Joe Staley, the longest-tenured 49er, remembers it as his favorite game and perhaps his greatest play.
With 2:18 remaining and the 49ers trailing the New Orleans Saints by a point in the 2011 playoffs, quarterback Alex Smith took off around left end and found nothing but his own left tackle charging downfield 10 yards ahead of him.
“I came around the corner and saw no one out there,” Staley, 32, recalled on Thursday. “I just remember (saying to myself), ‘Run as fast as you can. Try and get that safety.’ ”
Staley took down the approaching Saints safety at New Orleans’ 8-yard line, Smith’s only obstacle before the goal line. Staley refers to the 28-yard touchdown run as “my play” because, let’s face it, how often does an offensive lineman make such a visible block 20 yards downfield in such a high-profile situation? And also because he insists – with a smile – that he was outpacing his buddy Smith on the play.
“I ended up pulling away from Alex,” he said. “If you watch the film, I was more running a 4.4 (seconds in 40-yard dash), and he was running a 4.6, 4.7.”
Still, he and his offensive teammates watched as the Saints almost immediately scored to retake the lead, which set up an even more memorable play, Smith’s 14-yard touchdown dart to tight end Vernon Davis with 14 seconds left.
Staley and the 49ers face the same opponent on Sunday – the first time they have hosted the Saints since their playoff victory – but amid vastly different circumstances.
For one, only three 49ers who played that day are on the team’s 53-man roster: Staley, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and cornerback Tramaine Brock. The Saints have seven in that category, including quarterback Drew Brees.
The game will be played at Levi’s Stadium instead of Candlestick Park, which after the final touchdown against the Saints was the loudest venue, home or away, Staley says he’s ever experienced.
“I just remember the energy in the stadium,” he said. “We’ve got to get that back. That was great. That was a great day.”
And the two teams, once heavyweights in the NFC, are now among the punching bags. The Saints enter with a 3-4 record; at 1-6, San Francisco is the worst team in the NFC and better only than the 0-8 Cleveland Browns in the NFL.
Staley’s goal is returning the 49ers to their former glory.
For the second consecutive season, his name was bandied about at the league trade deadline, though he says he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. The 49ers, after all, have only one other starter-level offensive tackle on the team, and Staley is their only offensive player who has been to a Pro Bowl.
He acknowledges he’s “old in football years” but that he hasn’t thought about retirement. Staley is in his 10th season and is the oldest member of the offense. But he’s missed just 14 games over his career and none since 2010.
“That’s not even like a thought right now,” he said of retirement. “I haven’t really thought about hanging them up or anything like that. I’m going to play for a while longer, I think. Probably will be (until I’m) 45, 50. Maybe when I have my grand kid I’ll retire.”
The year after they beat the Saints, Staley and the 49ers lost in the Super Bowl. Watching the Cubs recently win the World Series – and seeing the jubilation on the players’ faces – reaffirmed for Staley why he’ll keep playing.
“First thing I said to Carrie, my wife, was, ‘God, I wish we would have won that Super Bowl because I want to experience what those guys are experiencing right there,’ ” Staley said. “That’s like the most pure joy you can have besides your kid being born. I just want to be able to experience that. That’s what’s driving me. Nothing else.”