The San Francisco 49ers did not venture far in their head-coaching search, deciding Wednesday to hire defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as Jim Harbaugh's replacement. Tomsula has been a 49ers assistant for the past eight seasons. He leapfrogged defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who now is expected to depart, further cutting into the staff assembled under Harbaugh.
One of the most obvious reasons that 49ers GM Trent Baalke and the organization's front office went this route can be found in this quote from OT Joe Staley: "I really honestly don’t think we need a full overhaul," Staley said, via the Press-Democrat. "I don’t think we need to make drastic changes. There are things we need to change as far as mentality, accountability, different things like that. But as far as an overall scheme and huge change, blowing up the place, that doesn’t need to happen. We’ve got the talent and the guys in the locker room to get it done."
If nothing else, Tomsula maintains that level of familiarity. He even served as interim head coach in 2010, bridging the gap from the Mike Singletary regime to Harbaugh.
However, that is Tomsula's only experience at a level above positional coach in the NFL, with his only prior head-coaching stint coming in 2006 for the Rhein Fire of the now-defunct World League of American Football.
Making Tomsula's challenge even tougher -- and tossing a wrench in that whole in-house continuity thing -- is that the staff has to be rebuilt in a hurry. Harbaugh's obviously gone, former offensive coordinator Greg Roman now holds that same post in Buffalo with Rex Ryan in charge, and Fangio likely will walk now as well. Harbaugh also convinced assistant secondary coach Greg Jackson to join him in Ann Arbor.
Will the 49ers be able to successfully make this transition with Tomsula at the helm? Tough to say, because there is very little precedent for a move like the one Tomsula has to pull off here.
There's also the little issue of how exactly any of this makes the 49ers better than they were last season, when their run of three consecutive conference-title trips ended with a disappointing 8-8 finish. NFL teams were lining up for a shot at Harbaugh and Fangio called the shots on a defense that finished second-second-third in points allowed from 2011-13. While he often drew more criticism than his coaching cohorts, Roman also oversaw a top-five offense during that three-year run.
The 49ers' search and their eventual decision appears to point back to Baalke, whose occasionally contentious relationship with Harbaugh paved the way for the latter's departure.
"We've had philosophical discussions and when we sat down we just couldn’t come to a place where we thought moving together, together was the best for either party," 49ers CEO Jed York said in a press conference after Harbaugh's departure was announced. "This wasn't us saying, 'Jim, you’re fired, you're not here anymore.' This wasn't Jim saying, 'I don’t want to be there, I’m leaving.' It was a discussion that took place over a decent amount of time to figure out what’s best for everybody involved. It was the conclusion that we came to, it wasn’t an easy conclusion for anybody, but that’s where we ended up."
The 49ers appeared boxed into a bit of a corner from the outset, with an extreme shortage of proven coaches available. Names like Rex Ryan and Mike Shanahan surfaced as possibilities, along with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
That San Francisco opted for Tomsula may be an indication that some players on the roster vouched for their D-line coach. It also, on the surface, hints that Baalke wanted to maintain full control of the personnel decisions.
"Are we confident that we can replace [Harbaugh]? You always go into that with that strategy," said Baalke at that same press conference. "There’s a lot of good football coaches out there. What we need to do is go out and find a coach that can come in here now and lead this football team.
"We’re not in a rebuild. This isn’t a rebuild situation, this is a reload situation. We’ve got a lot of confidence in this team, the players in that locker room and we’re going to need to make some adjustments."
The 49ers have to cross their fingers that they're as close to resurfacing as a Super Bowl contender as they believe. While a solid nucleus of players remains, key contributors like Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Chris Culliver and Mike Iupati are set to be free agents. Meanwhile, longtime defensive lineman Justin Smith is considering retirement.
Is Tomsula up to the task? Was he even the best in-house option available?
The 49ers will find out those answers in a hurry, all while hoping they don't regret for years the decision to let Harbaugh exit.