We often talk about the same few guys around here – Jim Harbaugh, Trent Baalke, the Smiths.
But for the most part, the entire organization is thriving, and many 49ers don’t get the credit they deserve.
So let’s address that. Here are five unsung heroes.
Joe Staley – He struggled at the beginning of last season, but so did the entire 49ers offensive line. They didn’t have an offseason, so it took them until about October to get comfortable in Harbaugh’s West Coast offense. When they did, Staley played at an elite level for the first time in his career. He gave up six sacks, but four of those came in games No. 2 and 3. After the Bengals game, he was a dominant pass protector. Also, the Niners averaged 5.2 yards per carry running behind him, which was the seventh-highest mark in the NFL. Staley was awarded with a Pro Bowl selection, and he was recently ranked the 67th best player in the NFL in a vote by the players around the league.
Isaac Sopoaga – He plays only on running downs. He doesn’t rack up stats. He doesn’t beat his man. He doesn’t collapse the pocket or hit the quarterback. But he absolutely shuts down runs up the middle. Do not try to run through Sopoaga. He’s 330 pounds and he’s one of the strongest players in the NFL – you cannot move him. The Niners top-flight defense is built around stopping the run, and although they have two All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, those guys couldn’t make all the tackles they do if they didn’t have an anchor in the middle of the defensive line tying up blockers. For this team, Sopoaga is the perfect anchor. He allows the Niners defense to be as great as it is.
Jim Tomsula – The best defensive line coach in the NFL, Tomsula is also an undefeated head coach, winning his one game as the Niners interim head coach after Mike Singletary was fired in 2010. The team was genuinely excited to play for him that one day, which indicated how much respect he has within the organization. Tomsula has the ability to spot talent and to coach it up. The Niners hired him in January 2007, and just three months later he convinced general manager Scot McCloughan to draft Ray McDonald in the third round. Now, McDonald is a Pro-Bowl-caliber defensive lineman. Tomsula urged the Niners to sign Justin Smith as a free agent in 2008. Smith was a coming off a dismal two-sack season in 2007 for the Cincinnati Bengals. In his first season with the Niners he recorded seven sacks, and the next three seasons he made the Pro Bowl. Now, he’s considered one of the best players in the NFL. Tomsula gets huge credit for bringing the most out of Smith. Tomsula also deserves praise for helping Sopoaga become one of the best nose tackles in the league. Give him credit, as well, for Aldon Smith – who do you think coaches the pass rush in practice? Tomsula. His current projects are Ricky Jean Francois (2009 seventh round pick), Will Tukuafu (2010 undrafted free agent) Demarcus Dobbs (2011 undrafted free agent) and Ian Williams (2011 undrafted free agent). The Niners did not draft a defensive lineman in April because the organization trusts Tomsula can develop those four guys. His track record suggests the Niners made a wise choice.
Tom Rathman – The running backs coach since 2009. Shrewd, likeable, and the players want to play for him. He was the Niners fullback in the ‘80s under Bill Walsh. He’s the link to the glory days. Since he’s started working with Frank Gore, Gore has scored 26 touchdowns, averaged 101.3 yards from scrimmage per game and cemented his reputation as the best blocking tailback in football. Rathman also coached up rookie Bruce Miller instantaneously into a Pro-Bowl fullback last season – Miller played defensive end in college. Rathman demands that his running backs are tough and complete – power runners, outside runners, blockers and pass catchers – and he gets what he demands.
Ed Donatell – The defensive backs coach, Donatell had already been a successful defensive coordinator in the NFL before he signed onto Harbaugh’s coaching staff last year. In Donatell’s first season as the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons back in 2004, he improved their defense from the worst in the league to 14th best and the team went to the NFC Championship. In 2009, Donatell became the defensive backs coach for the Denver Broncos and they finished the season ranked No.3 against the pass. Donatell knows exactly what he wants in his secondary and he gets great results. In training camp last year he identified Tarell Brown as his starting right cornerback over Shawntae Spencer, even though Brown had started just five games in four years, while Spencer had started 72 games for the Niners since 2004. It was the right call – Brown’s career took off last season.
These are the guys in the trenches, the hands-on guys, the workers. Are they any others that you can think of?