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Quietly, Baalke turns 49ers into playoff contender

  • In this Nov. 13, 2011, file photo, San Francisco 49ers General Manager Trent Baalke is shown before an NFL football game against the New York Giants in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, file)

SANTA CLARA — Within days of being promoted last year, San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke faced the daunting task of landing Jim Harbaugh as the team's new coach.

People were losing patience with all the losing — and demanded an immediate turnaround after an eight-year playoff drought.

Amid speculation that Harbaugh might leave Stanford for the Miami Dolphins or even his alma mater, Michigan, Baalke delivered the Niners' high-profile new man. It brought Baalke some instant credibility, along with all the other spot-on moves along the way since then.

From cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner to center Jonathan Goodwin and kicker David Akers, Baalke fit all the right pieces into an already talented roster that has bought into Harbaugh's style. Baalke and Harbaugh also had the wherewithal to bring back quarterback Alex Smith on a one-year deal as a free agent even after the years of boos and inconsistency — with plans to re-sign him for 2012, too.

"It's great to see Trent," Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott said. "We haven't talked a lot about Trent. A lot of people haven't really acknowledged that bringing in Rogers, bringing in (NaVorro) Bowman, going with (Aldon) Smith in the first round. The team is faster than what it was. It's more aggressive than what it was. So Baalke saw something that I didn't see and that the average fan didn't see. He replaced a couple of components that needed to be replaced."

Those tweaks worked, all right. San Francisco (13-3) won the NFC West and earned the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye, going 6-2 on the road with four of those victories in comeback fashion.

How about that for silencing critics who questioned whether Baalke made enough splashy moves in free agency to improve his roster after the lockout?

"Now it's a splash," Whitner said. "It's not a splash when everybody else is looking. But once you make the playoffs and you're sitting at home with a bye week and you have an opportunity to win two games and be in the Super Bowl, then it's a splash. That's how success happens. A lot of times, people aren't going to believe until they actually see it."

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