San Francisco’s offense reached historic lows this past season in Tollner’s first and only season as the team’s offensive coordinator. The 49ers ended the season 26th in the NFL in total offense – the first time they’ve ever finished below 21st since the league began recording statistical rankings in 1972.
That ranking only began to tell the story. The 49ers scored just 259 points – the second-lowest total in team history over a 16-game season. Under Tollner’s watch, one of the greatest streaks of San Francisco’s many sterling NFL records came to an end when the Niners were blanked 34-0 in Seattle in October, ending the 49ers’ league record of scoring in 420 consecutive games, a mark that likely never will be broken.
We can go on … and we will. The 49ers finished the season with an NFC-high 40 turnovers – 32 of them by the team’s quarterbacks (Tollner was San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach in 2002-2003). The Niners also produced just 1,449 rushing yards (fewest ever in franchise history over a 16-game season), 10 rushing touchdowns (second-fewest ever), 52 sacks (second-most in team history) and a final NFL ranking of 26th or below in nine different categories.
Though he took a lot of flak from media types during the season, Tollner certainly wasn’t the only one to blame for all those ignominious offensive numbers. He was directing Dennis Erickson’s offense, and he got caught in a transition season during the switch from the vaunted West Coast system the team had run the previous quarter-century.
In fact, though Tollner’s game plans and play-calling (something that went through Erickson) appeared to be at least part of the problem this year – and perhaps a large part – Tollner wasn’t necessarily viewed that way by the organization. He had the support of at least a few higher-ups in the front office, perhaps all the way to the top, and he was not one of the many assistants earmarked by owner John York to be fired once the team brought in a new coach.
Instead, when Mike Nolan fired 11 assistants from Erickson’s staff last Friday, Tollner was one of just four asked back to interview for jobs with the organization in 2005.
But here’s the deal: The Niners weren’t thinking of Tollner to remain as offensive coordinator. The organization had envisioned some kind of a role as an offensive consultant, something that might be agreeable to – and perfect for – the 64-year-old Tollner in the twilight of his career.
There also was the thought of him going back to be the team’s quarterbacks coach but, to be honest, he didn’t exactly distinguish himself in that role the previous two years. Again, it might not have been Tollner’s fault, but Jeff Garcia clearly regressed two consecutive years under Tollner’s direction, even though Garcia still made the Pro Bowl in 2002.
Mariucci always has been high on Tollner, and that was evident when he spoke of him in such glowing terms after bringing him to the 49ers in 2002 at a time the administration at San Diego State had decided it was time to put Tollner out to pasture. Tollner had been San Diego State’s head coach from 1994-2001, but he had recently been reassigned to an administrative post in the university’s athletic department before Mariucci and the 49ers came calling.
Tollner had been an NFL offensive coordinator once before last year – with San Diego from 1989-91. The Chargers had one of the worst offenses in the league and went 16-32 during that period, though a lot of the blame then was placed on San Diego’s weak offensive personnel.
To outsiders, it may seem a little odd that Mariucci would choose Tollner over some of the other candidates he interviewed – a list that includes Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy (more on him in a moment), Miami quarterbacks coach Marc Trestman (a former 49ers offensive coordinator), and three Lions assistants who also used to coach with the 49ers (Tom Rathman, Greg Olson and Pat Morris).
But it’s really no surprise. Mariucci had a yes-man in his previous offensive coordinator, the on-his-way-to-retirement Sherman Lewis, and that’s what he was looking for – and what he’ll be getting – when he passed over a group of more established coordinators and young up-and-comers and settled for Tollner instead.
Just like when he was in San Francisco, Mariucci wants to call the plays. He wants a coordinator who will put up the least amount of resistance, and that is what he’s getting.
So it’s no big loss for the 49ers, obviously, though there may have been a place in the team’s new coaching structure where Tollner could have been both useful and productive this year, if for nothing more than transitional purposes.
But he never was going to remain the team’s offensive coordinator. In fact, Nolan interviewed two up-and-coming candidates for that role Tuesday and Wednesday while he was in Alabama this week for Senior Bowl practices, and both seem to fit the Nolan persona and have the kind of West Coast offensive ideas that Nolan wants to bring back to San Francisco.
Nolan met with McCarthy, 41, whose name has been mentioned in rumors for the position since Nolan was hired as coach last week. Nolan had a big advantage over Mariucci here, because he’d be willing to give McCarthy control of the offense. In fact, that’s likely what Nolan will do with whoever he brings in. McCarthy never was going to get to run things the way he wanted in Detroit, and he knew it.
But he’s being sought after by several teams, and the Niners will have to pay top dollar to bring him in. However, as offensive coordinator jobs are filled around the league – the Jets got theirs with Mike Heimerdinger, and the Ravens did, too, with Jim Fassel – the chances get better for the Niners to land McCarthy.
This will be Nolan’s key hire, at least as far as his coaching staff goes, and he knows it. Nolan also interviewed Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who at age 37 is a bit green. But his reputation has been growing with what he accomplished last year with Jon Kitna, and then what he got this year out of Carson Palmer.
The Niners need that kind of impressive development out of their many young players on offense. They weren’t getting it last year under Tollner. McCarthy? Zampese? If nothing else, at least Nolan seems to be looking in the right spots.