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.