SANTA CLARA, Calif. - With Jim Harbaugh likely coaching the last two games of an unprecedented tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, speculation - sourced or otherwise - has run rampant about who will be guiding the ship in 2015.
The leading internal candidate appears to Jim Tomsula, the team's talented defensive line coach that is one of the most respected voices in the building. Tomsula was given mop-up duty at the end of the 2010 season after the 49ers fired Mike Singletary, coaching the team to it's final win of the year over the Arizona Cardinals.
Tomsula's 1.000 winning percentage is tied for the best in NFL history - a fun note that's a product of winning the only game he's coached.
But given Tomsula doesn't have NFL experience as a coordinator, his resume may give pause to fans thinking back to Singletary's failings after he became San Francisco's leading man after being a position coach with no coordinator experience.
That will be the knock on Tomsula's resume. Because so much is made of X's and O's at the NFL level, Tomsula doesn't have a track record that would indicate he can formulate game plans, manage the clock and make adjustments at a high enough level for the 49ers to return to Super Bowl contention.
Perhaps San Francisco's brass believes he can, or they can hire the right assistants to help in those areas. But there are plenty of questions and variables at play, which will bring hesitation from a fan base likely to lose its most revered head coach since George Seifert in 1996.
If Tomsula is the hire, then 49ers execs will point to his stint with NFL Europe, where he was head coach of the Rein Fire in 2006, coaching the team to a 6-4 record and gaining a reputation for developing talent. In the two seasons prior, he was defensive coordinator for the Berlin Thunder, winning a championship with one of the league's best defenses.
But a successful run in the NFL Europe will not bring much excitement from 49ers fans after losing the first coach in NFL history to reach three-straight conference title games.
This year is Tomsula's eighth in the NFL, all coming with the 49ers. Under his watch, San Francisco has developed one of the league's best defensive fronts, while Tomsula became one of the most respected assistants in the league.
Tomsula could be the untapped savant that has the ability to coach a championship-caliber team while managing relationships with the front office effectively. Or not. But that's clearly the area that's become Harbaugh's downfall.
When comparing resumes, the team's defensive coordinator Vic Fangio seems far more ripe for a head coaching job, if the 49ers are looking to hire internally.
After all, it's Fangio's defense that's the third-ranked unit in the NFL that's will play without least seven starters since last January's conference title game Saturday, including All-Pro inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, on top of Aldon Smith's nine-game suspension and replacing three starters in the secondary.
Fangio's been in the league for 28 seasons, with more than three times the experience of Tomsula. He interviewed with Washington during the postseason last winter before the team decided on Jay Gruden.
Given his body work and tactical experience as a coordinator, why isn't Fangio the leading candidate to take the 49ers' head coaching job?
A few guesses:
First, the 49ers aren't holding much leverage when it comes to a potential trade of Jim Harbaugh. Fangio could be that chip.
Harbaugh must sign off on any trade, and his chances of bringing Fangio with him to his new team are slim to none if he's not traded. San Francisco will use Fangio as sweetener for a potential trade, giving Harbaugh incentive to endorse such a deal. Otherwise, Harbaugh would be with a new team having to scramble for a defensive staff if the 49ers don't allow Fangio out of his contract.
If Harbaugh does not sign off on a deal, he could force the 49ers to fire him. In that scenario, San Francisco would still be responsible for next year's $5 million salary, even if he went back to coach Michigan. The only way the 49ers won't be responsible for Harbaugh's salary in 2015 is by finding a trade.
And Fangio will be coveted in such a trade when teams look at San Francisco's successes of 2011 through 2013. The 49ers' reached contention on the back of the defense, not necessarily Harbaugh's offense. Bringing in Fangio would allow Harbaugh's new team confidence in being able to replicate that success. Harbaugh's never had a bad defensive team in the NFL, and he hasn't proven his offense can carry a team to contention by itself. That's where Fangio could give San Francisco trade value for Harbaugh.
Second, Fangio's name might not top the list of internal candidates because he might be overly honest when it comes to speaking publicly. Fangio is never afraid to tell the press what's going on with his players, good or bad. While it's refreshing to writers, it's not ideal from a front office perspective.
Harbaugh is notoriously positive when speaking about all his players, even those who didn't deserve it (A.J. Jenkins, Jon Baldwin, etc.). Fangio has never been afraid to let writers know who came into training camp overweight (Ahmad Brooks), who was struggling to learn his assignments (Tank Carradine), and who might be struggling in pass coverage (Chris Borland).
Any front office would advice against going public with where the team's weaknesses are. And that's probably something that would give the front office pause when considering Fangio as a head coach.
Fangio came in as apart of Harbaugh's staff. He was not a coach the front office handpicked themselves. Tomsula's lasted through three coaching changes. He is a 49ers guy, through and through.
Fangio is a nomad, having coached for six different NFL teams - and Stanford - in various capacities since 1986. This is purely speculative, but perhaps there's a reason he hasn't stuck on an NFL staff for longer than three seasons since 1994, when he was the linebackers coach with the New Orleans Saints for nine years.
If Harbaugh's volatile situation has highlighted anything, it's his inability to cultivate and maintain relationships with superiors. There's no telling whether or not Fangio has a similar problem. Again, just a guess.
And perhaps Tomsula's equity with the front office will be key to rebuilding a contender - at least in the eyes of the front office.
But if Tomsula is the hire, it won't be the popular one among fans.
It's becoming clear. The front office believes long-term winning is about the environment, cultivated by relationships - giving Tomsula the edge. Team executives must believe Harbaugh's relationships inside that building are not conducive to long-term success if they are so willing to get rid of him after his unprecedented success.
That's what hiring the next head coach will be about, whether fans like the hire on paper, or not.