San Francisco 49ers

49ers’ Tomsula: Practice, not preseason, makes perfect

Jim Tomsula and the 49ers didn’t show much this preseason, and that was by design. He puts more emphasis on practices as far as warming up for the regular season.
Jim Tomsula and the 49ers didn’t show much this preseason, and that was by design. He puts more emphasis on practices as far as warming up for the regular season. The Bee

The argument that the NFL preseason is too long and too excessive is an old one. But one of the best cases to date was made last week by the Chargers and 49ers.

As has come to be expected in the exhibition finale, neither team played its starters. The 49ers, however, went a step further. Not only did starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick sit out, his backup, Blaine Gabbert, was deemed too valuable for the game as well.

The preseason has been defended as a needed tuneup for the regular season. And judging from the 49ers’ third preseason game, the offense seemed as if it still had plenty of tuning up to do in the fourth. Not only that, coaches only settled on a starting offensive line a few days before the game. That group, which includes newcomer right guard Jordan Devey, had played just seven preseason snaps together.

But 49ers coach Jim Tomsula felt that practices – which are hidden from the prying eyes of upcoming opponents and, as of last week, the media – were more valuable to prepare the starters for the regular season than the game.

The veterans had a vigorous practice last Wednesday, the day before the contest. They hit the weight room on game day. Then they practiced again Friday. That is, the starters got in more work – and more beneficial work, Tomsula said – than they would have if they played in the game.

Of course, every NFL coach holds back both his best players and his best plays in the preseason. But the 49ers seemed to take that approach to a new level this summer.

“I wanted to get the practice time,” Tomsula said after the 49ers’ backups beat the Chargers’ reserves. “We need the practice time instead of going out there today.”

Of course, every NFL coach holds back both his best players and his best plays in the preseason. But the 49ers seemed to take that approach to a new level this summer.

The games, especially the fourth, were used mainly as an evaluation tool for young players. For example, the 49ers had a different combination of cornerbacks in three of the four games. The starters at right guard were Marcus Martin, 21, for two games and Ian Silberman, 22, and Brandon Thomas, 24, for one game each

None of them ever had started an NFL game at right guard and none ultimately won the job. Instead it went to Devey, 27, who didn’t start any of the preseason games.

Which is to say, the 49ers didn’t try to build cohesion or momentum with the preseason games. It’s the reason why Kaepernick and his expensive new weapon, receiver Torrey Smith, connected only once for five yards in the preseason, but no one seems concerned.

“I think the biggest way to get a feel for that (connection) is in practice,” Smith said this week. “We had some live reps together, which is a good thing. But there’s way more quality time in practice. You’re confident that if you practice well, then you’ll play well. And we’ve been putting together some (good) practices as of late. So (we) feel really good going in.”

Why isn’t there “quality time” in preseason games?

The 2015 49ers are as healthy and fresh as they’ve ever been to start a season, which was a focus for Tomsula after it was apparent they wore down last year.

The 49ers worked on fundamentals, not on specific routes or coverages or game plans. As recent national stories about the New England Patriots and the alleged lengths they have gone to steal sideline signals and other items illustrate, teams are paranoid about tipping off upcoming opponents. They play their cards close to the vest in the regular season; they don’t bring their cards to the table in the preseason.

Starters like Smith and Kaepernick also make just brief appearances. Smith played 45 snaps in the preseason.

There might be two or three names listed when the 49ers’ first injury report of the year comes out Thursday. But none is considered serious, everyone will practice this week and everyone is expected to play Monday.

Compare that to last year when the 49ers lost Kendall Hunter to an ACL injury in training camp and went into the first game without right tackle Anthony Davis (hamstring) and Martin (knee) and with receiver Michael Crabtree questionable because of a foot injury.

The 2015 49ers are as healthy and fresh as they’ve ever been to start a season, which was a focus for Tomsula after it was apparent they wore down last year.

The question is if they are battle-tested for the regular season.

Practice access has been shut down since last week. We’ll have to wait for Monday to find out.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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