Even before the dawn of Black Monday – the day after the end of the NFL regular season — the San Francisco 49ers fired head coach Jim Tomsula.
It was the right move. Tomsula had no command presence, seemed flustered when addressing media and had no idea how to formulate a game plan.
But coaching was a relatively small part of this team’s problem. The larger part was a roster that Pro Football Focus has evaluated as one of the five weakest in the league.
Which means another hot seat. General manager Trent Baalke is sitting on this one.
When Jim Harbaugh, after three consecutive appearances in the NFC Championship Game, began to annoy Baalke with his impatient, hard-driving manner, Bay Area media reported that York considered Baalke more valuable to the franchise than Harbaugh.
Now, on the heels of 5-11, York is less sure about that.
After the season’s final game – an overtime victory over St. Louis – the usually accessible York and Baalke were nowhere to be found. Apparently they were trying to avoid questions about Tomsula’s future while planning how to end it.
They fired him later in the day, announcing the news on the team website. Who needs a press conference?
York did show up on Black Monday and issued this unsettling statement: “Trent understands that I’m not satisfied with the current state of this team.”
The 49ers’ 5-11 might have been acceptable if they were in the beginning stage of a well-planned youth movement. But that’s hardly the case.
They lost key players in the off-season, including the departures, through early retirement, of very good linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. The suspension — for alcohol abuse – of Pro Bowl linebacker Aldon Smith was another crucial loss.
The biggest issue, however, was the continued decline of franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In his first season as a starter, Kaepernick came within seconds and inches of winning the Super Bowl.
But then defensive coaches realized he was not quick at reading defenses. Once the blitz and zone packages became more complex, he was helpless to decipher them in 2.5 seconds, which he had to do to avoid being sacked.
So the team crumbled, from the top – head coach and quarterback – and on down.
Harbaugh, not one to dodge controversy, tweeted after Tomsula’s firing: “Do not be deceived. You will reap what you sow.”
Some Bay Area reporters interpreted that as a kick-him-while-he’s-down shot at Tomsula. Harbaugh felt that Tomsula, 47, circled behind his back to undermine him with York and Baalke. Tomsula was on the 49ers’ staff before Harbaugh and thus was not considered “his guy.”
During the second half of last season, stories about Harbaugh losing popularity with his players cited “unnamed sources.” Harbaugh believed the source was Baalke, after Tomsula tattled.
When Harbaugh was pushed out the door (landing in Ann Arbor, at the U of Michigan), Tomsula, who was a mere defensive-line coach, somehow emerged as the head coach. York, 35, now admits that Tomsula was not ready for the job, especially from a strategy standpoint.
Prior to their promotion of Tomsula, York and Baalke interviewed Adam Gace, considered one of the most brilliant young offensive minds in the NFL.
But Gace refused to go along with the requirement that Tomsula would be his defensive coordinator.
Gace went on to accept a coordinator’s position with the Chicago Bears, where he’s credited with transforming Jay Cutler into a quarterback his teammates respect.
Gace is now a hot prospect to become an NFL head coach.
For a franchise that has five Lombardi trophies, the 49ers have fallen on shockingly bad times. “When you’re 5-11, it’s not all coaching,” Baalke admitted.
He mentioned his biggest failure as the 2012 draft, of which none of the players are now with the organization. Baalke hasn’t done significantly better in the three drafts since then.
His continued employment with the 49ers depends on two things: hire a good head coach and put together a successful 2016 draft.
Having fumbled the handoff to Gace, the team is still seeking an offensive-minded coach. Cincinnati Bengals coordinator Hue Jackson is under consideration along with recently ousted Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Sean Payton is highly sought, but the New Orleans Saints want draft-pick compensation to let him void the remaining two years on his contract.
Whomever Jed York hires will not make him happy unless he wins the Super Bowl. As York is quick to point out: “That hasn’t happened here since 1994.”
Perhaps they’re due for another Bill Walsh.