How will Jim Tomsula's reign as 49ers head coach stack up against history?
When the league-wide gathering that is the NFL scouting combine convenes next week in Indianapolis, the league’s seven new head coaches and their staffs will be fully on display for the first time and commencing the work they were hired to do. It’s a small but important step that begins the determination of next season’s Super Bowl champion.
Indy provides the first glimpse of all the changes that have taken place in the coaching ranks, and you start to get a feel for how the makeovers might fare. Seven NFL franchises have a blank slate, and there’s always a sense of excitement that comes with a fresh start and a new beginning.
Seeing Rex Ryan in a new color scheme will be a bit of a novelty of course, and we’re all going to have to get used to the idea that John Fox is once again back in the NFC. But will any coach’s debut play out amid more spotlight or pressure than San Francisco’s Jim Tomsula, the former 49ers defensive line coach who was elevated to the top job after the messy and widely predicted demise of the team’s Jim Harbaugh era?
Tomsula isn’t just taking over another team that has lost its way when it comes to the path to the playoffs. He’s taking over for one of the most successful coaches in recent NFL history, who almost overnight returned the 49ers franchise to relevance. Harbaugh’s three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game in his first three years on the job, with one Super Bowl berth, set the bar extremely high in San Francisco. Even with San Francisco slipping to an 8–8 record last year and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010, there’s a nowhere-to-go-but-down vibe that looms over the organization this offseason. Tomsula will be tasked with staving off a descent into irrelevance at all costs and re-injecting the team into the Super Bowl conversation every year.
Listening to 49ers CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke describe how Tomsula "checked all the boxes" during the course of the team’s nine-candidate, 17-day coaching search, you get the feeling they see the Harbaugh-to-Tomsula transition along the lines of the seamless Bill Walsh to George Seifert succession plan in San Francisco team history, or at the very least, the mostly successful move from Seifert to Steve Mariucci after that. That’s the glass way more than half-full view of Tomsula’s ascension.
In terms of NFL coaching history, Tomsula’s hiring also brings to mind several examples of when a team chose to elevate a first-time head coach to a job vacated by his ultra-successful predecessor—with disastrous results. In each case, the new coach was a well-known quantity within the organization, as Tomsula is, not that it mattered a bit when the losses started piling up.
So while York and Baalke might see Seifert or Mariucci when they look at their team’s future under Tomsula, others might think the potential of the situation more closely resembles Ray Handley’s two-year debacle of a tenure (14–18) as Bill Parcells’s replacement with the New York Giants in the early 1990s. Or Richie Petitbone taking over the reins from Joe Gibbs in Washington in '93, with his forgettable one-and-done 4–12 season. Or perhaps even Gunther Cunningham replacing Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City in '99, going 16–16 in two seasons after the Chiefs had a long run of sustained success in the '90s.
More examples of first-time head coaches who never remotely filled the big shoes they climbed into? There’s Phil Bengtson after Vince Lombardi in Green Bay, Les Steckel following Bud Grant (and preceding him, too) in Minnesota, Paul Wiggin taking over for Hank Stram in Kansas City, Al Saunders trying to keep the Chargers flying high after the Don Coryell era, and Josh McDaniel lasting fewer than two full seasons in Denver in the Broncos’s post-Mike Shanahan phase.
When we last saw Tomsula at his introductory news conference in mid-January, we got a less-than-inspiring glimpse of him as the new man in charge. As rollouts go, his went about as smoothly as the government health care website’s. Parts of his rambling press conference were downright cringe-worthy, and a follow-up, one-on-one TV interview with a CSN Bay Area reporter was almost laughably devoid of information and insight when discussing Tomsula’s vision of the team’s future.
To be fair, we’ve seen plenty of coaches who "win" the press conference but lose far too many games—the ever-quotable Ryan comes quickly to mind—and if Tomsula’s strength winds up being his ability to teach and lead his players and his coaching staff, the PR aspect of his job will take care of itself. But Hall of Fame ex-49ers quarterback Steve Young earlier this week was the latest to give voice to what many around the league are thinking: San Francisco’s roster still looks like Super Bowl material for the most part, but will the new leadership on the sideline match the playing talent level? Does anybody really have a handle on that one yet?
"I just don’t know them. I don’t know Jim. I can’t really comment because I don’t know them," said Young to Comcast SportsNet, despite the fact that Tomsula was the senior-most 49ers coach in terms of tenure, having been hired in 2007, during Mike Nolan's four-year stint as head coach. "We don’t know their history. They are about to write their history and I guess in some ways that’s good ... It’s a high-risk situation when you turn over your whole staff, but we’ll hope for the best."
With ringing endorsements like that, who needs enemies?
Maybe Tomsula will be the exception. Maybe he’ll mirror Don McCafferty replacing Don Shula in Baltimore in 1970, winning the Super Bowl in his first season. Or perhaps Jim Caldwell taking over for Tony Dungy in Indianapolis in 2009, with a Super Bowl berth on his first-year resume. Neither man had long tenures with the Colts, but both did win early on.
Will Tomsula be up to the challenge? It’s going to make for one of the most fascinating sub-plots of the NFL’s 2015 season. Because the guy Tomsula’s replacing went 49-22-1 in his four seasons on the job, winning five of his eight playoff games from 2011–13, and coming within a short fourth-down pass completion of a Super Bowl title. An 8-8 record and a heaping dose of front office-coaching tension and discord led to Harbaugh’s divorce from the 49ers. Now Tomsula is the next man up, and his pressure-packed turn on the stage in San Francisco is just beginning. If he can’t manage the difficult act of following Harbaugh’s winning ways, all the two most recent 49ers head coaches may wind up having in common is their first name.