It’s been a tumultuous offseason for the San Francisco 49ers – one headlined by the seemingly inexplicable firing of a head coach in Jim Harbaugh, who led the team to a 44-19-1 record and three NFC Championship appearances over the last four seasons.
The subsequent search for his replacement left the organization, and its fan base, torn as to who should be pegged for the job. From offensive gurus like former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan to current Denver Broncos OC Adam Gase, to defensive standouts like Seattle Seahawks DC Dan Quinn and Arizona Cardinals DC Todd Bowles, to in-house options like defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, everyone had an opinion on who should lead the 49ers in 2015.
All were considered, and most were interviewed – some, multiple times. Reports as late as this morning had Gase as the man who would step in and revamp the 49ers’ 30th-ranked passing offense as head coach.
But one name was eerily left out of the conversation altogether (despite being an odds-on favorite to win the job) – and it was the man that actually held the position of interim head coach before Harbaugh climbed aboard in 2011: Jim Tomsula.
The 8-year defensive line coach for the 49ers was officially named head coach earlier today, much to the surprise of many a Niner fan. You will likely hear about his coaching odyssey from various members of the media: from his early days volunteer coaching for Catawba College, to his only coaching stint with the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe in 2006.
Then, there was the final game of the 2010 NFL season, in which Tomsula served as interim head coach for the fired Mike Singletary – a game the 49ers won easily over the Arizona Cardinals, 38-7. It was likely a game many of the 49er Faithful may not remember, as it preceded the biggest coaching hire the team had had since Bill Walsh.
But, the hiring has already rubbed many the wrong way. After all, Tomsula is a virtual unknown to many outside the Bay Area, and, being a defensive line coach, 49er fans all over the country are banging their heads against the wall, asking why the organization did not target an offensive-minded head coaching candidate.
Furthermore, it was Fangio that headed one of the league’s top defensive units, and seemed like the more obvious choice to succeed Harbaugh. Now, with Tomsula leap-frogging the 58-year-old with over three decades of coaching experience, it is unlikely Fangio will stick around as defensive coordinator. It left many fans asking, knowing the 49ers would likely lose the architect to their stellar defense if he was bypassed, why couldn’t they make Fangio head coach and promote Tomsula to defensive coordinator?
It seems that, in a bid to find a head coach – one that had them talk to many candidates from outside the organization, only to settle for one within it – in the eyes of the fan base, the front office has succeeded in doing three things:
Finding a “yes man” in Tomsula that they couldn’t get in Fangio, that will bend to the will of the front office;
Letting go of a man in Fangio that molded a top-quality defensive team – one that may regress without him at the helm; and
Alienating a 49ers fan base that already thought owner Jed York was a fool to let go of Harbaugh, based on perceived pettiness and organizational “comfort level”.
So … what WAS the upside in hiring the 47-year-old Pennsylvanian? Let’s take a look:
He provides continuity for the organization (without direct ties to the Harbaugh era). There was a reason Tomsula stuck around with the team after Harbaugh was hired as head coach in 2011. Not only was he responsible for one of the best defensive lines – if not the best – in the NFL over the last four years, he was well-liked by everyone.
And, as messy of a divorce “Harbaugh vs. York” looked to be, the front office wasn’t about to set themselves up for that to happen again. In that sense, hiring Fangio would have likely been “Harbaugh 2.0” – a headache of a relationship that the organization wasn’t willing to go through again.
Despite perceptions of Tomsula as a “Yes Man”, he represented the cleanest break from an organizationally-tumultuous Harbaugh Era, without sacrificing the long-term success. Whether Tomsula can make it as head coach for more than one game remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure …
He is a player’s coach that (apparently) won’t wear out his welcome with the organization. Judging by his demeanor, his outward enthusiasm, and the support of his players, Tomsula was as much of a player’s coach as Harbaugh was for the 49ers.
The difference being, of course, Harbaugh brought the clout of being a winning coach everywhere he headed before coming to San Francisco. He instilled a winning culture and attitude back into an organization that desperately needed it, and the 49ers will – and should – be forever grateful for that.
At the same time, the internal strife over the last year and a half is well-documented. After all, there was a reason reports were coming out that he was wearing out his welcome, and fast, as early as the start of the 2014 season. Whether it was because of his purported contract renegotiations last season, or leaked reports (unsubstantiated or not) that he was losing the locker room, the talk was eating away at the 49ers like a cancer. At least in the eyes of the front office (which, admittedly, doesn’t amount to much for the fans), that won’t happen with Tomsula.
He’s NOT an offensive coach – but he will get to choose one best suited for the team. People seem to forget that, despite all of the 49ers’ well-documented difficulties on offense, it wasn’t for lack of having an offensive head coach. After all, that was exactly why Jim Harbaugh was hired – to help the offense become more consistent, in order to spell the defensive unit from prolonged periods on the field. As as much of a scapegoat as former OC Greg Roman was (for good reason) for a stagnant offense that hurt the team in clutch situations more than it helped it, Harbaugh had to shoulder just as much blame.
Tomsula, meanwhile, will not be burdened with the responsibility of fixing the offense, himself. But, as a man who saw, firsthand, the struggles the 49ers had on offense over the last eight years, he can hand-pick someone who can work best with Colin Kaepernick’s strengths, a more ground-and-pound gameplan, and an approach that will best suit the personnel. For his sake, he better choose wisely.
Ultimately, we won’t know why the 49ers were seemingly willing to sacrifice the services of a stellar DC in Fangio in order to hire a player’s coach in Tomsula. For that matter, we will never understand why the front office was willing to put themselves in front of a fan base firing squad, just to give themselves a better organizational atmosphere (on-the-field success, be damned, apparently). And there are still many question marks in place – most notably, who Tomsula and the front office will tab as the new offensive coordinator.
But, like it or not, the 49ers now have their new main man at the helm.