How nice to see they’ve added crab fondue, grilled Castroville artichokes and heirloom carrot cake to the locally sourced concessions menu at Levi’s Stadium. Because what you’re about to observe on the field, assuming it’s playable, will not be appetizing. There is every reason to think the (44 Miles From) San Francisco 49ers, after one of the most tumultuous offseasons in NFL history, will continue a stupefying free-fall that began five yards from a victorious Super Bowl end zone.
Vegas says they’ll go 6-10.
I say 5-11.
But at least the chicken tinga tacos include “breast meat braised with tomato and chipotle, sauteed onions, bell peppers accompanied by fire roasted salsa and cilantro, red jalapenos, Cotija cheese, sour cream and soft flour tortillas.”
“Hoo-ah!” Colin Kaepernick said.
He was not commenting on the food. Rather, the quarterback was reprising Al Pacino’s role in “Scent Of A Woman,” part of a new Madden NFL 16 promotional spoof best described by well-adjusted sorts as acid-meeting-crack. Alas, nothing is well-adjusted or normal in the 49ers’ world, meaning Kaepernick’s “Hoo-ahs” and paper-eating scenes represent more of the usual around here.
After all the poisonous drama between management and Jim Harbaugh, all the continuing arrests amid Jed York’s promise to “win with class,” all the unforeseen player retirements, all the roster turnover and all the Jim Tomsula malaprops, here come the bastardized Niners, almost unrecognizable, returning to their $1.3 billion stadium having no idea if their comically problematic turf will meet the standards of the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys. When the visitors arrived in Santa Clara on the eve of tonight’s preseason game, they immediately visited the stadium to examine new sod installed after two Taylor Swift shows last weekend. You may recall how divot clumps the size of possums forced the team to cancel a public practice — 20,000 people were told to go home — and abandon plans to conduct Tomsula’s first eight practices inside the stadium. This after Harbaugh pulled his team off the field last year, fearing injuries during a public practice. Can you say li-a-bil-i-ty?
“This is interesting. We’re going up here to a great new stadium where we’re going to have the Super Bowl, and we’ve got field problems,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who later tried to soften his comments, accurate as they were.
“Hopefully they’ve taken care of their end of it,” warned Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who likely won’t risk playing quarterback Tony Romo more than a series.
And if the divot clumps return during the game? Even as the 49ers are trying another supplier, from Arizona? “I’m confident that the league will make sure that field is safe for everybody to play,” said Garrett, “or we won’t play the game.”
That would be a blessing, actually. Then we wouldn’t have to watch the 49ers. In the middle of this malaise is Tomsula, who refers to himself as “Jimbo,” looking more and more like an inevitably convenient scapegoat in his unfortunate role as head coach, a position he has held full-time only once otherwise, nine years ago in Europe. It’s painful watching him stumble through tasks — daily injury updates, explanations after arrests — that he acknowledges aren’t his strong suits. He has been forced into a role as primary organizational spokesman while York, the CEO, and Trent Baalke, the general manager, are seen only occasionally in the public eye, which could be construed as hiding from the very debacle they’ve created. If Harbaugh embraced the spotlight, Jimbo is plainly uncomfortable. That doesn’t bode well. Consider the odd scene Friday, when he was asked about an already-reported trade sending backup tight end Derek Carrier to Washington for a fifth-round draft pick.
“I’ll let you know if I go to a meeting after this and find out,” Tomsula said. “I mean, we have personnel meetings in the afternoon.”
Clearly, he is what Harbaugh refused to be, a puppet for Baalke and York. He signed up for the job, at a cool $14 million over four years, so don’t feel overly sorry for Jimbo. But he is a lovable, rootable underdog who loves coaching so much, he once slept in his car to support his family in lowly-paid times. In a way, he’s just right for a seemingly impossible situation. His positive nature and personable, upbeat tone are admirable. The players like him for a reason: He’s very real, never moreso than when he turned Aldon Smith’s latest arrest, which led to his release, into a public appeal for troubled souls. “If one person out there reads this, and you’re struggling, get help. You’re worth it,” said Tomsula, turning into Oprah. “There’s value in every human being. Get the help. You don’t have to walk alone. Find it, it’s there. And although Aldon will not be playing football here, we will be supporting him. He will not be alone.”
It suddenly didn’t matter how good or bad his football team is. Tomsula cares deeply about Smith, just as he cares deeply about NaVorro Bowman. Everyone wants to know when the star linebacker, who tore his ACL and MCL in the 2014 NFC title game and hasn’t played since, will be returning to game action. It was supposed to happen last weekend. Tonight, perhaps? “I’ll reserve the right to look in a guy’s eyes two hours before a game,” Tomsula said. “I’m not going to put that decision on them. Think about that. I don’t want to say, ‘Do you want to play or don’t you?’ I mean, what kind of a spot … I don’t want to do that. I’ll make that decision. I want to take that off the shoulders. There is enough stresses, I’m not talking about the physical side. I’m talking about the whole physiological side of things.”
He probably meant the psychological side, but you get the man’s drift. Tomsula refuses to be a meat-on-the-hoof coach, a significant criticism of Harbaugh as he physically and mentally burned out his players.
That said, the talent pool is a fraction of what was here not long ago, which is partially about attrition but also about Baalke’s shortcomings. There is Kaepernick, but now that strategists have figured out how to defend his breathtaking running ability, the issue is whether new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst can out-think the competition and revive the breathtaking, two-way dynamo who still merits national commercials. Early indications suggest no, that Chryst wants a pounding run game led by Carlos Hyde, bailed out by low-maintenance flips to Reggie Bush and Vernon Davis — and supplemented by a deep game if Kap ever can discover accuracy. As for a ravaged defense, well, we saw the Houston Texans rip through Eric Mangini’s crew, via the ground and air, until a goal-line stand made everyone feel a bit better. Anyone see a linebacker?
Until further notice, the best redeeming entertainment value is Jarryd Hayne, the Aussie who abandoned his career as a rugby star to seek his NFL dream. Did he realize, when he signed with the Niners, that he wasn’t necessarily joining the NFL? “There’s huge amounts of excitement back in Australia, friends and family that have been along for the journey. They’re ecstatic,” Hayne said.
It’s good someone is having fun in Niner Hell. The other day, receiver Jerome Simpson was suspended six games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. What separated this from the team’s many other disciplinary matters was that Baalke knew it was coming, with Simpson busted in July 2014 while driving on a restricted license with weed and an open alcohol container in the vehicle. “The probability of a suspension was known when we signed Jerome,” Baalke said.
WHY … WOULD … YOU … SIGN … HIM?