49ers showing a new style of management in preseason work

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.

He sank.

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 grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 30 Comments

  1. There is no one approach to success. A lot of things have to come together and the Coaches have to figure out the best way to get the most out of their team. Harbaugh had one of the best winning percentages in NFL history for a first time HC in the league, and was top 5 overall, so obviously his way was working. The narrative I’m reading from a lot of people these days is that Harbaugh wore his team out, they were starting to tune him out etc, and yet there is no evidence whatsoever for any of it. They played a lot of games in his first 3 years with the deep playoff runs. That tends to wear a team out, and then when you look at all the injuries suffered last year, it explains why they took a step back. Harbaugh has his flaws in regards to his personality and ability to toe the company line, but he also possess’ the one key skill most valued in a HC: he wins. It doesn’t matter how quiet or well liked Tomsula is. The only measurement of success for him will be wins and it’s going to be a tall order to follow Harbaugh in that area.

    1. The problem was, that as long as JH was winning, they over looked his flaws, but once he lost and did not make the playoffs, those glaring faults stood out like a sore thumb.
      Coach Tomsula does not have many flaws, and his style is like a breath of fresh air.

      1. Seb we just can’t see his flaws yet. As you said once we start losing or the offense or defense doesn’t perform well there will be thousands of posts here about how he’s too soft, doesn’t demand enough, bows to ownership too much etc.

    2. The problem with Harbaugh was that everything was a competition. It was well documented that this included everything from on the field, in the weight room, meetings, and off the field where the players would engage in things like ping pong, squash etc.
      The reason this eventually was his demise was because players viewed this leadership as more self serving than the betterment of the player. He made them better players in years 1-2, but the constant message of win at everything becomes grinding. It becomes more of a job than a passion.
      These guys are pros and yes they are expected to win and win at all costs. But there is also the human element to coaching and that is showing that you do care about the welfare of the individual. Now I’m not saying Harbaugh didn’t, but many players did express that it was all about football with him morning, noon and night. Those type of coaches have a shelf life because their message begins to fade. Its too much of one thing and not enough about everything.
      Perfect examples of coaches whose messages run well for 3-4 years then they get moved on: Mike Ditka, Mike Keenan, PJ Carlisemo, Bill Parcells, Peter Laviolette, Jon Gruden.

  2. The inference that Tomsula was only doing York’s bidding by practicing in the stadium is pure speculation. Tomsula specifically said the decision was his. The more logical reasoning is that he wants the team to get used to playing in the stadium and the grass is probably never going to be perfect in there this season. You can’t hold games on the practice field.

    Of course, you don’t want to put players at unnecessary risk, but risk is part of football and the fact that there was only one noticeable slip is evidence that the field looked worse than it actually was.

    1. Also, do we forget the horrible condition of the field at Candlestick when the tide rolled in? The games went on anyway.

      1. The 49ers didn’t own Candlestick and they never practiced there. At Kezar they played on mud painted green.

    2. Matt,

      The field is a mess which is why they have cancelled this weekends open practice there.

  3. JH cut off his nose to spite his face when he practiced them so hard Cowboy got hurt by Iupati. look how that ended up. If Cowboy had been uninjured, the Niners could have won a couple more rings.

    1. ??? What are you talking about? When Did J Smith get hurt by Iupati? The only injury Smith had was the one at the Patriots. Players get injured at practice all the time. Its football.

      1. IICRC, This was put out long ago, and I remember the salient facts. Go research it if you doubt me. Cowboy did get hurt in the Pats game, but he was originally injured in practice, and JH practices were slugfests.

  4. I don’t see the purpose in mentioning Coach Tomsula’s family in an article about football practice. This article could have been just fine without the suggestion that Coach is making decisions that effect the whole team just to protect his own family from relocation. Bad form, Grant.

    1. Picky or prickly, You need to chill out. It was an innocuous mention to emphasize the desire for stability, and as a father of a daughter, I could relate to wanting her to have the best possible high school experience where they are surrounded by friends and acquaintances. His daughters have also experienced tumultuous years in Europe, where they moved from hotel to hotel, even with the team. They are part of the narrative for Tomsula, and they are relevant. Remember his first PC? He mentioned them practicing their times tables from the players, and the respect the players had for those little girls.

      1. Nah..it’s taking a shot at Coach T…Like’s he doesn’t care about safety..and only interested in staying at his place of residence…Once again taking a quote and putting it in a negative context to defame the man…

        1. Yep, He sure slammed Tomsula when he wrote that he was a mediator and problem solver.You can read whatever you want in this post, but I think it was full of insights, thoughtful, and spot on.

  5. The field is a problem. However, it makes perfect sense to me to have the players familiarize themselves with playing on it. It could help them gain more of a home field advantage. The players could select the proper cleats so they will not slip, and test their footing so they know how much torque they can exert without it slipping.
    I surmise that the field is too wet. I would hover a helicopter over the field to dry it out, then have field handlers run on it to test it out. If too dry, they can add moisture, but a drier field will not give way and create divots like a wet field does.

  6. I am amazed. Reading other sites, you would think that Grant Cohn is Vlad, Caligula and Machiavelli all rolled into one. It is common sport to take shots at him, and they do it relentlessly with gusto.
    Maybe he is guilty due to the sins of his father, and he does follow in his footsteps, but the vicious insults are getting a little tiring to me.
    I admit he is a little formulaic, but at least he says something and is not a kiss ass or a writer of puff pieces.
    Personally, I am enjoying this site. The other fans are articulate and knowledgeable. The trolls are identified and shouted down, and the posters are at least fans who want the Niners to succeed.

    1. I agree. Many times I disagree with Grant. His youth does in fact show through in many of his articles. But I for one am ok with that. This post by Grant was actually pretty good. His observations comparing JH to J. Tomsula was insightful. These are observations which a guy like Grant can pass along because he is there, working at this. What he observed was passed along to us. I learned something. I don’t necessarily have to agree with his conclusions, but I can get the underlying facts about what’s going on at Niner camp. I, for one, after hearing Tomsula’s comments on Aldon Smith, realize that he is high character, quality man. I think that can only help the team. It will be hard to measure how good a coach he will be this year based on the teams record alone for obvious reasons. It will be a totally different team this year.

      1. If Coach Tomsula can claw his way to the playoffs after all the losses, defections and retirements, he deserves to be the Coach of the year.

        1. Anyone should agree with that analysis, and I do. All he has to do is win and he’s got it made until he doesn’t win.

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