Grant Cohn: For 49ers, this season all about one man

SANTA CLARA – Training camp for the San Francisco 49ers started today. What person on the 49ers is this season all about?

Is it the man standing in the middle of the practice field directing drills — head coach Jim Tomsula?

No. Practice isn't the full picture. Games may not even be the full picture. Look beyond what the team presents you. The key figure is not the coach. The key figure lurks in the shadows.

I'm not letting Tomsula off the hook. We have no idea what kind of coach will he be. The players say he cares about them, asks for their input and tries to please them. That sounds good, but is it?

Football is supposed to be a hard life, like the military. It toughens you up. A head coach is supposed to challenge his players, not please them. Players are supposed to please the coach. Tomsula has made the daily schedule to please the players. Can you imagine Bill Walsh asking players for the schedule? Impossible to imagine.

But enough about Tomsula for now. I'll come back to him shortly.

So, who's in the center of the frame?

Is it the man watching practice from the sideline with his arms folded across his chest — general manager Trent Baalke?

No. He's a supporting actor in the Niners' drama.

I'm not letting him off the hook, either. You have to wonder about him, too. He may have assembled a shaky roster, especially at running back. Baalke let the dependable Frank Gore sign with the Indianapolis Colts during free agency, and replaced him with Reggie Bush, more of a receiver than a running back, and Jarryd Hayne, more of a Rugby League player than a running back.

The only workhorse left in the backfield is 23-year old Carlos Hyde, a talented young player who is unproven. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry his rookie season, nothing special.

If he gets hurt or doesn't play well, the Niners will have to abandon their power-running offense and adopt a finesse pass-first attack. Then they'll have big trouble.

But enough about Baalke. He's secondary. Who's the primary actor in the Niners' drama?

Jed York, that's who. He asked for the role. He begged for it. And he got it.

York is the one who fired Jim Harbaugh, one of the most successful head coaches in the NFL the past few seasons.

York is the one who made top assistant coaches like Vic Fangio and Mike Solari feel unwelcome, and he's the reason they coach for different teams now.

York is the one who believes Baalke is more responsible than Harbaugh for the Niners' recent run of success.

And York is the one who replaced Harbaugh with Tomsula, the neophyte.

This past Thursday, a reporter asked future Hall of Fame wide receiver and former Super Bowl champion Anquan Boldin his impression of Tomsula and the new coaching staff. Boldin, 34, has just one more year on his contract. He has no reason to lie.

'It's different, for better or worse,' he said. 'I guess you'll find out when it's all said and done.'

For better or worse. What an endorsement! Or non-endorsement.

If you see Tomsula floundering on the sideline next season, remember — he's the coach York wanted. York orchestrated the startling head-coaching change. And he started orchestrating it before last season even started.

First, a report surfaced in February of 2014 that the Niners and Browns had discussed a Harbaugh trade. Who do you think leaked that story?

Then in September, before the regular season even started, Ian Rapoport of reported that Harbaugh had lost the Niners' locker room (did he misplace it?) and probably would be fired by the end of the season.

Who do you think leaked that one?

York apparently wanted Harbaugh gone, and now Harbaugh's gone. Last season was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And York was the engine behind all the change — certainly seemed to be.

Now York is the face of the franchise. He made himself front and center in a way most NFL owners aren't.

Even Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the most powerful owners in the league, stays in the background more than York.

Why does York think he deserves to be the face of the franchise? Because he built a stadium?

Next season is a referendum of the 49ers' CEO. If the Niners win more than eight games — their win total last season — York gets all the credit.

But if the 49ers flop — win eight games or fewer — York gets the blame. A few months ago, he said he'll take full responsibility for the outcome of the season.

We'll hold him to that.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at

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