SANTA CLARA – Joe Staley has been with the 49ers for 13 seasons now. The star left tackle arrived when they stunk, was integral to their ascent under Jim Harbaugh and was there for the crash and burn after he left.
Staley has played for six different head coaches during his time here and kicked around the idea of retirement after Kyle Shanahan took control of another inevitable roster rebuild. Now he'd like to stick around a while longer.
Staley weathered some really bad times. He battled while the roster got re-stocked and Jimmy Garoppolo recovered from a season-ending ACL injury last season. And now, as if in a flash, Staley’s set to play in his fourth NFC title game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers here at Levi’s Stadium.
Though going from 4-12 last year to the NFC’s top seed in a calendar year has been a whirlwind, the Central Michigan product easily can identify the reason for the rapid rise.
Getting Garoppolo back obviously has helped, but there’s more to it than that.
“It’s the vision of Kyle and John and what they’ve done with the roster since they got here,” Staley said before Wednesday’s practice. “They’ve had patience and seen it all the way through with guys they’ve brought in through free agency and the draft. It has been about everybody executing their vision. There’s a lot of hard work, and we’re excited to be at this point right now.”
Talent and good coaching are essential to any winning formula, but this 49ers team has something extra that some great teams don’t have.
“It’s kind of cliché to talk about in the NFL, but this is a family. It’s a special group,” Staley said. “This is my 13th NFL team here and every year is different. This is really special, with the camaraderie in the locker room and guys really showing up to play every single week and looking to get better every single day.”
The group dealt with some adversity during a 4-12 campaign without Garoppolo, where they lost far more games than their talent suggests they should have. That provided the No. 2 overall pick they were too good to possess, providing a golden opportunity to add Nick Bosa to an already intimidating defensive front.
“It definitely helped. Everything happens for a reason,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “You need some difference-makers, and Bosa has definitely been a difference-maker. We’re glad we have him, but I don’t wish 4-12 on anybody. But, after going through it, we definitely like what it brought us.”
Bosa sort of fell into their lap. Many other key moves did not. The 49ers had to go out and get Garoppolo for a second-round pick – that’s a steal now – and then pay him. They stocked the depth chart, and when they needed a talent infusion, they went out and got Emmanuel Sanders and a fifth-round draft pick from Denver for a third-round pick and a fourth-rounder.
Shanahan credits general manager John Lynch for all that.
“John and his staff have been unbelievable,” Shanahan said. “When we came here, we knew we had to go get some. There were a lot here to start with that have worked out very well, but we also knew we had a lot of hard work in front of us. John and his staff have presented all this stuff and got us a ton of guys, and it's been great because even the big key ones that everyone knows about have made a difference. Also, we've had a lot of injuries this year too where a lot of guys have had to step up, and our depth has really been challenged this year and I think it's a credit to our personnel staff.”
As Staley pointed out, this special locker room bond is atypical even among good teams where winning is common.
Shanahan made a point to emphasize that in a recent speech to the team as the 49ers move deeper into the playoffs.
“He pretty much gave a speech to the team about the fact that, sometimes in this league, you come to work and you clock in, you clock out,” Sanders said. “And truthfully, I enjoy being around these guys. The speech that Kyle gave was that there's so much love between this team and how much we care about each other.
“I feel like when you have that kind of chemistry, and it's all throughout this team and all throughout this organization, I feel like when you have that, the sky is the limit. It's not a coincidence that we’re in this position. We worked our butt off on the field and off the field and I feel like we are deserving of this moment and we got to take advantage of it.”
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday)
Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 5:30 p.m.