On a night when Jim Tomsula was introduced to America as a shouting, hugging, gyrating swirl, and a night when Jarryd Hayne showed the world how a punt goes Down Under when dropped, there was at least one firm certainty for the new, Jed-stamped, post-Harbaugh 49ers.
Give the ball to the best running back you have.
And let him steal your breath.
With the best highlights of the young NFL season, Carlos Hyde spun his way into the local sporting imagination, made you forget Frank Gore and spawned a nickname for the offense: the Run-N-Hyde. A breakout 168-yard, two-touchdown performance led the Niners through an early wilderness of errors, allowed Eric Mangini’s defense to exploit a bizarre game plan by the Minnesota Vikings and inspired a 20-3 victory on an evening when all seemed just fine at Levi’s Stadium, even a maligned field that produced no possum-sized sod chunks, not even a wee divot.
Of course, restraint is highly encouraged, with a trip to Pittsburgh in a few days and another to Arizona the following weekend. But in their ridiculous alternative uniforms with black jerseys, black pants, red numbers, red stripes and, thankfully, gold helmets — an ensemble that seemed to channel the anithesis of everything the 49ers have achieved and stand for, the Oakland Raiders, right down to the constant blasting of AC/DC’s “Back In Black” over the Levi’s Stadium speakers — the 49ers showed they still have juice after an offseason unmatched in recent sports history for its tumult and dysfunction.
“It showed that we blocked out those distractions,” said Hyde, the 235-pound bruiser built like a bigger Gore. “We came together as a team. We’ve got a bond going in that locker room, a bunch of guys who believe in each other. When you’ve got a group like that, we can go and perform with anybody.”
The takeaway was Hyde’s scoring run late in the first half of a sluggish, gaffe-filled game that screamed July 29, not the first Monday night of September. On second down at the Minnesota 10-yard line, he took a handoff from Colin Kaepernick, started right, encountered white jerseys, then pivoted on his left foot and did a spin move that turned defensive end Everson Griffen into a helpless, 273-pound blob. With a viral-worthy cutback to his left, Hyde followed Kaepernick and ran untouched to the goal line, then dove into the end zone for effect.
“I watched film this week,” Hyde said.
By film, he meant a Vikings game last year against the Washington Redskins, where he noticed a running back who similarly paralyzed Griffen. “I said if I get that chance in the game, I’ve got to spin it. Killed him,” Hyde said.
He wasn’t finished. Early in the fourth quarter, after the Vikings managed a field goal while making little use all night of future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, Hyde climaxed an 80-yard, 10-play drive with another darting rush to the end zone. He flipped the ball in the direction of a Vikings player, pointed at him, then ran toward the seats and leaped into the stands. We’re not going to call it the Levi’s Leap, as Green Bay already has claimed that distinction. But the Hyde Tide works.
“Why not? The fans like it,” Hyde said. “Actually, there were some Vikings fans there. No, they didn’t say anything.”
Said Tomsula, the everyman: “I’m not really into the whole fluff thing, but when stuff’s real and our guys are excited and it’s real, I think it’s great if they can share it with the fans. I can’t jump that high. I’d never do it.”
This is what Jed York, the embattled 35-year-old owner, had in mind when he fired Jim Harbaugh and rebooted his high-tech project in his $1.3 billion stadium. In fact, this may have been the greatest day of Jed’s professional life. Earlier, he’d heard that Forbes has valued the 49ers at $2.7 billion, an NFL-high 69 percent increase from last year and the league’s fifth-highest valuation — behind the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Washington Redskins and New York Giants. It served to confirm that York, at least as a businessman within his money-munching fraternity, had done the right thing in abandoning San Francisco and cutting his sweetheart stadium deal in Santa Clara. As Forbes wrote: “Presto! The team’s revenue from ticket sales, sponsors, concessions, luxury suites and non-football events jumped 160 percent from the previous season.”
Never mind the 45-mile distance from The City that precedes the nickname. Never mind that Harbaugh had been five yards from a Super Bowl trophy and had taken York’s team to three straight NFC title games. York thought the Harbaugh model was broken and burned out, and he opted for his favorite assistant coach, the bouncy and affable Tomsula, who, for a night, looked like a solid choice who wasn’t out of his element in the least. Again, they were playing a noncontending Minnesota team. But as someone who thought the 49ers might go 5-11, I was impressed, not only by Hyde but a sack-happy defense that made life hell for Peterson and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Suddenly, the drive from The Embarcadero — which took two hours late Monday afternoon — seemed worth the hassle.
“The first thing I want this team to be is a team,” Tomsula said. “That’s what I believe we have. It’s a great locker room that I want to be tough-minded, tough physically and smart.”
And Kaepernick? Who knew that he could be a game manager, getting out of Hyde’s way most of the night.
As expected, Hayne was a constant source of entertainment — initially, for the wrong reasons. On his first regular-season NFL punt return, the Aussie rugby king misjudged a kick in the wind, dove for the football and muffed it, with the Vikings recovering at their 43-yard line. At once, you could hear the collective cackling of traditionalists who thought the 49ers were too quick to anoint him as a playmaker. It’s good for him that the Vikings failed to capitalize. They similarly failed earlier in the first quarter, when a Phil Dawson field-goal attempt was blocked by Andrew Sendejo — who slipped through a too-easy seam past an unsuspecting Vance McDonald, who oddly picked up the outside rusher — and returned it 44 yards to the Niners’ 26.
Eventually, Hayne settled down to catch his next punt (for a no-yardage return), then catching a pass and making a defender miss for a seven-yard gain, to the relief of a contingent of Aussie media who have invaded Silicon Valley like techie wannabes. He also rushed four times for 13 yards, including a nine-yarder. But he was replaced as the punt returner later in the first half by the fleet Bruce Ellington, who proceeded to return a kick 85 yards for a touchdown … that was aborted by two more 49ers penalties, illegal blocks by Keith Reaser and Nick Bellore. On a night of numerous mistakes by everyone, even the referee with the famous biceps, Ed Hochuli, incorrectly announced one of the numbers.
If Tomsula was serious last week in hinting that Hayne might be left off the active list, he soon realized he has no power to make such decisions. Not only is the NFL trying to make money in Australia — with the 49ers’ co-chairman, John York, heading up the league’s International Committee — the league is selling too many jerseys in America and Down Under. Roger Goodell wanted him out there. ESPN wanted him out there. Under Armour, who recently signed Hayne to a deal, wanted him out there. So, he was out there.
And, by night’s end, the experiment seemed worth it, though he’d better not drop another ball, especially with Ellington much better suited to break big ones.
“I’m very happy with Jarryd,” Tomsula said. “I tell these guys, at some point, something isn’t going to go right somewhere. Jarryd has the mindset that he’ll overcome.”
At halftime, the 49ers honored Charles Haley as their latest Hall of Famer. Joe Montana was there. Steve Young was there. Ronnie Lott was there. Eddie DeBartolo was there. And Jed York was there, smiling all the way.
That was one snapshot from opening night. The other was of Carlos Hyde. There he was at midfield afterward, congratulated by his idol, Peterson, after outgaining him by 137 yards.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.Carlos HydeJim TomsulaMonday Night FootballSan Francisco 49ers