San Francisco 49ers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5 players to watch
The 49ers on Sunday in Tampa Bay are trying to win their first game in the eastern time zone since November 2015. They’ve had four consecutive seasons with double-digit losses and have gone through three coaching changes in the last five years.
Those are typically undesirable characteristics from the perspective of a player nearing the end of a prolific career. If the 49ers were an NBA team, their stars would have bolted in free agency in order to win championships elsewhere – or demanded a trade to their preferred destination beforehand.
But not left tackle Joe Staley, who would rather retire than play for a team other than the 49ers, despite all the recent losing.
“I think it will mean a lot more when we win here, when we win a Super Bowl here,” Staley told The Bee. “And I’ll be a part of it. I’ll feel like I stuck it out.”
Staley, the team’s longest tenured player, has said he strongly contemplated hanging up his helmet during the 2016 season when San Francisco went 2-14 under one-year coach Chip Kelly. It came after an uninspiring 5-11 campaign under one-year coach Jim Tomsula, who replaced Jim Harbaugh after four grueling seasons that included three consecutive trips to the NFC title game and a Super Bowl appearance.
Staley could have demanded a trade at any point during the post-Harbaugh era and the front office would have likely obliged.
He could have been a missing piece for a Super Bowl-winner, getting that elusive championship ring he’s been after since he entered the league and came a few yards from attaining after the 2012 season.
But that wouldn’t be satisfying.
“If I were to play eight years with one team or 10 years with one team, and then was like, ‘I’m getting older, I’m just going to go to the best team that’s available that would take me,’ that is not challenging to me,” Staley said. “I’m sure it would feel great to win, but it wouldn’t feel like I really had anything to do with it. I was just like along for the ride.”
The 49ers in 2007 traded up to the 28th pick of the draft with the New England Patriots to take Staley out of Central Michigan. He’s been to six Pro Bowls and named a second-team All-Pro three times. He was tabbed a team captain again earlier this week after signing a two-year extension that would put him with San Francisco through 2021, when he’ll be 37.
Kyle Shanahan is Staley’s sixth head coach, who acknowledges how difficult it can be for a player to stick with one franchise through losing in an era with constant player movement.
“It does wear on you,” Shanahan said. “It’ll wear on anybody, especially someone like Joe who has had some success, who puts his body on the line every week. You always worry about that. It shows how much Joe’s enjoys football. He enjoys working. He believes we’re going to win here. If he didn’t think we were going to win, I don’t think he’d feel that way.”
It’s part of the reason San Francisco’s brass considers Staley a tone setter for the rest of the locker room. He’s been forced to re-shape his body for the modern approach and overcome knee and hip injuries to appear in 124 of 128 contests the past eight seasons.
“Joe is one of the few tackles that has evolved with the game,” right tackle Mike McGilnchey said. “He’s seen the NFL go from what it was when he first showed up in the league to what it is now, which is a lot different in terms of playing style. And to do that, along with being as dominant as he’s been for as long as he’s been, it’s incredible.”
Budding star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, perhaps the club’s next recipient of a massive contract, has appreciated Staley’s mindset since Buckner entered the league. The fellow captain said he appreciates Staley’s commitment to the organization. The two have been together through a combined 12-36 stretch the past three seasons.
“There’s going to be tough times,” Buckner said. “I just think it’s how you respond and how you overcome those tough times. Joe’s been here when this organization’s been here on the top and the very bottom. So he’s seen the whole spectrum of it. And just to see his mindset coming in every year, it’s definitely eye opening to me and something that I’ve noticed from afar.”
Staley has said the expectation for the 49ers in 2019 is to make the postseason and snap a five-year drought of missing games in January. It’s attainable after adding significant pieces on defense in pass rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, the No. 2 pick in the draft who’s among the favorites to win defensive player of the year, and linebacker Kwon Alexander, who’s making his return to Tampa on Sunday.
There’s also the comeback of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who remains the team’s biggest question mark following the ACL tear that cost him the final 13 games of 2018. The 49ers are betting Garoppolo can return his 2017 form when he went 5-0 as the starter to earn a $137.5 million contract after being acquired in a trade with the Patriots.
“We have talent,” said Staley, “and it’s talent on paper. ... We have expectations for a lot of different guys, and a lot of different guys have proven to be very successful in the NFL. And so now it’s about putting it together and I’m excited.”