Jim Tomsula’s 49ers started the season as if they were shot from a cannon.
Their opening drive Week 1 against the Vikings used oddball formations, had a frantic pace, and was creative and aggressive. They averaged 7.2 yards per carry on wide runs, up-the-middle runs and sweeps. At the end of the drive – just 5:30 into the season – the Minnesota defenders’ hands already were on their hips, and the home crowd was on its feet.
The Tomsula era was going to be a lot of fun!
Then it wasn’t. Like a summer squall, there was a burst of energy and then a lot of calm and quiet. The 49ers have not been exciting or daring or exotic. Instead, they’ve been conservative.
Never miss a local story.
After the 49ers’ Week 11 loss in Seattle, one of the questions was why Tomsula, down 16 points late in the game, twice decided to punt on fourth down instead of going for it. Tomsula noted that the 49ers were deep in their own territory on each and that he didn’t want to turn a two-score lead into a three-score situation by failing on fourth down.
After Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, one of the questions was why the 49ers, on every third and long, threw passes short of the first-down marker.
“Yeah, we need to throw beyond the sticks,” Tomsula said. “We need to protect. We need the entire play. In that situation, we’ve got to do a better job there.”
At the top of the NFC West, we have Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, a longtime offensive coordinator whose team is the most aggressive in the NFL this season.
When one of his players, safety Tyrann Mathieu, offered a frank and scathing review of how quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been playing for the 49ers, Arians was asked if he’s OK with his players being so outspoken.
“They probably get it from me,” he said.
Boldness is part of Arizona’s formula. Arians’ motto is “No risk it, no biscuit.” His team leads the NFL in points and has the second-most pass plays of 20 yards or more.
At the bottom of the division, we have Tomsula, whose team is bringing up the NFL rear in points and is on pace for the franchise’s fewest (220.8) since 1978, when the 49ers scored 219. Pete McCulley coached the team the first nine games before being replaced by Fred O’Connor. After the 49ers went 2-14, they hired a guy named Bill Walsh.
This season’s 49ers also rank last in yards per game. On defense, they have eight takeaways (31st) and 19 sacks (27th).
Some things they do well statistically. They’ve been penalized just 72 times, one of the lowest numbers in the league, and they’ve committed 11 turnovers (only three teams have fewer). Those are positives, but they both point to a team that’s playing it safe.
What’s vexing is that you’d think Tomsula, a man with a big personality and rich background, would be bolder.
Tomsula had a lucrative sales job before ditching it for a bottom-level football position because of his love of coaching. He lived out of his car for a time, and he brought his wife and two young daughters to live with him in a hotel in Germany while coaching in NFL Europe.
He has been anything but risk-averse in his life. Instead, he’s a fun-loving guy who likes to eat, laugh and have fun. The 49ers’ opening drive against the Vikings, full of energy and vitality, smacked of Tomsula. So did his one-game stint as interim coach at the end of the 2010 season.
The 49ers players love him. But the fans, by and large, don’t, or at least they don’t know him. He rarely shows emotion in news conferences and is muted when he’s on the radio. You get the sense he’s not loose, not being himself.
And he’s running out of opportunities. No one knows what the 49ers are thinking as far as end-of-season changes, but it’s a safe bet they want to see progress over these last five games, beginning Sunday in Chicago.
Playing it safe isn’t working. Tomsula needs to throw caution to the Windy City.