“We’ll try this again.”
Those were new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula’s first words in his press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday.
After a couple of disappointing, and perhaps even disastrous, introductory press conferences back in January, Tomsula had a better showing this time out. While no one’s ever going to confuse him with Rex Ryan in terms of entertaining speeches, Tomsula sounded more confident, clear and, frankly, coherent this time out.
We can argue back and forth about whether or not it means anything for a coach to be good at communicating in a press conference situation, but it surely isn’t a bad sign that Tomsula was willing to admit his first press conferences didn’t go smoothly and promised to work on it. Identifying areas of weakness and striving to improve is a good skill for any coach to have, even if it’s on something as relatively trivial as talking to the media.
In all honesty, part of the reaction to Tomsula’s very poor rollout as head coach was the lack of any other interactions with the coach between then and now.
Had he had a second, more successful press conference the next week, then memories of the poor first one would have faded away. Instead, they lingered and built up over the month of silence, which means Tomsula had to open his combine press conference with damage control.
Think of it this way—if you lose a football game badly, the best thing to do is to is go out the next week and play better. A win erases memories of the previous loss, and the story’s over in a week. If, however, you were to throw a game-losing interception in the closing moments of the Super Bowl, that’s something that would build and fester for the entire offseason, because there’s no second event to displace it.
Tomsula had to get back on the horse and give a better interview before memories of the first ones could be put aside, and it’s too bad it took so long for that to happen.
Aside from all that, Tomsula answered some questions about the football team he’s coaching, as well. Here’s what we can take from some of his combine answers:
Tomsula confirmed that the 49ers will continue to run a 3-4 defense. There was some talk earlier this offseason about a potential move to a 4-3 front. The 49ers definitely have some interesting personnel for making that switch.
It would replace the departed Ray McDonald and the potentially retiring Justin Smith with Aaron Lynch and Aldon Smith while letting the trio of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Chris Borland serve as the linebackers. The two defensive tackle spots would be filled by some combination of Tank Carradine, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Quinton Dial.
However, new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini is a 3-4 defensive coach, Tomsula himself is a 3-4 defensive coach and the pieces on defense have been used in a 3-4 system dating back to 2007 and Greg Manusky. Switching to a 4-3 defense, even if it’s a possible scenario, would be a fairly major overhaul of everything the team has been asked to do.
Considering that the defense has at least been in the top half of the league every season since 2009, a sudden switch like that would be throwing away a lot of foundational work.
That does give the 49ers the somewhat enviable problem of having a great rookie like Chris Borland without a starting role in 2015, but there are a couple of ways to keep using him until Patrick Willis is eventually ready to retire or move on.
First of all, both Willis and Bowman will be coming off of injuries, so Borland could simply be used as a way of keeping them fresh, giving them series off from time to time.
Secondly, we could see a bit of a platoon system at times—you could see Borland and Willis in the base defense, Willis and Bowman in the more frequent nickel packages and Bowman alone in the dime sets. That would play to each linebacker’s strengths when they’re all healthy and ready to go.
Offensively, Tomsula confirmed that the 49ers will be running the football primarily in 2015, reiterating what Trent Baalke said for him at the last press conference. That led into a discussion on whether the 49ers would re-sign Frank Gore, and while Tomsula wasn’t specific, he mentioned he was a “big Frank Gore guy” and that talks were ongoing.
There are rumors that the Indianapolis Colts are also interested in Gore’s services, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller. Gore also had a now-deleted Instagram post that questioned whether the team management was committed to him; perhaps Tomsula’s comments were intended to assure him that he’s still wanted in San Francisco.
Shaping the Roster
With the team having until the beginning of March to exclusively talk to its own free agents, there’s still plenty of time for deals to be worked out with players who may or may not be with the team in 2015. Besides Gore, Tomsula talked about Justin Smith, saying that he wasn’t going to “talk him into anything” but that they’d meet after the combine and go from there.
Hiring Tomsula as head coach probably increases the odds that Smith sticks around, simply because of the familiarity and respect Smith has for Tomsula. Smith reportedly once told reporters that Tomsula was the best coach he'd ever had, according to Fox Sports’ Peter Schrager, which is fairly high praise.
Tomsula definitely inspires that sort of respect among people he has worked with—he convinced new quarterbacks coach Steve Logan to come out of quasi-retirement to work with the team, after all—and Smith might decide to give his favorite coach one final year on the field.
He was less firm on speculating about the fate of Michael Crabtree, saying that he doesn’t “have the checkbook” and thus isn’t part of the discussions about re-signing free agents.
It’s perhaps telling that he was more enthusiastic about the return of Gore than the return of Crabtree, perhaps indicating which direction the team is looking at. We don’t have enough of a history of Tomsula press conferences to really read between the lines yet, but it’s certainly an interesting degree of difference when reacting to the two names.
Tomsula was also “really excited” about Carlos Hyde, and he thinks Tank Carradine and Chris Borland are “really good.” This is less newsworthy, and he didn’t take the opportunity to add any other names; reporters specifically asked about Hyde, Carradine and Borland.
Most of the 49ers’ coaching staff isn’t in Indianapolis for the combine. When asked why, Tomsula confirmed that the first step in the new coaching staff’s process was self-assessment. It needs to look at the players the team already has and decide how to build around them.
This is the disadvantage of hiring a new coaching staff; it has to familiarize itself with the team it has before going on to looking at draft picks. It’s a problem in the first season, as it simply can’t devote as much time as the other NFL teams to scouting outside its own franchise. Normal service should resume in year two of a Tomsula regime, but for now, the coaching staff is primarily focused on getting the current roster ready.
This isn’t a bad strategy for a new staff. It’s simply a handicap this season as Tomsula’s staff familiarizes itself with the strengths and weaknesses of the 49ers. It’s the logical end result of replacing the previous regime and something that Jed York and Trent Baalke had to work into their decision-making process at the time.
Tomsula didn’t spend much time talking about individual members of his coaching staff, with the exception of new quarterbacks coach Steve Logan.
Tomsula made a point of mentioning how Logan changed his approach with each new developmental quarterback he had a chance to work with, structuring his approach to their needs rather than implementing a top-down system. Bringing Logan on board, after he had reportedly refused to come out of retirement in years past, might be the best move Tomsula has made to date.
Tomsula, overall, came off much better on Thursday, looking relaxed, rested and in control. While a bad press conference doesn’t make a bad coach and a good press conference doesn’t make a good one, it’s definitely a positive sign for 49ers fans going forward.
Just seeing a typical no-news conference from the head coach is the first step to the team returning to business as usual after what has been a tumultuous coaching change.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.