Jim Tomsula was front and center at the nearly hour-long news conference Thursday introducing him as the 49ers’ new coach, but the man sitting to his right will be the one in the spotlight next season.
That was general manager Trent Baalke, who outlasted the other alpha male in the building, Jim Harbaugh, and picked Harbaugh’s successor, Tomsula. At one point during the press conference, Tomsula was laboring to explain his X’s and O’s vision for the team. So Baalke cut in.
“I think somewhere in there, he says we’re going to run the football,” the general manager said, drawing laughs from the crowd but only underscoring that he is running the show.
More than that is the subtext of Baalke’s recent and extensive housecleaning: The 49ers should have won more games considering the talent on the roster.
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How else to explain the overhaul of the team’s coaching staff? Of the major coaches, only running backs coach Tom Rathman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst are expected to stay.
A revamp on offense was expected. The 49ers in 2014 veered from their power-running roots and quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t take a step forward in his development.
But while a few assistants will remain from that side of the ball, the defensive staff was wiped clean if you don’t count Tomsula, who was elevated from defensive-line coach.
Coordinator Vic Fangio? Gone.
Secondary coach Ed Donatell? Don’t let the door hit your backside on the way out.
The two coaches were the most prominent on a unit that, over the past four years, finished fifth, fifth, third and fourth in the league in total defense. The four years before that? The 49ers ranked 13th, 15th, 13th and 25th.
The 49ers hired Harbaugh four years ago in part because they thought he could do something his predecessors could not – pick and develop a quarterback. But it wasn’t the quarterback or the offense that made Harbaugh’s 49ers great. It was the defense.
The Harbaugh era was framed by exceptional defensive coaching performances.
In 2011, Fangio and his defensive assistants dealt with a lockout-shortened offseason. Every player on the roster was new to him and Donatell when training camp began in late July, and several players who would later become stalwarts of the unit – NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Tarell Brown and Ray McDonald – had not been starters in San Francisco.
Still, the defense was the team’s bedrock that season. It allowed one 100-yard rusher all season and led the league with 39 takeaways.
This past season, the 49ers went long stretches without Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Bowman and McDonald and led the league in interceptions. If ever there was an example that good coaching makes a difference, Exhibit A was what the defensive coaches did with that depleted unit.
Baalke said there were discussions to bring back Fangio and Donatell, both of whom were under contract for 2015.
“It’s just safe to assume that throughout those discussions we came to this conclusion,” he said. “We feel very good about moving forward. We feel very good about the plan that we have moving forward, very confident in Jim and his ability to pull that side of the ball together.”
Finishing with a top-five defense is a high benchmark. Over the past four years, the 49ers were the only team in the league – including the Seattle Seahawks – to have their unit reach that mark each season.
Baalke and the 49ers are betting that with the players he’s assembled, Tomsula and whoever he taps as his defensive coordinator – ex-Raiders coordinator Jason Tarver is the leading candidate – can do just as well.
There is a sense from the 49ers that Fangio’s defense could have been more aggressive. It could have blitzed more and made more game-changing plays. That is, while the 49ers‘ defense has been very good over the past four seasons, the 49ers believe it can be better.
And perhaps it will. Willis and Bowman will be back. And Tomsula’s promotion increases the chances that defensive end Justin Smith – mulling retirement – will return, too.
But it will be easy to measure if the 49ers‘ defense is not as good. And in that case, the blame won’t be focused on the new coordinator. It will be on Baalke.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.