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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Is Jim Tomsula Really the “Teacher” the 49ers Need?

Dec 24, 2015 at 8:30 AM19

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When Jed York announced that Jim Harbaugh was not going to continue his tenure as the head coach of the 49ers, he announced that the team was primarily searching for a new head coach who had the same characteristics as a teacher. While fans, pundits, and scribes alike have weighed in on the virtues of Jim Tomsula as Harbaugh's successor, often discussing whether he will be or should be retained for a second season, it would stand to reason that the best measure of his success in performing the job that was expected of him by his owner would be his performance at the tasks that are expected of a teacher. In the interest of simplicity, the work of a teacher has been categorized into three general tasks: instruction, planning, and grading. I'll do my best to evaluate Jim Tomsula and his staff in each of these tasks.


Without lingering too long on defining this topic, teachers are expected to instruct students on how to perform certain tasks, and why they must be performed in that manner. Students are shown how a skill should be performed as they hear the instructions, and are then asked to perform the task while receiving feedback. Mastery of the task requires that the student can perform the task correctly without guidance, and can self-diagnose and correct deficiencies.

Here is where Jim Tomsula excels, and this is what I believe Jed York was thinking about when he made his "teacher" statement, likely with Tomsula in mind. While Tomsula was the defensive line coach, the team could depend on steady production from mid and late round picks, as well as undrafted free agents. Tomsula used an effective combination of his eye for detail, specific technical expectations, and down-to-earth delivery to ensure that everyone in his position group mastered their position well enough to perform their responsibilities within the defense, regardless of their perceived talent or draft slot.

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That characteristic has carried on to the 2015 team. Young players that have been forced into significant roles have performed surprisingly well. Rookies or second year players who had their rookie years lost or cut short due to injury have stepped into important roles and acquitted themselves well, which indicates that Tomsula and his staff have done a good job of getting those young players up to speed without much time or opportunity for growth and reflection. Kenneth Acker, Jimmie Ward, Arik Armstead, Jaquiski Tartt, Andrew Tiller, Trent Brown, Blake Bell, and Shaun Draughn have all performed well with their opportunities this season. None of them were key contributors to the team last year, either because of injuries or because they weren't on the roster. Unfortunately, some of these young players who have been performing so well have only done so in small sample sizes because their opportunities were limited. How could they be stuck at the bottom of the depth chart if they were already prepared to succeed? That is a fair question that must be addressed when discussing…


While instruction is the task most commonly associated with teaching, grading is the most arduous, most thankless, and often most difficult portion of the job. Teachers must remain coldly impartial when assessing student performance, and they must show brutal honesty to favorites and glowing praise to agitants, as the black-and-white (unless you are in art class) student work dictates.

This appears to be a failing point of Tomsula and his staff. One of the perceived benefits of hiring Tomsula for the 49ers job was his familiarity with the roster. Rather than spending an entire season getting to know strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of each player, it was anticipated that this staff would have an advantage in making lineup changes as necessary, because they would already know what players had to offer the team, from the top of the roster to the bottom. Discovering midseason that Vernon Davis was not the best tight end on the roster allowed the team to get a late round pick for a player the team was going to lose at the end of the season; however, had they figured out the tight end depth chart sooner, they could have dealt Davis during training camp and received better compensation. Replacing Jordan Devey with Andrew Tiller was weeks overdue, an error that was compounded by the knowledge that Tiller was originally cut before the season started and stuck on the practice squad. Trenton Brown clearly outplayed Erik Pears against Cincinnati, but he only entered the game because of an injury to backup left guard Marcus Martin. Gerald Hodges has generally outplayed Michael Wilhoite, but it took an injury to Wilhoite to put Hodges onto the field. The coaches could not find cause to keep Joe Looney (now a productive starter for the Titans), even thought the interior of the line has struggled all season.

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There has been a clear preference toward veteran players who consistently know where to be on the field, even when those players have demonstrated an inability to actually perform their job at their point of responsibility. The fear of mental errors by younger, more physically capable players has prevented this staff from allowing those younger players from getting the very experience that they need to fine tune technique and prevent further mental lapses. Knowing where to be 100% of the time means very little when a player can only get there and do their job correctly 50-60% of the time. Knowing where to be 80% of the time and being physically capable of performing the assigned task correctly 80% of the time allows for an overall success rate of 64%, with obvious room for improvement. One could make a compelling argument that the inability to get the best players on the field all season has been the most significant contributing factor to this lost season. A counter-argument could easily be made that the parade of losses should be blamed on an inability of the coaching staff to put these players in the best positions to succeed when they are on the field, which would rely heavily upon…


In order for a teacher to ensure student success, they must be assured that the skills they are imparting to the students are vital to their success during the current and subsequent scholastic years. Wasting time by teaching unnecessary skills prevents adequate teaching time for skills that will be vital to current and continued understanding of concepts. Teaching skills out of sequence can be more confusing than instructive, and teaching skills out of context can make those skills seem so abstract that a student will fail to access those skills when they are needed. Teachers must constantly assess their students' mastery of the concepts that they are currently tasked with learning, as moving on from a concept that is not completely comprehended to a new concept can jeopardize the ability of the student to properly understand and employ both the current concept and the new concept that is being introduced prematurely.

As a coach, planning involves selecting plays, protections, route schemes, pressure packages, run fits, and coverages that negate strengths and exploit weaknesses that have been noted in the film of the current opponent. Those points of emphasis receive significant preparatory time during the practice week, as the team looks to utilize those specific concepts to their advantage during the majority of the game. Failing to properly identify weaknesses in the opponent will make it more difficult to scheme for that opponent. Misunderstanding which concepts should properly exploit the weaknesses presented by an opposing team will waste limited practice and preparation time, while presenting new weaknesses for the opponent to exploit.

This defensive staff has failed mightily at planning. Mangini overloaded the defense with too many concepts, resulting in busted coverages and a storm of chunk plays for opposing offenses. The defense performed better when fewer schemes were used and concepts were mastered at a manageable pace, but games were lost in bunches before that fairly obvious mistake was rectified. The failure of the defense to perform in away games points directly to deficiencies in planning for games outside of Santa Clara. The defense leads the league in points allowed at home, indicating that there is significant talent on the defensive roster to stop opposing offenses. Levi's Stadium does not provide a home field advantage that would account for the ~15 points per game discrepancy.

Offensively, the team has struggled in the first quarter all season, indicating that the initial game plan may have been a poor fit for the opponent in every week of the season. While the improved production of the offense later in each game may indicate successful in-game adjustments, this is not a team that can afford to be ineffective on offense at the beginning of every game. It is inexcusable to lean heavily upon deep sideline throws against a team like Seattle, since the Seahawks (specifically CB Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor) defend deep sideline throws better than any team in the league. The Seahawks' suffocating pass rush can force quarterbacks to rush those throws or attempt those throws off of their back foot, affecting accuracy and timing to the point that the likelihood of costly turnovers outweighs the potential for accumulating yards in chunks. It is ridiculous to not use routes that feature lateral misdirection against a team that has repeatedly been exposed for difficulty in changing directions. Failing to stress long-striding CBs like Richard Sherman with multiple horizontal breaks by quicker receivers. Successful offenses have sustained drives against the Seahawks by exploiting this weakness, and it is appalling that the 49ers apparently were unable to either diagnose or scheme to exploit this flaw in a team they should be familiar with. Knowing that the offensive line has struggled to protect either starting quarterback should lead an offensive staff to pick up yards creatively on first and second downs, so that the offense does not have to throw predictable, long-developing pass plays on third down. Instead, the 49ers offense finds itself perpetually in third-and-long scenarios, due to predictable first down play calling.


Without grading curves or extra credit, it looks like this staff is heading to summer school. Regardless of Jim Tomsula's popularity in the locker room and within the front office, one point out of three possible is always going to be 33.3%, and that's good for an F- in any school. Jim Tomsula is not succeeding at the task that was identified as the most vital component of a successful 49ers coach: be a teacher.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Jay
    Fire Tomsula
    Jan 3, 2016 at 5:20 PM
  • Football Fan
    How about them Cardinals!
    Jan 2, 2016 at 2:15 PM
  • Sign me up
    I had a series of odd jobs too, so I guess I'm also qualified to coach for the Niners.
    Dec 30, 2015 at 5:27 PM
  • Coach Phoenix
    Make a sign that says we want Holmgren and fly it over the field.
    Dec 28, 2015 at 3:51 PM
  • mbniner
    Tomsula was a great teacher as a Defensive Line coach. He routinely improved the play of unknown players and also got the best out of his superstar players. However, as a Head Coach he is struggling. A big part of it is in the selection of his Coordinators. Mangini has managed to improve his unit as the season progressed, but Christ and the Special Teams Coach have not gotten out of the rut. The offense, especially is pathetic. As a Head coach, Tomsula should set the overall philosophy, motivate the players, and insert himself into the Coordinators areas if problems occur and it is necessary. The real teaching comes at the Coordinator/ Position Coach level. Of course, the Head Coach is also the voice of the team to the media and public. Has he done his job? I don't know and I don't think any of us have any knowledge of that. From the outside, it looks like he failed in changing the offensive strategy and personnel (waiting too long to replace poor players with younger ones) and the game planning/ game adjustments. He probably should have fired Christ at mid-season. He certainly struggles with the media presentations but Belichick isn't exactly Mr. Communication.
    Dec 28, 2015 at 2:14 PM
  • Vic
    HC isn't a teacher that's why you have position coaches. He has to be able to evaluate talent and pick people who give him the shot to win he falls way short
    Dec 27, 2015 at 7:18 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    I apologize for calling Jim Tomsula "The Fluffer". I was wrong. He can't get anyone up to play a ballgame.
    Dec 27, 2015 at 4:09 PM
  • Jed York
    Winning With Stupidity, Baby!!
    Dec 27, 2015 at 10:03 AM
  • Kevin Stench aka Mr Magoo
    Whats wrong with Tomsula? He is a fine head coach and has more potential to raise a superbowl banner than Jim Harbaugh ever did. I'm glad the Yorks fired Harbaugh.
    Dec 25, 2015 at 9:15 PM
  • ant CHon
    the dorks have underestimated the importance of good coaching, They still cant tell the difference between a good coach and not so good coach.
    Dec 25, 2015 at 8:48 PM
  • Kurtis
    The organization is too muddled with fingerprints. York needs to focus on everything other than football operations. A football mind needs to be hired as President. The organization needs defined leadership from top to bottom. As for Baalke, he's responsible for giving Tomsula what he has to work with. The roster is depleted and that is 100% on Baalke. All the offensive lineman drafted or signed by Baalke have been busts or not on the roster anymore. Only Carlos Hyde has panned out at RB, and saying that is a bit of a stretch. It's tough to define your team as a "running team" with an incapable offensive line and only one running back on the roster who can handle the load efficiently when healthy. As for the passing game, we don't really know what our young receivers are capable of. Game plans need to be adjusted because the line can't give a clean pocket. Without a running game and without pass protection, it's tough to game plan a successful passing attack. I agree the coaching staff has been behind the 8-ball all year, but it's difficult to slam Tomsula with the trash he's been given. That being said, I want York to step aside, a new President, a new GM, and a new coaching staff
    Dec 25, 2015 at 6:33 PM
    Response: It's fair to question the depth at several positions, but I think the OL was set up to succeed even after the draft. If Davis had not taken a year off (and announced he was doing so after the draft) and Kilgore had not struggled a significant setback in his post-surgical recovery (also discovered after the draft), the 49ers would undoubtedly struggle less on offense.
  • Lucky Phil
    Happy Holidays Every Buuuuddy!! And F#@k You Jed York.
    Dec 25, 2015 at 1:37 PM
  • michael
    BI'll Walsh was a teacher,George Siefer was a teacher,Jim Harbaugh was a teacher Sukula is no teacher.
    Dec 24, 2015 at 3:08 PM
  • RishikeshA
    Thanks for the in depth analysis Aaron. It seems the only people on the planet that think Tomsula is a teacher and the answer for the 49ers is the York family.
    Dec 24, 2015 at 2:07 PM
  • Dave Barnes
    To carry this appraisal one step further if you have a coach who rates an F- and it your job to help select a coach, as GM Baalke also rates an F-
    Dec 24, 2015 at 11:51 AM
    Response: Was it York or Baalke that chose Tomsula. I'm sure we won't know the true answer to that question anytime soon, but there were numerous reports that Baalke favored Adam Gase, while York was set on Tomsula. Again, not sure we'll ever know the truth about that one.
  • Mr.P
    This is the analysis I've been waiting for, thank you. One of the few articles that roll out the pros and cons on the table and see what is there (rather than rant from a predisposed position - which is weakness) I do wonder if Tomsula's position is more of a motivator/manager/overall strategy while the coordinators set the game plans. Agree on the late to swap positions, but I wonder if it fits his "player first" concept in that when he commits - he stays loyal. I have to wonder if Tomsula's philosophy is a good one, but not good for overall football.
    Dec 24, 2015 at 10:22 AM
  • Niner
    Sadly a person doesn't know what he doesn't know. A fool does not acknowledge this. Jed know nothing about football and only parrots what people tell him. His asinine remarks like kap runs 80 yards for tds, teacher, like the Warriors, gab coach great etc... Shows he has to have people explain the game to him. His problem instead of the mooches, harbaugh's etc.. Who win he listens to the baaljes nolan and sings. If he had any humility instead of a nepolian complex, he would hire a president of football operations to run everything. Baalke is still telling him how only the wise can see his new clothes!
    Dec 24, 2015 at 9:44 AM
  • Abe
    Well said. Tomsula and crew have been a total failure!! God help us if he returns.
    Dec 24, 2015 at 9:34 AM
  • Phil C.
    While Tomsula is certainly deserving of a chunk of the blame, you also have to blame the coordinators and position coaches. The only coach I think who's really coached up to their abilities, if not overachieved, has been Tom Rathman. Even with his 3 main RBs down, he's managed to take guys off the street like Shawn Draughan and made them effective, and we know about the job he's done converting Bruce Miller from a defensive player to a solid fullback. Tim Lewis has also done a pretty good job with a very young secondary. Scott Brown has also done a decent job; Quinton Dial has made huge strides, and Arik Armstead has shown steady progress. But all the other coaches have been average at best, if not subpar.
    Dec 24, 2015 at 9:16 AM

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