DETROIT — The 49ers have been unable to shake the ghost of Jim Harbaugh in this forgettable season of theirs, and it never haunted them more than Sunday.
Less than an hour from Ann Arbor, where Harbaugh calls home now, the 49ers concluded their road season with another dud and a thud. The Detroit Lions handed them a 32-17 loss, their seventh in eight road games and 11th in 15 starts overall.
If not for two botched field goals by the Bears in Chicago, the Niners would have finished zip-for-8 on the road. They were outpointed by a 252-124 margin in those games. In round numbers, that’s an average 32-16 score.
“You have to learn,” said veteran Joe Staley, also a mainstay in the Harbaugh years. “Every year is its own unique year. We’ve got guys in this locker room that have won, that have been successful on the road and know what it takes. Then we have guys that don’t know, that are young and stepping into roles.”
The road finale was the kind of game that Harbaugh rarely lost in four seasons at the controls. In that span, his teams posted a 24-12 record (postseason included) away from home, one of the most dominant records in the NFL.
From mindless penalties to missed tackles, the first season under Jim Tomsula couldn’t be more different. The last time the Niners had a 1-7 road record was in 2010, the final season for Mike Singletary as head coach. Whether Tomsula will have the same fate remains to be seen.
“What did we have — six?” Tomsula took a stab at the number of offsides and natural zone infractions called against his team.
The correct answer was seven, but by the fourth quarter, most had lost track.
“There’s no excuse for that. None,” Tomsula said flatly. “We’ll go back and look at that. I can’t give you for the life of me any kind of excuse for that. It’s inexcusable.”
For one of the few times this season, the offense scored a touchdown in the first period on the road. Blaine Gabbert and Vance McDonald hooked up six minutes into the game.
“I thought we came off the bus and the team started fast today,” Tomsula said. “I thought we were doing that and getting going. Going into halftime, I felt good other than those offsides penalties.”
On the next possession, Aaron Brooks and Gerald Hodges were guilty of unforced 5-yard penalties. Both resulted in first downs and eventually lead to a field goal.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties that we cause ourselves,” NaVorro Bowman said. “That’s (a lack of) discipline and focus on your assignment.”
A similar gaffe proved costly early in the fourth period. The Niners trailed 23-17 when Eli Harold was whistled for yet another neutral zone infraction on a third-and-2 situation.
Moments later, after Tramaine Brock was called for pass interference on another third down play, Matthew Stafford connected with Calvin Johnson on a 1-yard touchdown pass to put the visitors out of their misery.
“None of us did well today,” Tomsula conceded. “We didn’t win.”
Call it the story of the 2015 Niners.