First Buckner, now Staley. It’s the end of an era.

For 13 seasons, Joe Staley was one of the faces of the 49ers.
(Photos: 49ers)

The first shoe dropped March 18. The other fell a couple days before the draft, though we didn’t learn of it until Saturday.

Left tackle Joe Staley and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, arguably the two most respected players on the team when Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch arrived in 2017, are now ex-49ers. The team traded Buckner to Indianapolis in mid-March. And on the final day of the 2020 NFL draft, the Niners announced they were trading for tackle Trent Williams, shortly before they acknowledged Staley is retiring.

The 49ers will move on without them, but will be diminished by their absence. Williams, who is four years younger, may actually be Staley’s superior at this point. And Shanahan and general manager John Lynch believe they have found Buckner’s successor in Javon Kinlaw, drafted with the No. 14 overall pick Thursday. The locker is changed, however, as Shanahan fully admitted Saturday.

“What they’ve meant to me personally in the three years I’ve been here, and how much they’ve helped me as a first-time head coach – starting out 0-9 (in 2017) and being able to get through some of that, going 4-12 my second year as a head coach,” the coach told reporters on a wrap-up Zoom video conference. “When you have guys that are people like Staley, like Buckner, … and those guys believe in you as a coach – if I don’t have guys like that, it’s hard to get through stuff like that. Because adversity’s tough for everyone.”

The 49ers’ roster was a shambles when Shanahan and Lynch arrived. And the team was emerging from a multi-year period marred by arrests and citations, as well as bickering between coach Jim Harbaugh and 49ers management. You don’t flip something like that overnight. (As evidenced by the Reuben Foster saga, which happened under the new regime.) It’s really hard to get there as quickly as the 49ers have – from 2-14 in 2016 to the Super Bowl in 2019 – without veteran leadership.

“That’s what allows you to weather a storm like we did and have a turnaround that we’re extremely proud of,” Shanahan said.

The departures of two stalwart linemen speak to the cruelty of sports, and especially the NFL. In Buckner’s case, he became a casualty of an overabundance of defensive linemen, as well as his own soon-to-expire contract. Like Joe Montana and Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice before him, the 49ers deemed Buckner expendable. You understand. I’m sure he understood, too. But it can be hard to swallow.

In Staley’s case, it had more to do with football’s physical toll. He never lost his passion for the game, that was obvious every time he played. But at 35 (he’ll be 36 when the regular season is scheduled to start), he could no longer put aside the pain.

“My body was breaking down with a variety of injuries and a deteriorating neck condition, and the constant discomfort affected every aspect of my life,” Staley wrote in his public farewell.

I’m happy for Staley. He is a smart, grounded man who will find other things to do with his life. He has made more than $84 million over 13 NFL seasons, and I imagine he has made good use of most of it. By walking away now, Staley leaves while he can still play with his two daughters.

His retirement is sad for the rest of us, though, including the 49ers. Staley has helped to define this franchise since he arrived near the end of the first round in 2007, overshadowed even then by fellow rookie Patrick Willis.

The 49ers have been awful for portions of Staley’s career. When they were, he was one of the guys who held the locker room together. During those lucrative but undisciplined Harbaugh years, Staley was the player you could rely on to show up at work every day and stay out of the crime blotter when he clocked out. And when the 49ers have exceled over the past 13 seasons, he was always one of the primary contributors.

The signature clip of Staley’s career is from an NFC divisional playoff game against the Saints in January of 2012. It was the 49ers’ first postseason contest in nine years, and it was an incredible game, SF and New Orleans combining for four touchdowns in the final 4 minutes (and change) at Candlestick Park.

The Saints were up 24-23 with the 2-minute warning approaching, when Staley pulled left and escorted Alex Smith on a QB keeper. Staley sprinted like the world’s largest cheetah. Few NFL offensive linemen could get out in space like he could, even as he got deep into his 30s. On that play, he ran 18 yards past the line of scrimmage before encountering a defender. That was Saints defensive back Isa Abdul-Quddus. Staley chopped him down like a stalk of sugarcane, and Smith completed a stirring 28-yard touchdown. No one in a white jersey touched him.

Staley made six Pro Bowls and missed a total of just 29 starts over his career.

Perhaps this moment is a little sad for Staley, too, because he leaves without a Super Bowl ring. He came agonizingly close to victory in not one, but two championship games. The 49ers were one Kaepernick-to-Crabtree completion from beating the Ravens in Super Bowl 47, and they had a fourth-quarter lead against the Chiefs in 54. They lost both games. Staley was the only San Francisco player who suited up for both of them.

The magnitude of those losses seemed to wash over him in the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl 54 in February. Standing at a podium in the garbled chaos of a circus tent erected 100 yards from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, the normally glib Staley looked shell-shocked.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice barely audible. “It sucks. This is very hard, being in this moment right now. You put your heart and soul, for your whole entire life, into trying to be a world champion. And you get toward the end of your career, and you realize how rare these opportunities are.”

Did Staley know then that it would be his last game? In the run-up to that Super Bowl, he had talked about returning for another season in 2020, about his excitement for what Shanahan and the 49ers were building. But he had gone silent since then, and speculation grew this week that he might retire.

Shanahan confirmed that Staley called to inform the coach of his intent a couple days before the draft, giving the 49ers a head start on swinging a trade for Williams. A loyal employee and teammate to the end.

I’m sure it was hard for Staley to walk away. But he must be gratified by the state of the franchise he leaves behind. There was a time when losing Joe Staley or DeForest Buckner would have been devastating to team morale, such as in the morass of the Tomsula-Kelly years. That’s not the case now. The 49ers will miss Staley’s work ethic and his combination of on-field fire and off-field chill. But this current team has a strong locker room. They have other leaders, and they will move forward without Staley.

Still, he was the only player on the team who had witnessed the 49ers when they were down, then up, then down, then up again. That sort of long-view perspective is handy in this business. A piece of 49ers history leaves along with No. 74.

This article has 52 Comments

  1. As a 49er fan since the mid-sixties I have seen a lot of great Niner players retire. From Brodie to Willard to Johnson to Lott to Rice and now to Staley.
    Joe was one of the great ones and he will be missed. Thank you for all your hard play and the joy you gave every Niner fan. I hope to see you in the Ring of Honor and maybe in the HOF.

    1. Doubt he’ll get in the Hall of Fame. But Ring of Honour should be a lock. Ultimately the Niners failed him in being unable to win a ring.

  2. Joe epitomized what it means to be a professional football player, and exemplified what it means to represent the 49ers franchise. Good luck to him and thanks for everything you’ve done for this organization!

  3. Joe Staley has not only been a mainstay for the 49ers throughout his illustrious career, but he also represented everything that the organization stands for. Class, always working to be the best and showed every 49ers player what it takes to be a champion.
    He will be enshrined in the 49ers stadium ring of honor and go down in history as one the 49ers best players.
    Time to sit back and enjoy all the accolades coming your way.
    Well done!

  4. Going to really miss Joe. Aside from being a great player and great pro, he was fun and great to listen to.

    That 2007 draft brought in two of the 49ers best players of the past two decades in the first round. Loved watching Willis and Staley. Here’s to hoping the 49ers have just added two more first rounders that have as good careers with the 49ers!

    Also, how good was Kittle’s video tribute to Staley? Kittle is now the heart and soul of the offense. Baton passed.

    1. Thank you Staley, was there a better Niners OLman? Now you go shed that OL bulk that you never liked carrying.

      And thank you Phil, that was a great heartfelt write up, what all we fans are thinking.

      1. Yes, thank you Phil. You’ve produced more articles in days than your
        predecessor did in months. This blog has revitalized itself accordingly.

  5. Class act on and off the field.
    Man never quit on this franchise, even when there were the years he could have half a**ed it or asked to be traded.

    He is one of the few greats that can say he played every down in the scarlet and gold.
    And every year he played there was no doubt he was the starter and later a leader in the teams he played with.

    Sucks he didn’t get a ring, and I hope they can find a place for him if he’s willing to coach for this franchise.

    Good luck to him and his family in future endeavors they may find.

    And with that said it’s good to see a Sooner playing for SF.
    I hoped the Bulldozer would have worked out for us, but I know TW will.

  6. “Staying out of the crime blotter”…lol…those were the days, glad they are over.
    shame they didn’t get a ring for Joe, maybe he can get one as an assistant.

    Phil, You are definitely a breath of fresh air! Thank you.

  7. I wish we could of won 1-2 SBs for you Staley. You have been a rock through this mess.

    Not to be a homer but both the loss to the Ravens and Chiefs, the Niners were the better team and fell short. They started flat on the Baltimore SB, ended with some CK Crabtree love affair. The Chiefs they started strong and just lost it in the last 7-10 minutes depending on how you look at the game.

    Anyway, this is about Staley, thanks for everything. You’ll be in Canton for sure!

  8. When is this column going to get a permanent writer rather than this fill in half talent? Grant could be smarmy but at least he has a personality. This guy is like white bread and mayo sandwiches unless he unleashes his even more unbearable SJW persona.

    1. With lots of baloney, and a dill pickle on wry. (Sorry, JK).
      .
      Actually, I liked Phil Barber. At least he has a sense of humor.

      1. Seb,
        I’m good with Phil as well, when he’s here. But he’s starting to take on the McKinnon role. All that talent means nothing if he can’t get on the field.

    1. Personally, I do not think it is hard to use the scroll bar, and I usually just hit the links to comments, to see what was the most recent comment.
      .
      I wonder what you would recommend if this post gets 1200 comments?
      .
      Since you seem to be leading, I hope the PD will allow you to be the interim blog master, until a more permanent person is selected. I am sure you could come up with some interesting subjects to discuss.

      1. Personally, I do not think it is hard to use the scroll bar, and I usually just hit the links to comments, to see what was the most recent comment.

        On iOS safari, those links are at the bottom of the page, which requires a lot of finger swiping/scrolling just to get there. When I’m in a mood to remember, typing in Links To in the safari address bar and go to “On this Page” takes me there. But jeez what a PITA in this age of technology. Plus if one isn’t checking the site every few minutes like you must be, you miss a lot when only checking most recent comments.

        1. On my scroll bar, it takes only a second to scroll down.
          .
          Fortunately, I get to scroll past your posts, and only click on links from posters I respect.

        2. Yeah, my laptops are hooked up to my music programs, so I have to use my Android smartphone. Swiping down over 1200 entries is a bit of work.
          I swear that my finger is starting to look like it’s on steroids.👆

  9. On NN, some poster thinks that the Cowboys will be challenging the 49ers for the championship.
    .
    I totally disagree. Yes, Jason Garrett is gone, but Mike McCarthy is too timid. He would rather kick field goals, instead of being bold, and go for it. Also, Mike Nolan is the DC, and I just remember his tenure with the Niners.
    .
    Thankfully for him, they may allow him to wear a suit on the side line, like Tom Landry. Too bad he is the epitome of an empty suit.
    .
    Instead of the Cowboys, the Eagles have more of a chance to make the playoffs by winning their division. I do not think the NFC East will have a wild card team.
    .
    Here is how I would rank the top NFC teams-
    1- The San Francisco 49ers
    2- Tampa Bay Bucs
    3- Saints
    4- Seahawks
    5- Vikings
    6- Eagles
    7- Cards
    8- Packers
    .
    The NFC West might have 3 playoff teams.

      1. TB has talent from high draft picks for years.
        .
        They would have won more games, even the Niner game, if Winston did not throw 2 picks, and 30 total interceptions last season. Brady does not need to do much, just have good ball security. He also enticed Gronk to return.
        .
        BTW, they also moved up to grab one of the top 4 O linemen in the draft. They had a good Free Agency, solid draft, subtracted Winston, and replaced him with a 6 time SB winner. They might be able to sweep the Saints. The Saints are having such major cap problems, they cut a 3 time Pro Bowl RG.

        1. Seb,
          I agree TB is very talented on both sides of the ball. If Winston throws just half of the int he threw last yr they would have been in the playoffs. I believe the biggest question TB has is does Brady have any gas left in the tank. By the end of last year I was really questioning whether his arm strength was still there. As we all know its the legs that go first and the most important part of the throwing motion happens with the hips and legs. I am going way out on a limb and predicting that we will see a big drop off in Brady’s production next season. imho

          1. Old Coach, you may very well be right. I just think that Bruce Arians can utilize him properly, and not ask him to do too much.
            .
            Tom Brady also has that competitive spirit that makes me want to never count him out. He will have good WRs to throw to unlike last year, and Gronk.

            1. 2x against the Saints, 2x against the Falcons is a tall order. Though maybe Arians can get the Tampa Bay Retirees past the Wild Card round this year.

              Related: Who here thinks Brady makes it through the entire season?

              1. TomPA BrAdY has retained Shaquil Barrett and Suh, got one of the top 4 O linemen to protect Brady and drafted 2 RBs.
                .
                Brady is such a savvy veteran, he will get rid of the ball before the pass rush can get to him.
                .
                Believe it or not, the Bucs had the best run defense in the league last year.
                .
                The Bucs may go 5-1 in their division next season, if we have a season…….

        1. Ha! I was fortunate to meet the guy who coined the phrase “you play to win the game” Herm Edwards.
          The wife and I were eating at a “In and Out” in Modesto CA., and he comes walking in with KC GM Carl Peterson. He was very gracious and introduced me to Peterson.
          Turns out that they had beat the raiders earlier and Edwards (and Peterson) was going to spend the night at his sister’s house in Modesto before flying out the next morning.
          Got his autograph on a “In and Out” napkin somewhere, but doggonit, I can’t find it.

        1. Aiyuk would be an upgrade over James as PR, but if they want him to fully concentrate on wr only then I could see them going with Taylor. James won’t make the roster. He hasn’t been able to improve his route running enough to warrant keeping him….

          1. RJ never got the reps and targets at slot he deserved. He is a clutch performer. In limited action , he performed well. I like Taylor, but he does us no good if he is constantly on IR.

            1. RJ scrambles 50 yards after catching a screen. Cards were up 16-0 at this point and Niners barely won that game.

            https://www.49ers.com/video/49ers-richie-james-jr-57-yard-gain-week-11-cardinals

            2. 50 yard reception versus Skins in the swampbowl. Note the catch was a 3rd and 3 with 8 minutes left in the 3rd quarter It set up the game winning FG.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RdolXGhrK0

        2. KS should showcase Pettis, too, and wait for another team to either have a WR go down to injury, or show their WR corps is weak. Then, the other team will be desperate for WR help, and could possibly give up a 5th or 6th round pick.
          .
          Until then, they are untradable.
          .
          Taylor, with his injury history, probably will not be used as a returner. If RJ does make the team, it will partly be because of his ball security, fielding punts.

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