Staley and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders‘ lockers are next to the basketball hoop in the Niners’ locker room. Staley’s locker is next to Sanders’, but one spot farther from the hoop. Sanders’ locker sits directly in the line of fire, and rare is the time the hoop isn’t in use.
“I love being locker buddies with Joe,” Sanders said. “With the basketball going on in there, he lets me sit by his locker so I don’t get hit by a basketball. I told all my teammates, ‘I feel like the only way I’m going on IR is if I take a basketball to my head or something.’ Those guys shoot all the time. … I kind of scoot over into Joe’s locker. He will see me at his locker. I try to get up and he says, ‘No, you’re good, you’re good, you’re good.’ That shows you what kind of guy he is.”
It wasn’t so long ago a scenario existed where Sanders would be inundated with flying basketballs with nowhere to hide. Staley, who is the only player on the active roster left from the Niners’ most recent Super Bowl appearance (following the 2012 season) and their stretch of three consecutive NFC Championship Games in 2011-13, gave serious thought to walking away from football after trudging through a miserable 2-14 season in 2016.
From 2014 through 2016, San Francisco won a combined 15 games, and Staley played under a different head coach each season. He wondered if it was worth going through another regime change.
“I’d be lying to you if I said, ‘No, I always believed,'” Staley said. “But there were some dark years here in the franchise.”
Staley waited to see whom the 49ers hired as their coach and general manager. When Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch got those respective jobs, they met with Staley and laid out their future plan. He liked what he heard but — more important — he believed in the messengers.
Staley decided to stick with it, bought in and became one of Shanahan’s most trusted leaders as he and Lynch rebuilt the team’s culture.
“It means a lot just because of how good of a player Joe is and he would say some of that stuff early on,” Shanahan said. “It always surprised me because I always go off the tape, and he didn’t look like a guy who should be considering retirement. I thought he looked as good when we got here as he ever had and I think he looks even better now. That always surprised me, but I think Joe really loves football and I think he wasn’t having that much fun. It’s never fun when you aren’t winning.”
Now in his 13th season, Staley has seen it all. He winced as the Niners started 0-9 in Shanahan’s first season and finished 4-12 in 2018. But he didn’t flinch, because his belief in Shanahan and Lynch came with the understanding a turnaround wouldn’t happen overnight.
“You realize the position we were in, coming off a 2-14 year,” Staley said. “[They] kind of wanted to completely rebuild the roster. You know it is going to take time, not going to be a one-off season. … Everything they’ve been telling me since the day they got here has been true. Haven’t lied to me or any of the players that have been in here. They’ve had a vision from Day 1.”
Suffice to say, Staley is having far more fun now as the 49ers prepare to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Feb. 2, Staley’s second chance at winning his first championship. The 49ers went 13-3 this season, won the NFC West and claimed the top seed in the NFC. The bigger challenge for Staley this season? His own football mortality.
In Week 2, Staley suffered a broken left fibula. When he returned in Week 10 against Seattle, Staley struggled with rust and suffered a broken and dislocated finger. That injury cost him three more games.
For a player who missed only 18 games in the previous 12 seasons, it would have been understandable had Staley been upset about missing time while his team returned to relevance. Instead, Staley served as a sounding board for young tackles Mike McGlinchey, Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill.
“He was an absolute pro from the moment he got hurt to the moment he got back and now,” McGlinchey said. “He helped in any way he could. He was always watching film with me, he was always in the meetings no matter what and that’s his role as a leader and a captain of this team. He didn’t leave that when he was hurt. He focused really, really hard on getting healthy and getting back. It’s obviously harder the more years you have in this league and he came back and is now playing at a really, really high level.”
Indeed, the 35-year-old Staley seems to be benefiting from the missed time. His fresh legs were evident in the season’s final month and into the postseason. After a season-low pass block win rate of 83.3% in his return against Seattle, Staley got better as the season went on, finishing at 87.1%, not far off the 87.9% he had in 2018.
After San Francisco dispatched the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional round, Staley said he finds himself having trouble sleeping the night before games, noting that he gets “anxious.” The night before that victory, he woke up at 1 a.m. A half-hour later, he went back to sleep and then woke up again at 3, and ended up arriving at Levi’s Stadium 4½ hours before kickoff, the earliest he’d ever arrived. He got a full eight hours, albeit with periodic wake-ups, before the NFC Championship Game.
All things considered in a career of fits and starts, some anxious nights before games sure beats the ones Staley has endured when it comes to winning and losing. All of which makes this run to the Super Bowl meaningful for Staley, who has already swatted away any mention of retirement after this season. He’s having too much fun.
“We’re going to try to win these next couple for him, and nobody is really talking about it that much because he’ll get pissed at us for saying, ‘Win one for Joe’ or whatever,” McGlinchey said. “But that definitely adds a little bit of extra motivation because he deserves it. He deserves this kind of success because of what he’s done and who he is and the pro that he’s been.”