USA TODAY US Edition
PHYSICAL 49ERS SHOW NOT ALL TALENT IS GONE
Jim Tomsula’s eyes drifted across the San Francisco 49ers media room as he tried to figure out how to answer the question.
When a team dominates the line of scrimmage the way the 49ers did in Monday’s win against the Minnesota Vikings, how much of that is physicality and scheme and how much of that is having the attitude and mentality to set the tone?
“See, I don’t know how you separate the two,” Tomsula said a day after getting his first win as head coach. “I could punch that wall and try to get a hole in it all day long, you know what I mean? But if I get a hammer, it might help me out.”
Tomsula could have been talking about the state of a 49ers roster that has undergone a significant and highly publicized overhaul in the last 8½ months.
Because for all the external focus on who’s not here anymore, Tomsula’s toolbox isn’t empty. And while the win isn’t going to erase many doubts about the 49ers’ ability to compete in the loaded NFC West, it did make some sort of statement about their talent level.
“That there’s still some here,” linebacker Michael Wilhoite told USA TODAY Sports. “Everybody looked at it like it was all gone, like we were emptied out of talent and we were just a bunch of bums. One thing about the NFL: It’s a replacement league.”
Since the end of last season, among those the 49ers have had to replace are Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Chris Culliver and Aldon Smith, whose Aug. 7 release after another legal issue was the most worrisome loss of all.
“If we (worry), we’re wasting emotion, time,” Wilhoite said. “We understood that this season was going to be a challenge in itself, regardless of whether we lost any more people or we had any more distractions or anything go down.”
So if the 49ers are going to be competitive in 2015, it’s fitting their best playmaker against the Vikings was Gore’s replacement, Carlos Hyde, who carried the ball 26 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns behind a line that crushed Minnesota with less-experienced options in place of Iupati and Davis.
San Francisco still has quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has flaws but was efficient in a movement-based passing game Monday. The 49ers have linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who in his first game since having major knee surgery in February 2014 was a difference-maker, Wilhoite said. The defense as a whole backed up what opposing scouts had seen in the preseason.
“They were much more physical than we were,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “That’s more of the team I’d like to be like.”
Are there enough differencemakers to compete with the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals in a division the 49ers ruled in 2011 and 2012?
They might rank fourth out of four in terms of overall talent. But there are key pieces in key places, they seem every bit as tough as Tomsula says, and the way they played Monday suggests the answer might not be as clear as it has seemed outside the building.
“I think we went out there and played well,” Wilhoite said, “but I think we have to play better than we did to beat any of those three teams. Which is fine. I think we’re going to get better, and I think by the time we get to Arizona in Week 3 we’ll be a better team.”