, Jaguars owner Shad Khan said that general manager Trent Baalke will remain as general manager. But could that decision to retain the executive hamper the Jaguars’ chances for success both in the short- and long-term?

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That’s a question shared by some within the NFL, who view Baalke as a controversial figure and potential deterrent for some prime head coaching candidates. Khan’s decision to retain Baalke has also created angst throughout the Jaguars fan base.

But why is the general manager the subject of such scrutiny?

Multiple people familiar with Baalke from both his time in San Francisco and Jacksonville spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they either weren’t authorized by their teams to grant interviews or because they feared speaking publicly on the matter.

Some of the issue is personality-related, while Baalke's body of work also plays a factor in the discussion.–

Baalke owns a resume that features three conference championship appearances and a Super Bowl berth during a three-year stretch from 2011-13 in which the San Francisco 49ers went 36-11-1.

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The teams Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke helped construct have gone a combined 3-19.
The teams Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke helped construct have gone a combined 3-19.

However, his time as architect of the 49ers also includes a stretch from 2014-16 in which personality clashes and a series of miscalculations led to the firing of coach Jim Harbaugh just one year removed from an NFC championship game appearance. An overall deterioration of the roster and franchise caused San Francisco to go 15-33 in Baalke's final three years before he was fired after a 2-14 campaign in 2016.

Baalke joined the Jaguars as director of player personnel in 2020 and by November of the same year took over as interim GM after Khan fired David Caldwell late in an eventual 1-15 season.

Since Baalke's promotion to full-time GM, the Jaguars have improved by only one win, but Meyer has received much of the blame for this debacle of a season.

However, some have pointed blame back to Baalke, saying he deserves criticism for roster missteps. They also believe that Baalke – with an abrasiveness that has led to clashes with front office personnel, coaches and players – also played a role in creating the toxic environment that has plagued the Jaguars this season.

Several former associates of the general manager call Baalke an excellent talent evaluator but also describe him as a loner who can be difficult to get along with. Because of his very hands-on approach – preferring to give coaches input on game planning and even interjecting himself into practices – multiple figures within the league predict that Baalke will scare some candidates off. Those individuals expressed a belief that the Jaguars could wind up having to settle for a younger, unproven head coach who is less concerned with making personnel decisions than would be a premier candidate with goals of having final say on roster composition.

But there are those who believe that it’s possible the Jaguars could still land a veteran coach because Trevor Lawrence, a young nucleus and roughly $70 million in salary cap room to work with still makes the job extremely attractive.

Those individuals believe it would take a strong coach who can both manage difficult personalities and clearly delineate the reach of the general manager and the coach.

While some representatives for potential candidates said they would have no problem with their clients interviewing with Jacksonville, others expressed reservations because of Baalke’s reputation.

An individual familiar with the Jaguars’ process denied that the team has had trouble scheduling interviews thus far, however. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an ongoing coaching search.

Khan, through a spokesman, declined an interview request.

Power structure will prove important. Last week, the NFL Network reported that the owner plans on having both coach and GM to report directly to him rather than making one or the other the superior.

Tensions can arise from any chain of command. Baalke hired Harbaugh and the two wound up clashing. Ultimately, Baalke, whom former associates say does a great job of selling himself, convinced ownership that the two couldn’t coexist and the coach was the problem.

Harbaugh got the ax, but Baalke’s ensuing moves failed to produce success. He promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach, an arrangement that lasted just one 5-11 season. Then Baalke hired Chip Kelly, who went 2-14, which prompted the 49ers to fire both the coach and GM.

One thing the Jaguars cannot afford is for this coaching hire to fail, setting off an ongoing carousel.

The No. 1 mission of the new head coach is to develop Lawrence into a bona fide star. Constant change is the surefire way to stunt a quarterback’s growth and ensure that he never reaches his full potential.

Already, Lawrence has endured one coach firing and will have to learn a new offense entering his second season rather than having comfort and continuity to build on.

Upon Meyer’s firing, multiple executives from opposing teams told USA TODAY Sports that the best move for the Jaguars would have been for Khan to make a clean sweep and start fresh with a coach and general manager with a strong prior working relationship and the ability to start on equal footing.

Khan, however, has opted to give Baalke another shot despite the fact that the teams he helped construct have gone a combined 3-19.

The Jaguars’ interview process should pick up pace in the coming days and weeks, depending on when top candidates are able to interview.

The franchise seemingly has much to offer, but whether or not Khan’s loyalty to his general manager proves beneficial or detrimental ranks among the most intriguing elements of Jaguars’ next chapter.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jacksonville Jaguars: Trent Baalke casts shadow over coaching search