The 49ers would be happy if the name – let’s whisper it, Jim Harbaugh – were not uttered on their premises again this year. The team has moved on from “He Who Must Not be Named” and has handed the reins to Jim Tomsula, who is re-tooling the squad.
But it’s difficult to begin defining Tomsula’s tenure without invoking That Other Jim. Tomsula wants the atmosphere at 49ers headquarters to be light and lively and – gasp! – fun. It had ceased to be that under the ever-exacting, constantly demanding former coach.
Tomsula is taking rookies on tours of the 49ers Museum and bringing in former players such as Charles Haley to chat and give tips to the players. The Last Guy brought in speakers, too. But they tended to be members of the military; former 49ers did not feel wanted.
Then there are the changes on the field. There will no doubt be more than these four, but these are the main ones as the 49ers learn new offenses and defenses this offseason.
Raise your hand if you remember a screen pass in the past four years. (I think I see one hand in the back row.) They are a major component of nearly every offense in the increasingly pass-crazy NFL and an easy pitch and catch to bolster a quarterback’s confidence. But they were seldom used in the 49ers’ recent offenses, which had a throwback feel.
Frank Gore, for example, averaged 51 catches and 430 receiving yards a season in the five years before John Harbaugh’s younger brother arrived in San Francisco. Gore averaged 18 catches and 150 receiving yards per season in the four years since.
In the offseason, the 49ers added Reggie Bush, who is to screen and swing passes what Imelda Marcos is to stilletos and heels. Bush has 466 career receptions, ranks 19th among active players in that category and is the only running back in the top 20 active pass catchers.
“If you’re asking if we’re going to throw some swing passes – yes,” Bush said in a recent KNBR radio interview. “I think that would be an understatement.”
Guess which NFL team attempted the fewest passes of 20 or more yards to wide receivers over the past four seasons? Drumroll ... it was the 49ers.
They had 133 such throws, according to statistics from Pro Football Focus, which is less than half the total for downfield-attacking teams like the Giants (277), Ravens (276) and Steelers (274).
To be fair, the previous coach didn’t have much to work with when it came to speedy wideouts. The most prominent one the 49ers drafted, A.J. Jenkins, produced literally nothing when he was with the team, and the team otherwise used cheap labor – free-agent pickups such as Ted Ginn and Randy Moss – as their deep threats at the position.
That philosophy changed this year when the 49ers signed Torrey Smith, the most expensive free-agent acquisition in general manager Trent Baalke’s tenure. The hope is that the combination of Smith’s speed and Colin Kaepernick’s big right arm create more room for runners and pass catchers underneath.
More complex, more frenetic, more aggressive. That’s the difference between the defense the 49ers ran the past four seasons and the one they are installing.
That seems to point toward more blitzing, something the 49ers did roughly 20 percent of the time under former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, one of the lowest percentages in the league. The last time his replacement, Eric Mangini, had a hand in running a defense was 2010 when he coached the Browns. Cleveland blitzed 44.3 percent of the time, the fourth-highest percent that season.
One caution: Fangio arrived in 2011 with a reputation for creative blitzing but quickly discovered that with such a talented front four he didn’t need to manufacture a pass rush. That is, good coaches tailor their attack to fit their personnel, and Mangini is figuring out what he has.
Perhaps no change will be as enthusiastically embraced by 49ers fans as this: During recent practices, the offense has been getting to the line of scrimmage with enough time to complete a newspaper jumble.
The previous version, by contrast, would cause stadium-wide anxiety. Each time the 49ers broke the huddle, they first would seemingly play a game of beat the clock before taking on the opposing defense. San Francisco led the league in delay-of-game penalties the past two seasons.
Of course, comparisons to That Other Guy are bound to be used against Tomsula, too. After all, You Know Who won a lot of games – 49 counting the playoffs – in four years in San Francisco and propelled the 49ers from a middling franchise into a powerhouse.
Which is to say, contrasts always look good for The New Guy in May. Check back in December.