Did you ever question whether LB NaVorro Bowman could get back to this level?
"Well, I think anytime you come off an injury like that you don't know how it's going to respond and that's tough. What he did, what he's done, is really hard to do. It's hard to do physically. It's hard to do mentally. He's gotten progressively better. I remember the early parts of him practicing, just him going through and feeling the movements again. Just that process of simple things like change of direction where you're not thinking about it because a lot of the rehab is very defined and now he's got to react and that part of it. From where we were there to where he is now, I'm really happy for him, really, really happy for him and it's a great story."
Can you see that on the tape? I don't know if you overheard him talking about getting lower than he had been and twisting and turning. Is that evident when you think about Week 2, Week 3 NaVorro Bowman versus what he was able to do against the Bengals?
"Yeah, I thought last game was a really good indicator of how far he's come. You saw the play that he made out in space on the back. You saw the play that he made, they were running a counter back to our left-hand side where he was able to shed the blocker, drift past him and that fluidness has continually improved. But, those are two really good example of where he's come. Neither of those plays were easy to make and both of them I thought were good indications of his development and dealing with the injury or coming off the injury."
Has he gotten better as a leader this year?
"Yeah. I never thought that he wasn't good in that area. Again, my experience with him in that role was pretty limited because it was the outside looking in. But, he definitely has and everybody who is thrust into a more prominent role, there's growth throughout that process. But, he's spoken to the defense a couple different times. Like, on Saturday nights I've had him speak a little bit. Just a great message not just in terms of the short term, but the longer term and bigger picture and selflessness and all the things that whenever you put someone up in front of the group, you don't know what they are going to say. You love hearing them as a coach and you love hearing the sincerity from that player. It's not, it wasn't forced, it's what he felt."
When you were installing your defense, did you spend extra time with him so that he could in essence become an extension of the coaching staff?
"Well, we spend a lot of time together just because of his role. Initially no, because part of it was learning what everybody could do, could not do, getting to know things. And it wasn't that I spent less time than I would with a normal player in his position. Some of that too was not trying to press him too much early to do too much. I wanted him to do what he could do within the context of his recovery as opposed to putting more pressure on him to press I guess is the best term."
He's played so many snaps and last game every snap. Did he set out at the start of the season saying, "Eric, I want to be in there every snap?"
"Not like that, but it's a, players of Bo's caliber, great players that compete the way he does, they don't ever want to be off the field. It may be a package, it may be something that really makes sense, but they don't want to. There's very little give in that area, even if it's in their best interest."
How do you see the young guys absorbing the messages that he's given on those Saturday nights?
"Whenever you have someone speak, my philosophy is everybody is going to take a little something different from what's said. I like having guys say a few words, especially older guys, but I'll mix it up with the group just because there's so much that you're trying to do with young guys in terms of accelerating the development. Some of it can come through the coaching perspective, but some of it has got to come from the locker room. It's like kids on a bus and the parents aren't there. The other kids on the bus, the older kids can have a real effect on how they develop, how they act. I think each guy has kind of taken something a little different."
Have any of the young guys spoken in any meetings like that?
"Yeah we had, [S Jaquiski Tartt] JT spoke the other night. [DB] Jimmie's [Ward] spoken. [LB] Eli [Harold] said a few words, he was good, had different guys at different times."
Yesterday we were talking to Jimmie and Jaquiski and I was asking those guys that high draft stature, what kind of encouragement 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has given them and they pointed out that he comes down on the field and he'll help coach them up and even go over technique issues with them. Can you elaborate on what's the extent that Trent is on the field and does that interfere with what you guys are doing as coaches?
"No, I had like six jokes in reaction to that, but [49ers vice president of communications] Bob [Lange] didn't like any of them. Well, he liked them all, he just didn't like them for public consumption. Trent's always been on the field and he talks to all the guys. So, it's not like it's exclusively Jimmie and JT and most GMs that I've been around are the same way. They're vested not just from a picking players and putting together a roster, but also watching their development. It's a positive thing when you have a consistent message coming from all the different levels. I think that's a good thing. There are some GMs that I think, I haven't been everywhere, but may not be as present and maybe that works for their style. But, each guy is a little different and Trent's always been on the field at different points."
Have you ever felt in a situation like that where maybe a GM would be overstepping his bounds? Does it feel like as a coach maybe that's--?
"No, when you have that title, you really have, your bounds are different. It's the same thing if you're the owner or wherever you are in the structure. You have to look at the big picture. You have to look at everything and if you feel like there's something that needs to be said or that you feel like there's something that could help somebody, you're going to do it. I know as a head coach I would do it to different positions or different areas if I felt strongly about something or if I felt I wanted to communicate something to somebody."
Does Trent inform you or secondary coach Tim Lewis what coaching points he has for the guys on that day?
"No, no, I haven't gotten those bullet points."
Bengals TE Tyler Kroft's touchdown it seemed he beat a safety blitz, which you had called during the previous series in a similar situation in the red zone. Do you know what I'm talking about?
"Yeah, the one after the turnover?"
So, did you get the feeling that the Bengals were expecting you to call that blitz a second time and would you have liked that call back in retrospect?
"Every call that I call with a touchdown, I want back. I really do. It's one of those pressures that thought that they were going to run initially. Felt good about it. We had been doing a good job on the backside bringing the safety over. Our disguise has been pretty good. It was one of those things where I thought the quarterback made a nice read. I thought the tight end did a good job of keeping it thin, away from the backside safety who was coming over and the linebacker got sucked up a little bit. And with any pressure, you take a chance. There are things you're going to be good at. There's going to be things you're light on and if they hit it in the right place at the right time, that's just what happens."
I have a rather trick question. When you mention that it's not unusual, can you mention other GMs who have been on the field and been pretty hands on?
"[Former NFL head coach and executive] Mike Holmgren, the GM I worked with in Cleveland, or president, he had a couple titles. [Miami Dolphins vice president of football operations] Mike Tannenbaum, when I was in New York he was on the field. New England, we didn't really have one. Yeah, pretty much everywhere I've been different guys have been part of practice. I don't know how you treat [former NFL head coach Bill] Parcells, he was kind of both."
DT Tank Carradine said last week that he hopes to be in the mix at outside linebacker next year going into 2016. Does he have that skillset? Does he have the movement skills required for that position?
"I've seen over the years tons of transition from D-End to outside linebacker and typically early on it's a little bit rough because you have to, it's a different world standing up and seeing things from a two-point stance. A lot of guys have successfully made that transition. And even with some of the bigger defensive ends, I worked [former NFL DE] Shaun Ellis some at outside linebacker in New York and he was 290 at the time. But, as you start to understand your drops, where you need to get to, understanding your strengths and weaknesses within the context of where you have to get to, all that stuff gives you a chance to do that and do that well. Tank has a really great opportunity to be a great edge-setter as an outside linebacker because of his size, his strength. Tank is a guy that did the signals a couple of weeks ago, the guys review the signals and they have to get up in front of the group. And he was, he worked at it, he was impressive. It's small things like that with Tank where you see his work ethic, you see how important this is to him, you see how much he cares. So, all those things are really encouraging from my perspective, whether he's just going to play more of a true end or some sort of hybrid end, outside linebacker type role.
Where has Eli Harold improved in your eyes that allows him to get more playing time now?
"The best indication of Eli's improvement was the play towards the end of the game where he drove the tight end back into the back and made the tackle for a loss. To me, if you're looking for one play to summarize Eli's improvement, that's the play because as an outside linebacker you've got to be able to set the edge and you've got to be able to be disruptive while setting the edge. That to me was one of the most exciting plays he made all season because it was low, good leverage, good hand placement, good finish, understanding where the back was, understanding where the run fit was. It was all of the things that you're looking for from a young guy and for a guy that just because of his build right now, he doesn't have that strength that he's going to get. Really encouraging. And I think it was either the play later or a play earlier he had that really nice chase play when they were backed up. That you will see a lot of from Eli. That he has just built into him. But, that one play where he drove that guy back I thought, ‘OK, we are getting really close to really turning a corner with him."
Can I ask you one quick question about your opponent this week? How have they become really good these last six weeks or so?
"I think he's done a great job, or offensively they've done a great job of attacking weaknesses. Some of it is formational. Everybody has got to deal with [Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson] Megatron. The backs are really explosive. You look at a guy like [Detroit Lions WR] Golden Tate, very effective run after the catch player. So, it's not forcing things. They're not forcing things. They are looking for an answer, the answer's not there, they are going quick to the back or quick to Tate, mixing in screens. They operate really well in space. All three backs average over eight yards a catch. So, you've got the big-play issue. You've got the plays Golden Tate can make outside. You've got the backs and they're not forcing things that aren't there and because they aren't they've been really effective at moving the chains and turning small plays into explosive plays. Space on a fast track with the group that they have, that's tough. That's going to be tough."