Jim Tomsula was put into an impossible situation when Jed York and Trent Baalke named him successor to Jim Harbaugh — you remember him, just the most successful 49ers head coach since George Seifert — nearly one year ago, and San Francisco’s many failings in 2015 do not lie exclusively with him. But is he equipped to pull the 49ers out of the NFL dungeon in 2016 and beyond?
Before we can attempt to answer that question (and I’m sure many of you already have), we need to understand the depths to which the 49ers have fallen. Tomsula’s squad secured their 10th defeat of the season this past Sunday in a mostly empty Levi’s Stadium at the hands of an AJ McCarron-led Bengals team in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 24-14 final score suggested. The loss ensured San Francisco’s worst season since 2010, and kept them on track for their most futile effort since a 4-12 campaign to kick off the Mike Nolan-Alex Smith era back in 2005. And as bad as it must feel for this team, with their unrealistically high internal expectations before the season, to look at the standings after 14 games, San Francisco’s four wins somehow oversell how well this team has actually played.
More advanced measures of team performance than simple win-loss record, such as Football Outsiders’s DVOA and ESPN’s Football Power Index, place the 49ers as the worst team in football by a comfortable margin, and their league-worst point differential is a big reason why. San Francisco has been outscored by 137 points, giving them the point differential of a 3.2-win team at this point of the season.
Teams that outperform their expected win total based on point differential, more commonly referred to as Pythagorean expectation, tend to do so because of some good fortune in close games. That’s exactly what we’ve seen from the 49ers this season. Three of their four wins have been in games decided by a touchdown or less. On the other side of the equation, only two of their 10 losses have come within the same margin; the 49ers’ average margin of defeat is an astounding 16.6 points.
Simply, we’re not talking about a competitive football team that’s suffered from some bad bounces in a few close contests — that would be a team with reason to be optimistic about their prospects in 2016. Tomsula’s 49ers have been one of the NFL’s worst teams and are fortunate to have scraped together even the four wins they have.
Now back to our question from the opening: Is Tomsula the man to turn things around in San Francisco?
There’s an endless amount of anecdotal evidence we could point to here just from the past couple weeks — from his clueless reaction to a leak gone bad in his post-game press conference after the Bengals game to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin pointing out the offense’s conservative nature to Joe Staley and Ahmad Brooks thinking the team overlooked the Browns to Tomsula’s switch to survival mode following that same loss — but I wanted to take a different approach.
Tomsula is hardly the first coach to start off his coaching tenure on the wrong foot. Are there any who experienced similar lows to Tomsula in their first season and managed to turn things around and find success with that same organization?
Thanks to research I did last year after the firing of Harbaugh, I had a good amount of data on coaching tenures from the past 20 years. I looked for head coaches whose team was outscored by more than 100 points in their first season, among coaches who were hired between 1994–2013, and came up with a sample of 27 coaches, which you can find in the table below.
The results aren’t encouraging if you’re a Jim Tomsula fan. Most of the coaches in our sample were given a second season to get things turned around, but few of them ever did. Only two coaches, Jim Mora and Jeff Fisher, would go on to win at least half of their games over their tenure and one of them was gifted Peyton Manning with the No. 1 overall selection in their first year and still couldn’t last more than four seasons. A few coaches from the 2009 class of hires would have one-off seasons of success but it didn’t last for any of them. In total, only 4-of-27 coaches (14.8%) ever produced a single season that placed them in the top half of the league by DVOA.
When you combine those results with everything else we’ve learned about Tomsula over the course of the season, it’s very difficult to come up with reasons why he should stay without sounding like an 8-year-old homer who got Tomsula’s autograph at training camp.
Tomsula doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the 49ers’ abysmal season — a lot of poor decisions and unexpected personnel changes led us to this moment — and it will take more than simply firing him to make the 49ers good again. It’s those built-in excuses that will likely earn Tomsula a second season in command.
The reality, however, is that Tomsula never should have been hired in the first place. The aforementioned research I did last January, before the 49ers had officially made their decision on who would become the franchise’s 19th head coach, pointed to Tomsula as the least qualified candidate. There’s a large portion of the job description that we don’t get to see from the outside, but nearly everything we’ve learned about him since his hiring supports that conclusion.
There’s no guarantee whoever the 49ers’ brass would hire as Tomsula’s replacement would be able to correct course and make this team perennial playoff contenders again, but it’s clear Tomsula is not that man. And the longer York and Baalke ignore this reality, the longer the 49ers will be stuck in the NFL’s basement.