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Lowell Cohn: 49ers' Joe Staley is team's best player

SANTA CLARA - Joe Staley is the best player on the 49ers. Does his job better than anyone else. Does it better even than NaVorro Bowman, slowed down by injury.

Staley is entering his 10th season with the 49ers, his only team, and he is the left tackle and that means he protects the quarterback's blindside from defenders.

Offensive linemen preserve law and order. Uphold the status quo from defenders who wreck things and generally wreak havoc. If football were chess - it almost is - offensive linemen keep the king alive. They are the most intelligent players on the team - for the most part - and they generally are normal people like you and me. You talk to an offensive lineman, you understand each other.

Staley is a throwback to great 49ers linemen like Keith Fahnhorst and Randy Cross, Super Bowl winners. He grew up in Rockford, Michigan, where his dad, Butch, is a mailman. On Saturdays, young Staley would figure out Butch's route and have lunch with him. A Norman Rockwell Middle America kind of life.

I never interviewed Staley one on one. A lapse on my part. Rectified on Monday after the 49ers practice. I want you to know Staley. I started by asking what keeps him going. Why does he still play football, especially on a rebuilding team?

“It's a cliché answer,” he said, sitting in the media tent near the field, wiping his sweat-bathed face with a towel, “but I love football. I'm going to play until I don't love it anymore. I love the team aspect. It is really a team sport. It's not just about you. On offense, you have to rely on 10 other people on every single play.

“There's the mentality of not letting someone else down. When I was little, my dad was one of those dads that was like, ‘I'm not mad but I'm disappointed in you.' That kind of thing. It's been instilled in me - don't let people down. Hold up your end of the bargain.”

Call that the offensive lineman's code.

“Also, I don't have a lot of choices when it comes to sports as big as I am (6-5, 315). I could be a shot putter maybe. That's about it as far as professional sports.”

So, what does he love about playing left tackle?

“Left tackle is one of the things I had to learn to love,” he said. “I was a receiver in high school. I was a tight end in college (Central Michigan). I got moved my sophomore year. I really did have all the aspirations of catching touchdown passes. What I've learned to love about left tackle is there's a lot of pressure.”

He loves the pressure?

“You could play a great game,” he said, “but if you have two really bad plays, then it's the worst game of the season. I enjoy that pressure. And I enjoy the game within a game.

“You watch the game. You have the 49ers vs. whoever. Then there's the offense vs. defense. Running game vs. whatever. And then there's me vs. another guy. I'm going against the one guy every single play. There are things I do in the first quarter trying to set him up for the third or fourth quarter. And the defensive player is doing the same thing to me.

“I have to anticipate if he's trying to set me up or if he's trying to make me think he's setting me up for something later. I study my ass off. I prepare my ass off physically. You have to be incredibly mentally tough to play offensive line. You have to be physically tough. It's a culmination of so many different aspects of your life you carry over to what you want to be as a man.

“Here's what I mean by mentally tough. Say we're on the road. Say we're down by two scores and it's the beginning of the fourth quarter, and they know we're passing the ball, and there's crowd noise. You have to be able to focus in the moment. You have to be able to read coverages, remember some minute detail you saw on Wednesday night film study by yourself. And also remember what this guy did on a third-down play in the second quarter. And what's this guy's favorite move? You have to process everything so fast.

“And it's impersonal. The guy I'm going against is just a number. I don't ever think oh, this guy's a trash talker or this guy's a good person or this guy's my friend or this guy's not my friend. Obviously, I know who he is. When I play the LA Rams, I know I'm going against Robert Quinn. But when you're watching film, it's 94 doing a speed rush.

“I have in-game experience against most of the guys I face, so I watch the games I've gone against them to see what they did. Guys play me different because I am different, not a typical tackle. I'm lighter. More athletic. But after the game, they become people again. I have lots of friends in the league. I think guys respect me because I give respect.”

When Staley gets beaten and the rusher sacks the quarterback, what is he thinking?

“It's one of the worst feelings. My main job is to protect other guys. When I don't, I let my teammates down. I help the quarterback up. I say, ‘That's on me. What's the next play?' I can't waste time feeling guilty.

“I had a game my rookie year against Michael Strahan and I got beat for a sack really early and I thought about it the whole game. ‘Here I am going against one of my childhood heroes and I just gave up a sack to him and I don't belong in the NFL.' Self-doubt snowballed into the worst game I ever played.' I don't have time for that. Just move on.”

Here's a quick Staley story, personal to me.

After the 49ers lost the NFC championship game in Seattle, ending their 2013 season, Staley thought he had been discourteous to me in the quiet, dreary, grief-stricken visiting locker room. I did not think so. While I was waiting in the media room for Jim Harbaugh a few minutes later, the door opened and Staley walked in. He looked sad. He came over to me. Apologized in front of everyone for being rude. “I know it's hard to ask questions to us after a difficult loss,” he later told me. “I felt like I was being short.”

It's rare when athletes apologize to me or empathize with me or see things from my point of view. But most athletes aren't offensive linemen, and most offensive linemen aren't Joe Staley.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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