The NFL’s exhibition season has been called irrelevant and worthless. Many head coaches and veteran players despise it. Key players – such as Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson this summer – can be injured and lost for the entire season while playing in a game that means nothing.
Former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh once told a writer for The Atlantic that the exhibition season was his least favorite time of the year.
“There’s only one rationale for playing football games before the season begins, and that’s to prepare the players for the coach’s schemes and to show the coaches what new players can do in those schemes,” he said. “But you really don’t do that. You’re so afraid of your most valuable players being injured that you end up shuffling them in and out of the lineup as fast as you can.”
The result, he said, was that “you end up starting the season as ignorant about new players, new formations and new plays as you were the first day of training camp.”
Now, as the 49ers prepare for their regular-season opener this Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, another Niners head coach, Jim Tomsula, is in much the same position as Walsh described.
The 49ers offense didn’t look good during preseason games. The offensive line was leaky, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was largely ineffective, and new key elements of the unit – receiver Torrey Smith and running back Reggie Bush – spent very little time on the field. So, 49ers fans still really have no clue what their team’s offense will look like when it takes the field at Levi’s Stadium Monday night.
Essentially, that’s by design. Tomsula and his staff did not want to risk injuries or give much away of their offensive and defensive schemes in advance of the Vikings game. After the final preseason game against the Chargers last week – in which starters mostly made just token appearances, if any at all – Tomsula said the practices before and after that game were far more important than the exhibition against San Diego.
“I wanted to get the practice time,” Tomsula told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “We need the practice time instead of going out there (vs. the Chargers).”
To Tomsula, in fact, the entire training camp practice sessions have been far more important than the games. In games, the 49ers offense has largely been stuck in neutral; in practices, it’s been a different story. Reports have Kaepernick regularly connecting with Smith and tight end Vernon Davis on deep routes while also developing a connection with Bush on routes out of the backfield. And, while the offensive line remains a work in progress, the blockers up front have impressed with their ability to open holes for the running backs in what may be an offense that will be refocused on the ground attack in 2015.
So, according to Tomsula and many of the 49ers, forget about the preseason performances in games. It’s what the team has done in practices that will count in Monday night’s opener.
Said Smith, to Barrows: “There’s more quality time in practice. You’re confident that if you practice well, then you’ll play well. And we’ve been putting together some (good) practices as of late. So (we) feel really good going in.”