Recency bias perhaps makes Trent Baalke the least favorite 49ers general manager in team history, but Joe Thomas of the late 1970s was infinitely worse.
Nearly five years removed from when the San Francisco 49ers fired former general manager Trent Baalke, fans are still pointing at him and blaming him for the team’s fall from grace in 2015 and the subsequent roster headaches the Niners had before general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan took over in 2017.
It’s understandable. Baalke clashed with head coaches, namely Jim Harbaugh, and he reportedly denied one-and-done head coach Chip Kelly the opportunity to draft now-Dallas Cowboys franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, too.
And then there was drafting all those injured players as well. The infamous Baalke “All-ACL” team.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise Baalke still receives the criticism from the fanbase. But for those who want to take a not-so-memorable trip through the archives, there’s one former San Francisco general manager who was much, much worse at his job than Baalke.
Joe Thomas is the worst GM in 49ers history
Former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is one of the most revered figures in franchise history, and rightfully so.
But even he had his share of major mistakes.
DeBartolo took over a dilapidating team in March of 1977 and quickly made Thomas the general manager, which led to a previous “mutual parting of ways” with then-head coach Monte Clark. Thomas replaced Clark with one-and-done head Ken Meyer but still meddled in roster control, including overseeing who saw playing time on game days.
Not surprisingly, the 1977 49ers went 5-9, a notable fall from the still-not-hot 8-6 finish from the year before.
But if 1977 was bad, 1978 was far, far worse. And some might view that season as the worst year in Niners history, even beating out Baalke’s last campaign with San Francisco, 2016.
The highlight kicker was Thomas trading away five draft picks to the Buffalo Bills for a 31-year-old washed-up running back, O.J. Simpson, whose knees were gone and was no longer capable of being an impact player at that stage of his career. If a GM was to do something like that today, he’d be fired the following afternoon.
Yet Thomas also released quarterback Jim Plunkett before the season started, too. And while Plunkett wasn’t exactly the answer before he went on to the Oakland Raiders, at least he was a competent starter. Behind him, the 49ers had nobody.
Ironically enough, it was Thomas’ actions elsewhere that truly highlight just how bad a general manager he was.
Football Outsiders’ Bryan Knowles explained:
You’ll be stunned to learn that this didn’t work, as the 49ers struggled their way to a 2-14 season. Things were so bad by midseason that Thomas was confiscating fans’ signs demanding he be fired, getting into physical fights with beat reporters, and trying to cancel a Thanksgiving week game as he believed there was a conspiracy that would lead to his own assassination. So, you know, at least things weren’t boring.
Seriously, you could make a movie about this.
Thomas also employed two different head coaches that year, Pete McCulley and Fred O’Connor, who got the team to a two-win season. Yay. And during Thomas’ brief stint as general manager, the Niners went a combined 7-23.
At least Baalke was at his position during a Super Bowl year, even though some argue he inherited a stacked team when he took over duties in 2011.
Thomas, meanwhile, took a team on the decline and expedited it towards the doldrums of the NFL before DeBartolo finally admitted the mistake and removed him after 1978.
Fortunately, in a proverbial “it’s darkest before the sunrise” kind of moment, Thomas’ dismissal ultimately led to DeBartolo tabbing one Bill Walsh to be San Francisco’s new head coach.
And the rest is dynasty-type history, thankfully, helping erase the memory of Thomas, who has to be regarded as the worst executive the franchise has ever had.