SEATTLE — He lost me at “Tony.” That’s when someone should have approached Jim Tomsula, whisked him away from the press-conference podium Sunday and mercifully removed him as head coach of the 49ers, an idea that was folly from his very first day, with an introductory crash of epic proportion and nothing but cringe-worthy moments since.
If it wasn’t clear in the first nine games that he’s unqualified for the job, it certainly was in the final minutes at Century Link Field, when he mismanaged the clock, underestimated the shockingly able play of Blaine Gabbert and didn’t at least try to win the football game. With no postseason berth on the line, Tomsula twice faced fourth down with his team trailing by 16 points and his defense unable to slow a gouging Beast Mode running back whose name wasn’t Marshawn Lynch. If he didn’t elect to extend a drive in his own territory with 5:45 left, Tomsula most certainly should have with 3:09 left. He had nothing to lose but another game in a lost season.
Both times, he punted.
Both times, Tomsula had no grasp of the game’s context, the need to possess the ball to score two touchdowns, add two-point conversions and force overtime.
Final score: Seattle 29, 49ers 13.
“The way we thought about it, Tony and I …” he started to explain.
Wait, who’s Tony? The offensive coordinator is Geep Chryst. The head coach is Jim Tomsula. Who’s Tony? That would be Tony Sparano, the tight ends coach, who has been an NFL head coach, most recently for the Raiders, but shouldn’t be mentioned in any explanation about busted strategies. Again, the head coach is Tomsula. In bringing up “Tony,” he sounded like anything but a head coach.
“We had to get a stop,” he went on. “We were playing obviously for two touchdowns and two two-point [conversions]. The idea was to get the field position, get a stop. We score, come back with an onside kick.”
But when the 49ers couldn’t get a stop all day on Thomas Rawls — who accounted for 255 all-purpose yards and rushed for 209, the most ever against a 49ers defense — how were they going to get a stop in the final three minutes? As Rawls put the finishing touches on his gashing masterpiece, Gabbert didn’t take another snap. That defines the current state of 49ers Life, folks, Jim Tomsula unable to help Blaine Gabbert.
Have standards plummeted so far that it’s exciting to see a 33-yard pass to a tight end or one long scoring drive? The 49ers shouldn’t be satisfied with a touchdown and two field goals against the issue-plagued Seahawks, who are more likely to end up on TMZ — Russell Wilson is dating the singer Ciara, you may have heard — than in another Super Bowl. Gabbert continued to play like a decent NFL quarterback, but that is supposed to be the norm, particularly for a franchise that once employed Joe Montana and Steve Young at the same time.
While allowing that Gabbert does play with more confidence, mobility, guts and intelligence than he once did as the league’s consensus-worst QB, we’ll have to see a consistent pattern of gunning-and-scrambling efficiency before declaring him a potential long-term starter. Besides, what’s happening on the field is starting not to matter as much as what’s happening upstairs. Sunday, the real game was in the press box, hours before the 49ers fell to 3-7, when general manager Trent Baalke was saying Colin Kaepernick might have a future with the team at roughly the same time one of Jed York’s national TV insiders was saying he did not. We’ll ignore Baalke’s usual smoke and assume the woefully obvious here, that Kaepernick will be elsewhere and the Niners will have a new QB, whether it’s Gabbert, Cal’s Jared Goff or a combination of the two.
And if the front office is in the process of weeding out Kaepernick as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn labrum on his nonthrowing shoulder, then, heavens, don’t stop there. A new QB will require a new paradigm, a new master plan, a new head coach.
Nothing Tomsula has done disproves our original conclusion that he never should have been offered the job. He’s a glorified line coach who’s great with people and was right by Glenn Dorsey’s side when he blew out his knee in the first quarter, in the same stadium where NaVorro Bowman blew out his knee and began the organizational free-fall. But Tomsula, while inheriting a depleted and dysfunctional operation that gave him no chance of immediate success, has shown no projections that he’ll be a successful motivator, game-planner and developer of talent. A department head might be a popular guy in the lunchroom, but that doesn’t mean he should manage the office.
After yet another uninspired performance in which Jimmy T didn’t have his team ready to play, with the first signs of life coming late in the first half of a game already lost, it should be clear now that the worst decision of York’s professional life — dumping Jim Harbaugh — was compounded by hiring a weak replacement. There are indications that York is coming to that realization, with the CEO’s impatience always running parallel to the frequency of 49ers-related reports by Fox, ESPN and the NFL Network. The media insiders are fed by the loose tongues and itchy tying fingers of York and his informants, and Sunday, Fox’s Jay Glazer raised the possibility that Tomsula will be replaced, which came days after a national website reported that Tomsula’s job is safe only if the 49ers remain competitive in the final weeks.
Were they competitive this time? Starting with a nine-play, 92-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, Gabbert moved the offense with authority, though at least two passes should have been intercepted. His numbers —264 passing yards and a touchdown, no picks, 22 rushing yards, 98.2 passer rating — look markedly better than Kaepernick’s of late. But Seattle had its way against a mushy defense even without Lynch, who didn’t play because of an abdominal injury.
“We didn’t tackle well,” said Tomsula, whose expertise is defense. “You can’t go in on a tackle worrying about missing the tackle. You’ve got to TACKLE.”
We’ve seen enough of these debacles, as York continues to charge the NFL’s highest game-day prices at Levi’s Stadium, to know the 49ers can’t bring back the status quo unless they want a mass fan revolt. So let’s assume the coach is Tom-booted and Kaepernick is either traded or released, possibly with a contractually required injury settlement if the torn labrum in his nonthrowing shoulder hasn’t completely healed. And let’s assume the quarterbacking future is Goff, who will be available to the 49ers if they lose out — including a must-flop situation on Dec. 13 against QB-needy Cleveland — because two-win Tennessee is set with Marcus Mariota and two-win San Diego has an effective old dude named Philip Rivers.
Moving forward, York and Baalke would need more accomplished and creative offensive minds to guide Goff’s development while Gabbert serves as a temporary sacrificial lamb. Chryst is not who we have in mind. Why keep a Geep when you need a sports car?
Adam Gase qualifies as a more polished engine and suitable head coach. Remember Gase? York and Baalke interviewed him last offseason but reportedly balked when Gase didn’t want to retain Tomsula as defensive coordinator. He ended up in Chicago as offensive coordinator and has been responsible this year for the revival of Jay Cutler, who has dramatically cut down on his reckless turnovers while directing three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives this season, both tops in the NFL. If Gase has cured what ails Cutler, when so many other coaches have failed, imagine what he could do with Goff from the incubator through the maturation process.
Baalke might be wondering what Gase could do with Kaepernick, but if so, the GM is only bluffing himself. He accused the media of jumping to conclusions about Kaepernick’s departure, claiming, “I wouldn’t say that at all. I think people are reading into that. For me, where we stand right now, I wouldn’t read too much into that.”
So, is Kaepernick the starter next season? Baalke, of course, won’t go that far. “Right now is not the time to get into the particulars,” he said. “Right now he’s no different than any other player that’s been placed on IR. When that surgery takes place, then the rehab process, getting him ready for the offseason program is the next step.” Yeah, for the Eagles, Texans, Browns or another team that thinks it can resuscitate his career, refine his pocket presence and make him care about mechanics.
Kaepernick should be thrilled about a change of scenery, anyway. At his next stop, he actually might have a head coach.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.