Joe Staley turned heads with his early evaluation of Kyle Shanahan last June. His comments following a minicamp practice provided instant credibility to Shanahan, John Lynch and the entire new regime leading the San Francisco 49ers.
That's because Staley's voice carries serious weight as the team's longest-tenured player. The 49ers drafted their star left tackle in 2007 with the 28th-overall pick out of Central Michigan. In his 11 years in San Francisco, Staley has seen the 49ers transform from a 5-11 underachiever into a powerhouse that made three-straight trips to the NFC Championship Game, only to fall back into the basement of the NFL standings.
San Francisco's free fall hit rock bottom with a 2-14 record in 2016. Shanahan became the 49ers fourth head coach in four years when he was hired last February. Given the turbulence of the franchise in recent years, no one would have faulted Staley for taking a "wait and see" approach with Shanahan. That's what made his endorsement over the summer so profound.
"I haven't felt like this in a long time at the end of the offseason program," Staley told reporters in June. "The energy is back in the building – the excitement level and the attention to detail. I'm enjoying football again. I'm excited to come to work every single day. There were days the last few years where I couldn't honestly say that."
Even as the losses mounted to open the season – nine straight to be exact – Staley's confidence in Shanahan never wavered, and the left tackle's trust in the process became paramount. It's impossible for a coach to keep hold of a locker room without the veterans buying in. That leads us to one of the year's pivotal turning points.
Shanahan came to Staley with a favor ahead of San Francisco's Week 10 home game against the New York Giants. It's tradition that a few players speak at the final team meeting each Saturday night before a game. Shanahan asked his left tackle if he was willing to share a few words.
Staley, who enjoys public speaking about as much as an introverted third grader with a speech impediment, obliged.
"Joe is a funny guy, and he's got a great personality, but I don't think he loves to sit in the front of the room and talk," Shanahan said. "I remember when I asked him to, he almost had a panic attack."
Staley kept things brief. Daniel Kilgore estimates that his fellow offensive lineman spoke for no more than two-and-a-half minutes. Staley swiftly covered the ebbs and flows of his career and reiterated to his teammates that this year's roster was composed of a special group of players. He made the point that nobody had turned on one another as so often happens amid a losing season.
"I told them that I'm excited to go to work with them everyday," Staley paraphrased his speech. "I believe in what we're doing here, and I told them to stay the course. Everything else will take care of itself in terms of wins and losses."
Staley openly admits that he's not a "rah-rah" guy and much prefers to lead by example – you know, like returning to the lineup just one week removed from a broken orbital bone. But while he'd never give himself the credit, there's no denying that his words resonated with everyone in the room.
For a man who loathes speaking in front of a group, Staley knocked it out of the park.
"He's a man of few words, and so when he got up there, everyone got quiet and listened," DeForest Buckner said. "That's the type of respect everyone has for him."
Added Shanahan: "There are very few people in the locker room that demand that kind of attention."
Sure enough, the 49ers throttled the Giants, 31-21, the very next day to capture their first win of the season. New York's garbage time touchdown late in the fourth quarter was the only reason the final score resembled a semi-close game.
San Francisco has now rattled off four wins in its last five games, including three-straight against the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. It's the 49ers first winning streak since 2014.
Some guy named Jimmy Garoppolo has played a sizeable role in the team's turnaround, but Staley also deserves his fair share of credit for his part. His intangibles as a leader are only magnified by the fact that he's still one of the game's best left tackles. Staley's 83.9 overall grade this season ranks seventh among all NFL tackles according to Pro Football Focus. That's why Staley remains a centerpiece of San Francisco's rebuild that all of a sudden is showing light at the end of the tunnel.
"Joe has been great," Shanahan said. "I had a very high regard for Joe before I got here from watching him on tape. He hasn't disappointed at all. He's exceeded expectations."
The 49ers arrow is pointing up. Staley knows it and so does the national perception surrounding the organization. With a potential franchise quarterback in Garoppolo, somewhere in the ballpark of $100 million in cap space and immense draft capital, there's no reason why the 49ers can't contend for a playoff spot as soon as 2018.
"I'm pretty amped up about where we're at and what we're building," Staley said. "The last few years have been really hard for me – being with one team and feeling like my career is coming to an end. This season has definitely rejuvenated me, and I can feel that excitement again.
"What we're building here is something special, and you're seeing that come to fruition."