Jed York

Why Jim Tomsula’s first press conference matters

Jim Tomsula San Francisco 49ers

Predictably, there was a reaction from some 49ers fans that was very anti-media and very pro-coach after Jim Tomsula’s first attempt at a full-fledged NFL press conference. Generally speaking, it went along the lines of, “Who cares if he’s articulate in a press conference setting, the only thing that matters is whether he can coach.”

On its face, this is absolutely true. If Tomsula wins the NFC West in his first year on the job, the choice to promote him from the ranks of position coach will be deemed successful. If Tomsula’s skills lead to the players improving on an individual level while showing more cohesiveness on the field under his watch, the 49ers will look like geniuses for pulling off such an unconventional coaching transition.

Yet here’s the problem: we don’t know anything about what’s going to happen, so those supporting him based on what he might do are basing their feelings on hope and anecdotal evidence — a few NFL video packages starring Tomsula, player quotes that speak to his desirable qualities as a teacher and leader, and his performance as defensive line coach.

  • We don’t know if Tomsula has any idea what he’s doing from an Xs and Os perspective.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula has any idea what offense he’s going to run.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula can manage an enormous group of NFL players and coaches.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula has a plan in place for scheduling and running practices/meetings.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula has a handle on game-management.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula can keep an entire team engaged and together for an entire season, let alone four.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula can attract the kind of staff he needs to put together game plans and call plays.
  • We don’t know if Tomsula campaigned for the job behind closed doors while Jim Harbaugh was still the team’s coach.

We don’t know any of these things, and to make a judgment either way either paints one as either an unabashed homer or an uninformed skeptic. We simply … don’t … know. We have very little to go on as far as concrete, evidence-based conclusions go.

HERE’S WHAT WE KNOW

We know Tomsula wanted the job for a while, as he made that clear during Thursday’s press conference.

“Cam (Inman), I’ll tell you what, my particular instance of it, I got some workouts, I got some film done and I got to see a lot of karate and I really enjoyed that part of it,” said Tomsula.

“But I’m not going to stand here and tell you that (I didn’t) try to stay off the (TV). I told my wife I wasn’t exercising because the TV is in front of the elliptical. I didn’t want to sit there and look at it. Yeah, it’s something that, you know you go through life and sometimes you’re afraid to want something and you find yourself going into that ebb and flow. So, sometimes (I thought about it), but it was always honest.”

Well, maybe “clear” is a little strong, but thinking about whether or not he’d get the job made him nervous. He was nervous during the press conference, and seemed close to paralysis during a televised interview with CSN Bay Area’s Jim Kozimor, to the point where his grunts and stammering deflections of basic questions became a national punchline.

I can sense the rebuttal coming …

That’s rude, that’s unfair, that’s kicking an unpolished man when he’s struggling, that’s pointing and laughing at a guy who’s REAL, a guy who doesn’t come off like a public relations pro playing the role of football coach. 

And yes, I can easily see why many would experience these reactions in the aftermath of what happened Thursday afternoon — especially because he seems like a nice enough fellow. But we know so little about Tomsula’s head coaching chops, and he showed a fundamental flaw in his first day on the job. This is a correctable flaw, but it’s one we cannot ignore.

Before I dive in, a few thoughts about being an NFL head coach, something I wouldn’t be qualified to do in a million lifetimes.

Ahem.

The position has morphed over the years — back when teams didn’t have extensive video libraries on every practice squad player throughout the league, a talented head coach could create every play, choose every player, write each game plan, and still find ways to thrive. Now, there’s just too much. Too much money, too many responsibilities, too many eyes and cameras on every game and interview, too many egos. Some head coaches may shoulder different responsibilities than others, but one quality is necessary for each person who holds the job.

Head coaches must be prepared. For everything.

Head coaches have to have contingency plans in place for injuries, schematic shifts from opponents that have never before been seen … you get the picture. The players spoke so highly of Vic Fangio because he gave them information each week that made their jobs easier on Sundays and Mondays. Every NFL team (well, just about every NFL team) is stocked with “talented” players. It’s always best to have intelligent players who can adjust on the fly, but players who know what’s coming are ahead of the game.

Now Tomsula goes from something he did well (preparing defensive linemen with the perfect counter-move to whatever the offensive linemen they were to face that week were likely to do) to preparing an entire team to face well-coached squads on a weekly basis (particularly in the 49ers’ own division). This is a tremendous leap of faith taken by Jed York and Trent Baalke that Tomsula can handle this new role, and on Thursday he showed no preparatory skills going into something that — like it or not — is most certainly part of the job in 2015.

These were not tricky questions that Tomsula faced. These questions were completely expected by just about everybody in the room, seemingly besides the man expected to provide answers.

This is more of an indictment on Tomsula’s style than content. Jack Del Rio didn’t exactly give out state secrets yesterday at Raiders headquarters, but he knew the questions were coming and had a full grip on how he’d present his points — vague as they were at times.

Tomsula didn’t seem well-prepared for questions about coordinators, basic strategy, or how he ended up with the job. Being tired or nervous isn’t an excuse in this case, because he’s in for a life of 100-hour workweeks and situations far more pressure-packed than Thursday’s scene. His best excuse may be that he was coached before the press conference on which talking points he needed to hammer, and attempting to stick to a script (while seated between two rigid bosses, staring lasers through his skull as he meandered through his responses) kept his true personality from shining through. However, the life of an NFL head coach is all about navigating through difficulties — the ability to adapt on the fly is paramount.

First impressions in this case aren’t as important as the impression the 49ers leave in Week 1 of their next season. This is blatantly obvious, and the main point made by those who say press conferences don’t matter. And it’s certainly possible that he’ll get better at handling his media responsibilities as time goes on (to be fair, he’s been dynamite during some radio interviews I’ve heard over the years, and he’s a good talker in smaller settings).

But with so many unknowns about Tomsula’s upcoming tenure, and the amount of time he had to imagine how his first press conference as head coach of the 49ers would go (he’s only been rumored as Harbaugh’s successor for several months), it was alarming that he seemed like a guy winging it on his first day.

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