It’s not entirely fair to judge new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula by the standards his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, set. It also is not entirely fair to judge new coordinators Geep Chryst and Eric Mangini by the standards Greg Roman and Vic Fangio set.
None of these men were involved in the decision to part from the most successful coaching staff the 49ers had had since the George Seifert era. They should be judged on their own merits as a first-time head coach and as part of a new staff. It’s owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke who should be held to task if the 49ers fail to replicate Harbaugh’s success under their new coaching staff.
It is entirely feasible for the 49ers to finish in such a way that makes Tomsula look good, but York and Baalke look bad. Imagine, for the moment, that the 49ers improve to 9-7 or 10-6, return to the playoffs and lose in, say, the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers. That’d be a very, very good first year for Tomsula, considering that only 155 NFL’s 477 head coaches have ever made the playoffs.
At the same time, it would fail to live up to the standards set by Jim Harbaugh’s reign, which saw the 49ers reach at least the NFC Championship in three out of four years. It would also fail to live up to the standard set by Jed York when he indicated that the only goal for the franchise was to “win Super Bowls.”
While it’s entirely possible that the 49ers would be unable to live up to their 2011-13 run had Harbaugh remained the coach, failing to live up to those standards now would carry the implication that York and Baalke made an unwise choice to release Harbaugh after one average, albeit disappointing, season.
If the 49ers win Super Bowl 50, then obviously everyone comes out of this coaching change looking fantastic. Conversely, if they go 0-16, then everyone looks horrible.
There is a middle range, however, where it’s possible to be satisfied with the new coaching staff’s performance while still thinking the move from Harbaugh was a poor one. It’s just not fair to judge Tomsula and the new staff by their predecessors' success.
It may not be fair, but we’re going to do it anyway—that’s just human nature. With Harbaugh, Roman and Fangio all accepting equivalent positions on new teams, rather than promotions or demotions, the stage is set for fairly direct comparisons between the old coaches and new coaches. So the question is—which set will be more successful?
Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers v. Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan
The reason I’m phrasing the question as “more successful” rather than who will have a better team or season is in part due to the fact that Harbaugh has gone back to college.
The 49ers would definitely be able to beat Michigan on the field, because one’s a professional team and one’s a college program. They’re also starting in different places, with the 49ers having recently been a Super Bowl contender, and Michigan having not been to a major Bowl game since 2011.
Michigan has some tough nonconference games on the slate for 2015, having to play Utah, Oregon State and BYU. They also have to face the defending champion Ohio State Buckeyes, though that game will happen in Ann Arbor.
They have the advantage of having a very strong defense already. They allowed their Big Ten opponents to score just 23.5 points per game and had a top-10 defense overall. That’s a strong foundation to build off, and it frees Harbaugh to focus on the offense.
Michigan’s offense is still in a bit of a shambles, having ranked 115th in the nation last season. It's also going to lose Devin Funchess, its top weapon.
Harbaugh is going to have to coach up quarterback Shane Morris far above what he’s shown in limited replacement work in order for this team to have substantial success in 2015. Sitting in the same division as Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State isn’t going to help matters much either.
Meanwhile, Jim Tomsula gets the benefit of playing a third-place schedule, getting games against the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants rather than, say, Dallas or Carolina. The schedule rotation wasn’t as kind, however, as the 49ers will play the AFC North and NFC North in 2015, meaning games against playoff teams Detroit, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Add in four games against Seattle and Arizona and that’s a fairly daunting schedule. It’s only the 12th-hardest in terms of winning percentage, according to a recent SB Nation article, but there are a lot of quality opponents he’ll have to face very quickly.
At least they don’t have to play the Super Bowl champions—the 49ers dodge New England this season.
When you consider that Jim Harbaugh has prompted immediate turnarounds at the University of San Diego, Stanford and the 49ers, as well as the unnecessarily large number of bowl games at the college level, I think Harbaugh has the upper hand when it comes to taking his team to the playoffs in 2015.
I don’t think it’s possible, given the schedule and quality of the defense, for Michigan to be any worse than the five-win team they were last season, meaning they’ve got nowhere to go but up. I don’t think they’ll exactly skyrocket to the playoffs or anything, but it’s quite likely that Harbaugh could return to Levi’s Field in the Foster Farms Bowl next season.
Meanwhile, the 49ers didn’t hit rock bottom last season; 8-8 is a record that would have been the envy of a number of teams this past season, including the entire NFC South. What that means, however, is there is still room to fall.
If Colin Kaepernick continues to regress, if the offensive line continues to give up sacks and if no receiving prospect steps up, I could easily see the 49ers falling to 6-10. Considering the return of injured players to the defense, I think it’s more likely to see some slight improvement, but I think a realistic appraisal of Tomsula’s first year would be closer to 9-7 than a double-digit win, deep-playoff-run type of year.
Geep Chryst, San Francisco 49ers v. Greg Roman, Buffalo Bills
Don’t write Chryst off entirely because his last stint as an offensive coordinator went bust. With the San Diego Chargers, Chryst was stuck with late-career Jim Harbaugh and epic draft bust Ryan Leaf as his quarterbacks. Whatever your opinion of Kaepernick is—if he just had an off season or if opposing defenses have figured him out—he’s not nearly in Leaf’s category.
I think Chryst and new quarterbacks coach Steve Logan (the best hire the 49ers made this offseason) can return Kaepernick to respectability. Quarterbacks, especially young ones, bounce back from bad years all the time. I wrote about comparable quarterbacks to Kaepernick earlier this offseason, and I am not overly concerned, yet, with the prospect of fixing him.
More concerning is finding Kaepernick some actual weapons to work with on offense. Michael Crabtree is likely gone, and he hasn’t quite lived up to his draft status, anyhow.
Frank Gore may be leaving as well, meaning second-year player Carlos Hyde will be asked to make a major step forward. Vernon Davis might be a cap casualty and offered nothing as a tight end last season, and Mike Iupati may have priced himself out of San Francisco, leaving a hole on the offensive line.
You also have to wonder if Chryst, who was on the 49ers staff these past few years after all, can really be the one to turn the offense around. Normally, a promotion from within means more of the same style of offense, but the attempted shift to a more passing-based offense backfired on the 49ers last season.
Can Chryst oversee a return to the power-running game that led the 49ers to success from 2011-2013? The jury remains out on that one.
For all the offensive question marks the 49ers have, however, the Buffalo Bills are in much worse shape. Kaepernick had a poor season, but he has shown great ability in the past. EJ Manuel has had awful seasons and has yet to prove that he can perform on an NFL level.
Making matters worse, the Bills don’t have a first-round pick this offseason to find a potential replacement, and there are no veteran quarterbacks on the market who look to offer a solid long-term option at the position, meaning the Bills are sort of stuck with him. I’m not sure Greg Roman is the person I would hire to develop a young quarterback, either.
Sammy Watkins was a solid first-round pick, but he wasn’t worth trading up to get. Had the Bills just stayed put, they could have taken Odell Beckham Jr. or Brandin Cooks and still been in position to add an offensive lineman such as T.J. Clemmings or a running back such as Melvin Gordon. Trading away future draft picks very rarely works out, considering how imprecise a science the draft is.
No, I have to give Chryst the advantage here. He has more to work with on offense and could oversee a bounce-back season from Kaepernick and the continued development of young players such as Hyde and Bruce Ellington. Assuming they can work something out at the receiver position—even if it’s just keeping Stevie Johnson healthy—Chryst is bound to have a better season than Roman will.
Eric Mangini, San Francisco 49ers v. Vic Fangio, Chicago Bears
The 49ers travel to Chicago this season. The Fangio subplot should be one of the bigger storylines leading up to the game. The Bears may have won the coaching hiring cycle on paper, getting an established, veteran such as John Fox to lead the team and then two great coordinators in Fangio and Adam Gase to run the defense and offense.
It remains to be seen if on paper translates to on-field production, but Chicago’s won the offseason to this point.
Mangini’s big problem when you’re talking about improving the team in his new role is that Fangio didn’t leave very much room to go anywhere but down. The 49ers have ranked in the top five in yards allowed each of the past five seasons; there’s almost no way to actually improve on that.
Mangini’s big benefit, of course, is the favorable probabibility of of NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith returning for full seasons. Imagine an average defense bringing in players like that as free agents or draft picks and then imagine the improvement you’d expect out of them. The 49ers' front-seven unit should be improved from its already great status.
More crucial to Mangini’s success will be keeping the secondary running at a high level.
Fangio and Ed Donatell managed to produce great secondaries without a true shutdown corner; while Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are very solid pieces, neither is in the league of, say, a Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis.
If Culliver leaves in free agency, Mangini will have to coach up Jimmie Ward or Dontae Johnson to be a starting-caliber cornerback; that will likely be the toughest thing he has to do. You just have to point Willis and Bowman toward the defense and tell them to play great; the secondary will need some scheming.
Thanks to San Francisco’s lack of room to grow, it’s almost assured that Vic Fangio’s new Chicago defense will be the more improved unit. It was pretty darn bad in 2014, especially in pass defense, where it allowed 264.4 yards per game. It also nose-dived as the season went on, and it became clear the coaches wouldn’t last the season, allowing 2,359 yards over the team's last six games.
That being said, there’s more talent here than you’d expect from a unit that bad.
It’ll be key to re-sign Stephen Paea and either re-sign or replace Lance Briggs, but the defensive line is actually fairly solid, and the team has some pieces at cornerback with rookie Kyle Fuller and Tim Jennings. The Bears are also likely to land a big-time prospect with a top-10 pick; someone such as Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, perhaps. The 49ers, meanwhile, need to spend most of their early-draft capital on offense.
So, I think the Bears defense will improve more than the 49ers defense will, but the 49ers defense will be better than the Bears’ will be. That raises the question as to who wins this battle, and I think it’s, by far, the closest of the three competitions listed here.
It’s not very satisfying to call it a draw, so I won’t. I’m going to give the slightest of edges to Fangio, who could appear like a miracle worker if he can get the Bears back to respectability.
Mangini’s absence from the defensive side of the ball hurts, too—he hasn’t been a defensive coach since 2005 with the New England Patriots or 2010 with the Cleveland Browns if you count his head coaching experience. That’s four consecutive seasons, at least, being outside of defensive game planning, and there could be some rust there.
Fangio gets the nod, but I still think the 49ers win when they play this season.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.