From the sidelines during his rehab of his injured knee, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said he noticed something significant about his team that contributed to the disappointing season in 2014.
"When you used to come to work and see a type of behavior, whether it’s practice or the meeting rooms, everyone follows. And we lost that a little bit this year. That’s obvious," Bowman said in December when briefly elevated to the 53-man roster before going back on injured reserve to continue his rehab.
Bowman was referencing the absence of himself and veteran leader Patrick Willis, who elected season-ending surgery on a big toe in November rather than risking making the injury worse. The defense still played well without its two All-Pro inside linebackers, finishing as the fifth-ranked unit in the NFL.
But in the context of going from Jim Harbaugh to first-year head coach Jim Tomsula, Bowman’s words underscore an important point. The team was missing veteran leadership and it led to some bad habits formed on the practice field and in the film room.
Ultimately, the 49ers missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons leading to Harbaugh now coaching at the University of Michigan and Tomsula getting an unprecedented promotion from defensive line coach to the head job.
Which is why it’s critical the 49ers do what they can to get back free-agent running back Frank Gore, 31, and convince defensive end Justin Smith, 35, not to retire and provide leadership to counterbalance Tomsula’s lack of experience from the top.
Tomsula and general manager Trent Baalke have both indicated this week at the scouting combine talks are ongoing with Gore and they would like to have him back. For Smith, the waters are bit murkier, although he has been a regular in the weight room at the team’s practice facility this offseason. Smith has one year left on his contract, making $6.44 million.
"He’s earned the right to make decisions on his terms. The guy’s had an unbelievable career," Tomsula said of Smith Thursday. "So, out of respect for Justin, I’ve told him that I will not try to talk him into anything and I will not try to talk him out of anything.
"...I usually get with Justin after the Combine and when we get back. That’s usually when he and I usually shoot the bologna."
Gore is the 49ers' most dynamic offensive leader. Not because he’s vocal, but because of the example he sets, both in the offseason and during the year. At 31, common sense said he would tail off significantly in 2014. But he finished the season with 302 combined rushing yards over his last two games, averaging nearly six yards a carry, after the 49ers had been eliminated from playoff contention.
"I think I’ve been asked that question for five straight years now," Baalke said. "Frank’s just the Energizer battery, he just keeps on ticking. The last two games of the season, I think you saw what Frank still has left in the tank."
Gore finished with 1,106 rushing yards, good for his seventh 1,100-yard season in his 10-year career.
"Let’s not overlook that he is a prolific running back in the National Football League. I’m a big Frank Gore guy," Tomsula said. "So, I know those talks are ongoing now, are starting this week along with all of our free agents."
Smith has dealt with arm, shoulder and back injuries in recent seasons, and could decide his body has taken too much of a beating over his career to come back for a 15th season.
If Smith were to hang it up, the 49ers would become very young along the defensive line, leaving 29-year-old Glenn Dorsey as the elder statesman of the group. Tank Carradine is 26, Quinton Dial is 24, Tony Jerod-Eddie is 24, and Ian Williams is 25. Ray McDonald, 30, the starter opposite Smith for the last four seasons, was released in December following his second arrest involving an alleged incident with a woman since August.
Tomsula appeared much more comfortable in front of the media throng Thursday at the combine than he was at his introductory press conference last month, jokingly saying “we’ll try this again” when he first approached the podium.
"I didn’t do a good job," Tomsula said of his introduction. "(49ers director of communications Bob] Bobby (Lange) was trying to get me to go to bed that night and I didn’t. Anyway, I’m driving him crazy. He called me three times last night to make sure I went to bed. So, we’ll do better at that."
Tomsula may never be refined when it comes to dealing with the media, where Harbaugh was playing at near-expert levels during his time in San Francisco. But the question remains if Tomsula's lack of refinement will bleed into the way he commands a room with his players. Tomsula is one of four head coaches in the NFL without experience as an NFL coordinator.
"I do have experience doing that in the Europe League and doing those things. I don’t have a problem there. And when I’m up here I have to watch my manners and watch my language and try to make sure that I’m nice and polite. So, that’s what I’ve got to get better at," Tomsula said.
Experience will breed confidence for Tomsula when it comes to public speaking. And winning games could ease those pressures. The transition to Tomsula would be made easier if he received endorsements from Gore and Smith. Those players have to the power to swing the opinion of others that might not be enamored with losing Harbaugh or defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who many defensive players backed during the team’s coaching search, including Bowman.
Gore has said, repeatedly, he wants to win a championship in 2015, which could be his final season in the NFL. If Gore returns to the 49ers, it could be a significant boost for Tomsula, who will take all the support he can get entering the most pressure-packed season of his football life.