For 49ers LT Joe Staley, Playing For Kyle Shanahan a ‘Dream Come True’

SANTA CLARA, CA — When San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York cleaned house in January – firing GM Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly, the team’s third head coach in as many years – he knew the priority had to be stability. York quickly gathered a few veterans, including the team’s longest tenured player, left tackle Joe Staley, to ask for input about the direction of the franchise, and who should become their next head coach.

Staley’s emotional wounds after a season from hell were still prevalent. As a result of Kelly’s unique system never sticking and a lack of roster talent, the 49ers finished 2-14. They were the second-worst statistical offense in football (only ahead of the Rams), and dead last in defense. Huge chunks of empty seats at Levi’s Stadium became the norm, and the hallways in Santa Clara were lined with a thick morose. Three seasons after playing in the Super Bowl, the 49ers were a laughingstock.

“There were moments later in the year where I wasn’t exactly having fun playing football,” Staley said after last weekend open’s practice at Levi’s Stadium. “I wasn’t having fun showing up to work. I think it’s the first time I felt like that in my career. What was I putting my body through for the product we’re putting out on the football field? I’m definitely not proud of anything we did last year.”

One of the lowest of many low points came in Week 16 against Atlanta, the culmination of thirteen downtrodden weeks that were sometimes close, sometime blowouts. All losses. The Falcons heavily outschemed the 49ers, and Devonta Freeman’s powerful legs (an three touchdowns) led Atlanta to a dominant 41-13 victory.

Intrigued by the shellacking offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had put on his squad, Staley approached Atlanta’s center Alex Mack, who also played for Shanahan in Cleveland. He wanted to know if the league’s hottest coordinator was the real deal.

“[Mack] said without hesitation: ‘Shanahan is the man,’” Staley says. “Right after the game to speak so glowingly about the coordinator, I thought he must be special.”

As Week 17 came and went and the 49ers were in their too familiar position of a head coach search, Staley polled a few more players around the league. He relayed the Mack recommendation to York and told his owner, “If I could play with Kyle, it would be a dream come true. “ York likely had Shanahan at the top of his list but Staley’s input certainly didn’t hurt.

Things are incredibly rosy in Santa Clara these days. A thick layer of anxiety exited with Baalke. Team employees say things like they “sleep more soundly now” or that work is “much less stressful.” Staley, who is entering his 11th season, notes the improved energy in the building.

“Every time we say the same thing: ‘Everything’s great.’ But it really is now. I think because of the track record of Shanahan and just knowing his stuff works in the NFL at a high level,” he says. “When his system is executed the way he wants. it’s the top offense in the NFL. I know there is talent in Atlanta obviously, I’m not taking anything away but the scheme creates so many problems for defenses. Julio Jones catches it and people will act like it’s always all him, but there are times when Julio’s catching it and my dad could have run the route because the scheme is so good and creates so many open looks for players.”

Joe Staley signing autographs
Joe Staley signs autographs at 49ers open practice.

Staley has been to five Pro Bowls. He has consistently been one of the top linemen in the NFL this decade. Despite the recent turmoil in San Francisco he’s worked with some pretty innovative coaching minds like Kelly and Jim Harbaugh. Yet he’s been blown away by Shanahan’s grasp of x’s and o’s.

“He spends countless hours breaking down film with us as a team, breaking down plays and explaining every single job and how important all 11 guys are,” Staley says. “You look at a play and we’re running a stretch run right everyone looks at the play and says this guy and this guy needs to block. But he can break it down to where all 22 guys on the field can impact a single play. I consider myself a smart guy and I’ve had a lot of smart coaches but when it comes to x’s and o’s intelligence, he is on a different level.”

Shanahan is intense at practice but more in the sense that he’s active than a screamer. He plays quarterback (and shouldn’t quit his day job). He sets up various situations of adversity to see how his team will handle it is part of his methodology.

The 49ers new slogan is “Faithful Then, Faithful Now” an attempt to coalesce the dynasty years and the present, even if the present comes with some initial murky waters. Keena Turner, who won four Super Bowls with the 49ers in the 80’s and is now the team’s V.P. of football affairs is feeling the promise, in large part because of Shanahan.

“He has such a command of all his philosophy and can walk you through ay kind of football scenario,” Turner says with a grin.

When York fired Harbaugh after the 2014 season he declared in front of a national audience, “We don’t raise division championships banners. We don’t raise NFC Championship banners. We raise Super Bowl banners.”

When York fired Harbaugh’s curious successor, former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula the following year, he said: “We’re in need of somebody who can win us Super Bowls.”

Perhaps it was the mountain losses or a crash course in his team’s roster but York took a new approach this go around. Shanahan, along with new general manager John Lynch, were given six-year contracts, an inference that the two have that previous fleeting thing in the NFL called time.

“We were a 2-14 team and have no delusions of grandeur,” Staley says. “It’s not like we’re going to be 14-2 and go to the Super Bowl like Atlanta did. There’s a rough road ahead but those are the ultimate goals.”

The marriage of optimism and realism reverberates in Santa Clara. Lynch was widely lauded for his draft day mastery when he dramatically improved his defensive line in one night, landing both defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster in the first round. In free agency, the team signed Pierre Garcon it’s first promising receiver since Michael Crabtree and Brian Hoyer who is well equipped to run Shanahan’s scheme. Still expectations are strategically tempered. When Lynch addressed the crowd of over 20,000 at Levi’s Stadium last weekend brought his usual charm and command of a room, but also a dose of reality. “This team has a ways to go,” Lynch’s voice booming over the loudspeakers.

Staley has a meditation app that reminds him to practice for 10 minutes each morning. At age 32, he is determined to stay mentally and physically fit as he contemplates his future. He has concerns. He was affected by the recent New York Times study revealing that 109 out of 110 brains from deceased football players had CTE. And he’s is well aware how playing football can impact quality of life.” “It’s hard not to pay attention especially as you get older,” he says. “You see a lot of guys that have been out of the league for a while that are 45 and walking with a limp.”

The cloud of fear is nestled in the background, though, as Staley enters this season with a renewed energy. After all, he has been gifted the coach of his dreams.

“It’s terrible to say, but I’m having fun playing football again.”