Uncertain Times Lie Ahead for 49ers Team Lacking Head Coach, QB and Direction

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 3, 2016

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula speaks at a news conference after an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg/Associated Press

It's hard to fault head coach Jim Tomsula for what happened to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2015 NFL season. An 8-8 team lost about a dozen starting-caliber players as well as head coach Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 campaign, which meant that Tomsula was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The longtime defensive line coach was handed the reins after Harbaugh left for Big Ten pastures in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but it still felt like the overmatched and under-qualified 47-year-old was serving in some sort of indefinite-interim role, even if that's somewhat oxymoronic.

Tomsula was, for whatever reason, given a single season to work a miracle, and—to nobody's surprise—he failed to deliver. The reality, of course, is that nobody could have coached this version of the 49ers to the playoffs, not with its hollowed-out defense, its lack of a franchise quarterback and its tough-as-nails division.

The 49ers were destined to struggle in 2015, and struggle they did, winning just five games. There's a reason Tomsula wasn't in demand prior to the 2015 offseason. Yet owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke handed him the keys to a broken-down car with no brakes.

Most of us saw the crash coming the moment he left the lot.

But York had better not be under the impression that his decision to fire Tomsula on Sunday will fix what ails an organization that may be falsely under the impression it remains on the brink of anything except a rebuild.

The 49ers are not a good football team, and they wouldn't be significantly better with Harbaugh, Sean Payton or Bill Belichick in charge. Even with the return of All-Pro-caliber linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a defense that only a few years ago was dominant, finished the 2015 regular season ranked 28th in football, sending only Bowman to the Pro Bowl.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

This team, entering the 2015 campaign, was still seemingly in shock after an unprecedented offseason in which they lost Harbaugh as well as key cogs Chris Borland and Anthony Davis (to sudden retirement), Patrick Willis and Justin Smith (to less-than-sudden retirement), Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Frank Gore (to free agency), and Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald (to stupidity).

Nobody can afford to lose a dozen players like that, especially if their presumed franchise quarterback—in this case, Colin Kaepernick—falls on his face. The young and dynamic pivot lasted only half the season before being benched for Blaine freakin' Gabbert, and during that stretch, he was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in football.

Lowest-rated passers since 2014
Blake Bortles80.9
Colin Kaepernick83.7
Derek Carr83.9
Joe Flacco87.6
Pro Football Reference (min. 24 starts)

Kaepernick finished the season with a 78.5 passer rating, which ranked fourth-last among 35 qualified quarterbacks. He also had a pathetic 6.6 adjusted-yards-per-attempt average and completed 59 percent of his passes.

Of course, some of us saw the crash coming for Kaepernick too. Among 27 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts during the final five weeks of 2014, he ranked 25th during that span with a 71.2 rating. Per Pro Football Focus, only four QBs were less accurate.

So, we might have to pause before putting this on the patsy known as Jim Tomsula.

Unfortunately for those who want to see more heads roll, owners don't typically fire themselves, and it's probably far too early to start speculating that the York family might sell. (Regardless, such a thing wouldn't happen overnight.)

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 15: General Manager Trent Baalke, Head Coach Jim Tomsula and CEO Jed York address the media at Levi's Stadium on January 15, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. The San Francisco 49ers announced Jim Tomsula as their new head coach t
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

What's more, York didn't fire Baalke, who, according to a report Sunday morning from Pro Football Talk, appears to be safe. On one hand, Baalke did play a major role in building a Super Bowl contender and was a victim of some uncontrollable circumstances last offseason. But on the other hand, a lot of those losses remain on him. 

Still, the 49ers have been successful with this front-office regime. And York and Baalke have a chance to revive the franchise. In this league, it can happen quickly. They know that as well as anyone, because this is a team that went to the NFC Championship a year after finishing 6-10.

The key will be to avoid half measures like the original decisions to stick with a struggling Kaepernick and promote Tomsula with a suicide pass.

To Baalke's credit, he and York signed Kaepernick in 2014 to a pay-as-you-go contract that is easy to escape. Prior to April 1, Kaepernick is only guaranteed $11.9 million of his $14.3 million 2016 salary for injury. Things are complicated by the fact he has a torn labrum in his left shoulder. But whether or not the 49ers bring him back as a backup, bite the bullet and release him at a high cost or find a way to trade him, they have to be prepared to find their next franchise quarterback.

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 14: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers presents Head Coach Jim Tomsula with the game ball following the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Levi Stadium on September 14, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

There are plenty of enticing throwing prospects in this draft, and the 49ers will have two picks in the top 40. According to Over the Cap, they're expected to enter the offseason with about $38 million in salary-cap space and few in-house free agents.

This isn't rocket science, but it requires patience, discipline and even some audacity.

Find the right coach, not just one who might make it easier to save face. Find the right quarterback, not just one who has a name.

And the rest should fall into place.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.