This is my Friday column.
Halfway through 49ers’ training camp, these are the biggest differences from last year:
The mechanics of calling plays during practice
Jim Harbaugh would stand in the middle of the huddle and call the play while holding a diagram of it. The quarterback would just watch, a passive observer like the offensive linemen and everyone else.
Harbaugh was the de facto quarterback in the huddle during practice. It’s like he stole one of the quarterback’s duties because he still wanted to be a player.
The new coaching staff calls plays differently during practice. Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst whispers the play to quarterbacks coach Steve Logan on the sideline, Logan radios the play via walkie-talkie to the quarterback on the field, and the quarterback calls the play in the huddle — almost exactly the way they’ll call plays during games.
Wednesday afternoon, a reporter asked Colin Kaepernick how calling plays himself in the huddle has helped him.
“It allows the players to have confidence in hearing your voice and you’re the one that’s going to be giving them direction on the field,” Kaepernick said. “It’s something that I think every quarterback should have the ability to do.”
In other words, what in the world was Harbaugh doing?
The pace of practice
Harbaugh’s practices during training camp would last at least three hours, and he didn’t use a play clock. The team would run a play, Harbaugh would whistle it dead, then he’d yell out which hash mark to place the ball on, then he’d yell out a personnel grouping, and players would run on and off the field, then he’d call the play in the huddle.
This process between plays could take longer than a minute. It was Harbaugh’s time to shine and sometimes he’d drag it out.
The new coaching staff actually uses a play clock during team drills. Once a play ends, the play clock resets and starts ticking down from 40 seconds, the players immediately huddle up, Kaepernick calls the play and everyone gets to the line of scrimmage with about 28 seconds remaining.
Meaning the average time between plays is about 12 seconds.
The result? Two-hour practices.
The ultimate result: The team appears better prepared for games.
The sound of practice
Harbaugh was constantly blowing his whistle or yelling. Sometimes he’d yell so much he’d lose his voice. He loved being in charge, and he exercised his authority every minute.
Tomsula almost never yells. He folds his arms across his chest, puts his hand over his mouth and occasionally speaks in hushed tones to one of his coordinators or general manager Trent Baalke.
No one yells or blows a whistle during practice anymore. Everyone uses their inside voices. You’d think they were playing in a library. This may be an excellent development, or it may be a false step. Football Sunday takes place on a field, not the reading room of the Santa Clara library.
The intensity of practice
Harbaugh’s practices were sink or swim. Play hard and play well, or get exposed.
One of Harbaugh’s favorite ways to expose a player was through one-on-one competition. Each day of training camp receivers and cornerbacks faced each other one on one, and the entire team stood and watched. So everyone knew who the winners and losers were.
In 2012, Harbaugh humiliated rookie wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with this drill. Jenkins stunk — he almost never won — and Harbaugh made him do it every day. Sink or swim, A.J.
Tomsula doesn’t kill his players’ confidence. The Niners have done one-on-one receiver and cornerback drills only a couple of times during training camp this year, and only for a couple of minutes. Practices are focused on teamwork and not individual competition.
As a result, no players have fought each other yet. There seemed to be a fight every few days under Harbaugh.
The result of this new style is unclear. The Niners may have happier players, but players who aren’t as tough.
Location of practice
Harbaugh pulled his players off the field at Levi’s Stadium the first time one of them slipped on the grass the first time they practiced there during training camp. It’s like he couldn’t wait to the pull them off field. It’s like he enjoyed it.
Harbaugh had no allegiance to the grass or Jed York’s ego. Harbaugh seemed eager to make his owner look bad.
The grass at Levi’s Stadium seems even worse this year, but the team has practiced on it three out of five practices. Wednesday evening, rookie running back Mike Davis made a cut on the grass, it gave way and his knee buckled. He stayed down for a few seconds. Luckily, he was OK.
Tomsula didn’t pull the team off the field.
Harbaugh would have. He would have done it Day 1. He’s confrontational by nature. Tomsula wants to please the owner, and he wants to stay with the 49ers. He has two daughters in high school — he doesn’t want to move them.
“One goal we always had was we wanted our girls to be able to go to one high school,” Tomsula told me in June. “We said we can move freshman year or sophomore year, but once they were in their junior year you start talking about proms and all that stuff you do. If it was any way possible, we wanted to be in one spot. When Brittney was a junior, Brooke was a freshman. When Brittney is a senior, Brooke is a sophomore. So we weren’t moving. We were staying right here as long as they would have us.”
Tomsula is political by nature, a mediator and a problem solver. Harbaugh is confrontational by nature and a problem creator. It remains to be seen which approach will work better for the 49ers.
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.