49ers key to success: Joe Staley

When Joe Staley has a foot injury, it's no little thing. The strapping 315-pound tackle, who had one of the best seasons ever last year by a San Francisco rookie offensive lineman, is all about footwork. And Staley's fancy footwork on the left side of the offensive line will be worth watching this season as he flips from the right side to take on the best defensive ends that the NFL has to offer.

Of course, Staley says, you get no break in today's NFL whichever side of the line you play.

"The right-side defenders that are in the NFL now are just as good as the ones on the left," Staley said late Wednesday morning after his first day of taking part in full practice drills after returning from an unusual bout with cellulitis in his right foot. "There are just as good pass rushers on the right side as there are on the left side now. I don't think it's any more important than any other position on the offensive line."

But the good-natured, well-spoken Staley is being modest. Actually, left tackle is the most important position on the offensive line – and one of the most important positions in all of football. And there is a reason Staley is playing the position for the 49ers.

In just his second season, he might already be San Francisco's best offensive lineman. It can certainly be argued that his rookie season last year – when Staley became the first offensive lineman in the 49ers' 62-year history ever to start all 16 games in his rookie season – Staley played as well, if not better, than any other starter on a line that had a rather drastic slide in performance over the season before.

And so, he now is locked into the left tackle slot that is a consequential for any NFL team. How well Staley plays there this season certainly will be a key to the 49ers' success this year and particularly in how well they perform on an offense that finished a distant 32nd – dead last – in the NFL rankings inn 2007.

Even Staley had to admit he knows how the importance of the left side is viewed by most observers, not to mention those in the know who make decisions regarding who plays where.

"I mean, I think the media and the fans look at the left side as being the premier position, so it gets more publicity," Staley said. "So you're more in the public eye if you're on the left side at left tackle. But it's just another position. You just happen to be blocking the quarterback's blind side, so I guess you get a little more added pressure."

Staley's got that right. And whoever was playing left tackle for the 49ers last year – it was Jonas Jennings starting five games last season and Adam Snyder starting the other 11 – had a little trouble holding up to the pressure, along with the rest of San Francisco's offensive line.

The 49ers allowed a franchise-record 55 sacks last season, and although Staley was part of that problem, he clearly improved as the season progressed and was playing his best football at the end of it – and maybe the best football of all the linemen.

Meanwhile, for the third consecutive year, Jennings was doing little to convince anyone that he is worth the premier-left-tackle money the 49ers are paying him after giving him a $36 million deal in 2005 as the first big-ticket item of the Mike Nolan era. His season ended on injured reserve last year for the second time in three years and, while he can be an effective tackle when healthy, Jennings has missed all or parts of 32 of his 48 games as a 49er due to injury.

Snyder, who has played well at tackle as a starter before, wasn't the answer, either, and now the team is moving him full time to guard to try to get the best out of him there. So Staley is the man at left tackle, and everybody seems to be feeling good about that, Staley in particular.
"Moving to the left side, it's a side I feel very comfortable at," Staley said. "I played my final two years in college there. Once you get the transition that's in your mind, as far as the footwork and everything, its pretty much the same as playing the right side. It's more just protecting the quarterback's blind side and the mental preparation.

"I feel like I have to be perfect. I don't want anything to happen to my side. I want Alex (Smith), Shaun (Hill), J.T. (O'Sullivan) – whoever's the quarterback back there – to feel confident I'm going to get the job done. I want to give them peace of mind and also open holes for whoever's carrying the ball. The coaches have decided to put me on the left side and I'm going to go at it and do my best out there. I'm not going into my second year getting lazy with practice thinking I had some success last year and I'm going to do the same thing."

Staley missed the first five days of training camp practice because of an infection that caused his foot to, as he put it, "swell up like one of those blow-up doctor gloves. It was completely red – dark, dark red – and swollen. I couldn't even put weight on it or bend it. My toes were all swollen up – the swelling was all the way up to the ankle. It was pretty bad."

But a few trips to Stanford Hospital and what Staley called "a great job" by the team's medical staff allowed the infection to heal more quickly than usual, and Staley was back on the field within a week of his ailment being at its very worst.

"I'd rather have him practicing, but I'm not overly concerned because there is a lot of training camp left, and he'll get a lot of work at that position," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He did the (spring organized activities) and he's got a lot of work already, so we're OK. He looked good (Wednesday)."

And the 49ers will need Staley looking good the rest of the year to help their struggling offense put its best foot forward.

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