Nice guys finish ... first?
That’s the hope this season at 49ers headquarters, where even training camp – traditionally a taxing, monotonous and joyless event – has a bit of new coach Jim Tomsula’s trademark bonhomie.
Consider practice No. 1 on Saturday night, which typically sets the tone for the rest of the summer sessions. Before the first whistle, Tomsula noticed that running back Reggie Bush was doing some extra stretching. The players had performed their conditioning tests a day earlier, and Bush, a nine-year veteran, was a bit tight as a result.
“He said, ‘I’m good, I’m good,’” Tomsula recounted. “I said, ‘No, not today.’ I’m not going to wait to see Reggie tired and then give him a break. We’d be doing it at the wrong time. Our goal is to not get Reggie tired.”
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So Bush began camp with a day off.
NFL training camps take on the coach’s personality. Feisty Mike Nolan, for example, liked to say that if something was important enough to a player, it was worth fighting for. As a result, practice-field melees were common during his regime with the 49ers, and most seemed to involve then-youngster Vernon Davis.
His successor, Mike Singletary, seemed to treasure the brutality of the sport. His “physical with an F” camps featured a hill that Singletary dubbed Mt. Pain. They also were kicked off by the notorious “nutcracker” drill in which two like-sized players tried to knock each other backward, their teammates whooping encouragement from all sides. The drill resulted in numerous injuries, including to starters like Patrick Willis, David Baas and Eric Heitmann.
That sort of drill is extremely unlikely in a Tomsula-led camp.
“He’s very concerned about his players,” newcomer Jarryd Hayne said. “That’s something that you pick up straight away. He definitely cares about the individual. And he wants the individual to not only to be a great football player but to be a great man.”
Before the 49ers training camp schedule was drawn up, Tomsula sought input from trainers, medical staff and his players.
As a result, practices start later in the day, most around 4:15 p.m. That means the meetings are held earlier in the day when players are less apt to drift off and the lessons can be applied later in the day. Players are even free to head back to the team hotel for a quick nap before practice.
The meetings also are geared to mesh with the attention spans of mostly 20-something players accustomed to routinely checking their iPhones and Twitter accounts. Instead of long, grinding sessions, the meetings usually are limited to 30 minutes, just as the players start tuning out the message.
“The (experts) are telling me about attention spans and optimal learning,” Tomsula told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “I’m thinking, ‘My gosh, we sit in two-hour meetings. You are telling me after 27 minutes no one’s getting anything?’”
Rest assured, Tomsula’s training camp isn’t exactly a new-age spa outing, either.
The first practices have been marked by their fast pace, and the 49er’ new coach can be seen roving the field while barking out, “Tempo! Tempo!” or “Let’s move! Let’s move!”
The team’s goal is to break the huddle at 22 seconds, and Tomsula was miffed after Saturday night’s opening session when one huddle lasted until 17 seconds – an eternity under previous coaching regimes – were on the play clock.
Tomsula’s goal is for the offense and defense to get used to moving, thinking and reacting at a brisk pace. “The sword’s getting sharpened on both sides,” Tomsula said.
And if things start to go too fast? The players are confident Tomsula will know when to ease off the pedal.
“You’ll probably hear me say this a lot throughout this year, but coach Tomsula’s the most genuine head coach I’ve ever had in my football career,” safety Eric Reid said. “He really cares. If he says something, you can rest assured that he’s going to try to get it done. ... Coaches say things, and sometimes they fall through, but you can be pretty confident that he’s going to do whatever he can do for you. I think the guys respect that. I know I love him. I’ll do anything for him. I think that will translate on the field for us.”