After the 49ers’ overtime win over the Bears earlier this month, coach Jim Tomsula walked off the field and was greeted with a big hug from team owner Denise DeBartolo York. Tomsula is a nice, warm, affectionate man, and everyone wants him to do well.
Jim Harbaugh was not huggable. His most famous postgame moments involve snippy remarks – “What’s your deal?” – and too-hard handshakes. Harbaugh kept everyone – opposing coaches, players, the front office – on edge. ALL THE TIME. It became too much, and after four seasons he was gone.
But that edginess also pushed the 49ers, animated them, gave them life. There were exactly two games during Harbaugh’s four-year reign in which his team lacked energy: a 19-3 home loss last year to Seattle and the following week in Oakland when the 49ers fell 24-13.
Tomsula’s first season has been marked by that kind of sleepy outing, including last Sunday’s loss to Cleveland.
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Harbaugh entered his first season with the 49ers like a grown man performing an atomic cannonball at a pool party, soaking the guests, upsetting platters and rankling nerves along the way.
Tomsula has carefully dipped his toe in the water.
He never says anything remotely controversial. He doesn’t badger the officials. His offense avoids turnovers but also avoids big plays. Personnel changes don’t happen immediately but instead over the course of multiple games with players alternating series and coaches making assessments along the way. Injuries are given maximum caution; players never are rushed back into games or practices.
Tomsula was asked this week if it’s possible he’s too nice. He quickly said no but didn’t offer any examples.
“Too nice,” he said. “I don’t think that’s near correct.”
His stance on injuries is interesting because it offers another contrast with Harbaugh and begins to explain why his players are so fond of him.
Last season when right tackle Anthony Davis suffered a concussion against the Giants, he was dismayed by his coach’s reaction to the injury. Davis said he took an elbow to the face and briefly lost consciousness.
“I remember waking up to Harbaugh saying, ‘Get him up and off the field! We don’t want the clock to stop!’ ” Davis wrote on Twitter shortly after the injury. “lol Can’t make this (stuff) up.”
Davis missed the next four games due to post-concussion symptoms, then opted to sit out the 2015 season to allow his body to heal.
Another instance occurred in Week 1 last season when cornerback Tramaine Brock left the game early with a toe injury but was sent back in at game’s end due to other injuries in the secondary. Did he make his own injury worse? Brock ended up missing seven more contests because of the toe injury, then six more with a hamstring strain.
It’s hard to see similar in-game scenarios playing out under Tomsula, who has said from Day One that initially giving players extra recovery time will keep short-term injuries from becoming long term.
Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, for example, suffered a concussion on Dec. 6 in Chicago but practiced the following week, knew his assignments and was prepared to play against the Browns. He was held out on game day, however.
“Just talking to the trainers, they just didn’t like where he was at,” Tomsula said. “So they thought it would be best if we just shut him down that day and get ready to go this week.”
Tomsula has sent a strong signal to players that he has their best interest in mind, and unlike the recent Harbaugh-led team, the current edition, by and large, is a happy squad.
Of course, unlike Harbaugh’s teams, the current 49ers also are a losing squad.
Harbaugh’s worst record was 8-8. The best Tomsula can finish this season is 7-9. He’s also at risk of finishing 4-12, which would be the 49ers’ worst record in a decade.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinnati Bengals: 1:25 p.m. on KGPE (Channel 47.1)