The 49ers will open the season amid their lowest expectations in years, but one wouldn’t know it visiting their practice facility in Santa Clara.
Under first-year coach Jim Tomsula, there is no lack of confidence among players who flaunt a we’ll-show-you attitude, with a hint of swagger. Even the name of their NFL-endorsed season preview video dismisses the possibility of a step back. Reload and Refocus, it’s called.
Or will it be Rebuild and Regret?
Few organizations have undergone more significant changes in less time than the 49ers have this calendar year. Gone are mainstays Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Anthony Davis, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati and Justin Smith, losses that leave a considerable leadership void.
Ditto defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and a head coach named Jim Harbaugh, who won nearly 70 percent of his regular-season games and brought the team to within seconds of a Super Bowl victory three seasons ago.
“There have been ups and downs,” wide receiver Quinton Patton said. “People in the locker room, you can’t replace, but we have a real tight-knit group and nothing really rattles us. It’s just next man up and just keep it moving, keep pushing. Keep working hard and everything will take care of itself.”
The 49ers worked hard under Harbaugh the last four seasons — a bit too hard, some of his players would say. The cumulative effect appeared to show late last season. After a 7-4 start, the team dropped four of its last five games by an average margin of 13-plus points. By season’s end, it had the look of a old, slow bunch that was emotionally and physically spent.
Now CEO Jed York has rebooted the system, fully intent to change the “culture” of the team, as he puts it. Harbaugh and the front office often went about it different ways, leading to philosophical differences that forced their “mutual” divorce after last season.
The question is, are Tomsula and Trent Baalke the coach-general manager team to execute Operation Culture Change? And will the fans who foot the hefty bill at Levi’s Stadium give them the couple or three years that may be necessary to do it?
For all his success as 49ers coach, Harbaugh didn’t do it alone. Since Baalke took over for Scot McCloughan five years ago, he had some hits in the draft, though no players are left on the roster from the 2012 draft. He has held his own in the free agent market and steered clear of salary-cap hell in the process.
At the same time, much of Baalke’s success has come at the defensive side of the ball. His track record on personnel matters hasn’t been as good lately. Even with 30-somethings Gore, Smith and Willis, all of whom had seen better days, the team probably would not have been a serious contender this season. Without them and a few others, the consensus is that ranks in the bottom quarter in overall talent in the league.
Baalke all but admitted to the lack of depth in the last draft, which saw him take the best-available-player route with the more distant future in the mind.
“It was all about best player,” said Baalke, whose contract extends through the 2016 season. “When we went into the draft, we were looking at certain criteria that we felt we needed to do.
“We wanted to stay big. We wanted to get faster. We wanted to get as much football intellect as we could out of each position. We wanted healthy guys, guys that had a history of playing and not missing games due to injury. Some guys are injury-prone. We wanted to stay away from that as much as we could. We felt we addressed all of that. And they’re good guys.”
Meanwhile, one of Baalke’s draft picks in particular will have a lot of say about whether the team is in a rebuilding or reloading phase. Only two years ago, Colin Kaepernick was one of the rising young quarterbacks in the game. Since then, he has regressed in almost every phase of the position. At 27, he has a lot at stake this season, as the organization can release him before April 1 at no financial obligation.
So while the onus is squarely on Baalke to restock the talent pool, it’s left to a coach with no previous experience as a head man to make the pieces fit in the NFC West, one of the most competitive divisions in the league. That would be Tomsula, 47, a career overachiever who has been in the organization nine years.
Given the less-than-ideal situation, Tomsula has responded about as well as can be expected for someone who has never been front and center before. While the jury is out whether the former defensive line coach can match X’s and O’s with his more experienced peers in the league, he has skills as a communicator and motivator. And while the coach also has shown an ability to compromise — never one of Harbaugh’s strengths as a player or coach — Tomsula has given a few stern lectures at the same time.
He wasted no time to circle the wagons in training camp, where he placed a premium on team chemistry and a more up-tempo pace. Players were asked for their input on practice regimen. They were urged not to be strangers in the locker room. Veteran Darnell Dockett wasn’t so inclined, and at least in part, that led to his release despite a contract that included $2 million in guaranteed money.
If nothing else, the 49ers appear to be all-in as the regular season approaches — or in a “good place,” as Tomsula calls it — something they weren’t at this time a year ago.
“I really like the team, I really do. It’s a team,” Tomsula said. “I’ve always thought a collection of great talent can put something bigger [together] than themselves. I think this is a team that’s a talented group and a group that is really into the team concept.
“I see them hanging in the locker room together, just those things you look for. I see that going on, and that’s very exciting to me. There’s a whole general group that just enjoys working with each other.”
Whether these 49ers will ever enjoy winning and winning big with each other probably won’t be known for a while.