Here is my Saturday column.
Jim Tomsula wears a black 49ers tracksuit with red sleeves and a gold zipper on the upper left arm during Thursday’s OTA. He tucks the jacket of the track suit into his polyester pants.
Jim Harbaugh wore khakis, a sweater and a baseball cap during practice when he was the 49ers’ head coach. He looked like a giant kid who had sneaked out of parents’ house to play football with his buddies. Tomsula looks like Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos.
Harbaugh put himself in the thick of the action during practice. He’d participate in drills. He’d turn his cap backward and kick footballs when the special teams practiced blocking punts. He’d run routes with the tight ends and he’d fall sometimes. He laughed at himself. He kept things light.
Tomsula does not participate in drills. He stands very seriously in the middle of the practice field while the individual position groups warm up around the edges. Stands with his arms folded across his chest, hair slicked back, a wad of tobacco in his mouth while he rotates in a slow circle, spitting occasionally like a lawn sprinkler.
Tomsula is an overseer. Bill Walsh was an overseer, too. Like God, they’re the ultimate authority watching over your every move.
When Tomsula speaks, he speaks in whispers to his top assistants, his prophets — offensive coordinator Geep Chryst and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini. They make the rounds to the various position coaches and whisper Tomsula’s whispers to them.
Tomsula rarely talks directly to players anymore. He used to when he was the defensive line coach under Harbaugh. Now, Tomsula delegates the talking. The position coaches teach the players, the ball boys call out plays for the offense and defense during seven-on-sevens and 11-on-11s, and a trainer blows an air horn between drills.
For the most part, Tomsula’s practices are quiet.
Occasionally, he yells. Early during Thursday’s OTA, he felt the quarterbacks and running backs took too long to start a drill. “You just wasted a minute and a half!” Tomsula yelled from 50 yards away.
Other times, he would yell, “Tempo!” as if admonishing an orchestra if he thought they were moving too slow.
Tomsula spoke above a whisper about three or four times total during practice on Thursday. If you weren’t looking for him, you wouldn’t have known he was there.
When Harbaugh led the Niners’ practice, no way could you miss him. He stood in the middle of huddles. He called out the plays. He called them, not the quarterback. Between every single snap, he yelled “left hash!” or “right hash!” indicating where the offense should spot the ball.
And he blew a whistle. Each whistle was a different command the players understood. He was the ringmaster of a circus.
Harbaugh coached an old-school, Big-Ten, 1970s offense. A power-running offense with sumo-style blocking. Grab the guy in front of you and push him back. Impose your will. That’s Harbaugh’s style.
None of that took place at Thursday’s OTA. During drills, five offensive linemen at a time would crouch into three-point stances. When Chris Foerster, the new offensive line coach, yelled, “Hut,” all five offensive linemen started sprinting to their right.
That’s zone blocking: outflank the defense and stretch them to create lanes for the running back. It’s a finesse style that requires fast offensive linemen, not powerful ones.
It’s the running game Mike Shanahan made famous. He used it when he coached the Denver Broncos and most recently when he coached the Washington Redskins. Foerster was Shanahan’s offensive line coach in Washington, and Foerster seems to be teaching Shanahan’s techniques to the 49ers.
One more little difference.
Tomsula is incorporating even more finesse into the offense. He’s bringing back the screen pass. The Niners almost never ran this play under Harbaugh, in practice or in games.
It was the first pass play the Niners ran Thursday afternoon. Colin Kaepernick threw a screen to Reggie Bush.
A screen is like a judo move. The offense doesn’t impose its will, it simply uses the defense’s aggressiveness against them, lets the defense rush wildly at the quarterback. Just before they hit him, he throws a little dinker over their heads to a running back.
It’s a classic Bill Walsh play that should never have left the 49ers’ playbook. Good for Tumsula for bringing it back.
The Niners have a new-look offense to match their new-look coach. Time will tell if little differences mean a lot.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.