Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, Elijah Mitchell, the quarterbacks – all very important parts of the San Francisco 49ers offense. But you know what makes all of these playmakers happen? God given talent and hard work, you say. Correct. But you know what else? The offensive line.
“Those guys those guys are the hardest on themselves out of any position group we have.” said 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan. “They always are looking to get better…The way that they practice, the way they do individual. [Offensive line coach] Chris [Foerster] has done an unbelievable job with that group. Trent [Williams] being the older guy and the superstar of the O-line position, he’s been an unbelievable leader…Every time that they’ve struggled with something, they’ve corrected it the next week and really just focused on football all year and they’ve played at a very high level.”
Coming into the season, there were questions. Alex Mack retired, Laken Tomlinson went to the Jets, RT Mike McGlinchey was coming off a serious injury and second-year player Aaron Banks was maybe the biggest question mark of them all.
“Obviously Trent is Trent, but early in this season everybody’s calling for the neck of front office for not investing in the interior of the offensive line,” said McGlinchey. “All we’ve done is play ball. And we played it at a damn good level and one that we’re constantly trying to improve at. And I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of is the guys that are in our room understand that it’s not about being the best in Week one, it’s about being the best February 12th.”
All the questioning and criticism was much ado about nothing. Rookie Spencer Burford has been a pleasant surprise at right guard, while Aaron Banks has proven to be worthy of the 2021 second-round pick he is at left guard.
“I mean, they’re good players, great players, that all they needed was an opportunity,” Williams said. “Just because they young, don’t mean that they can’t play. That’s turnover in the league, get a new guy up and everybody is a question mark until they see them perform. And then, that’s how you make your name in the league.”
That mindset has helped the unit be consistent and improve all season.
“I think they’ve gotten so much better,” said 49ers’ tight end George Kittle. “It’s one thing that we’ve been completely blessed with is the healthy line all year…When you have an O-line that gels like they are right now, I think it’s a really hard O-line to go against, especially in the run game.”
And has been well documented, the success of the 49ers’ offense is very much dependent on the run game.
“They do a very good job and, in my opinion, we the best O-line in the league,” said running back Elijah Mitchell. “Hats off to them. They’re amazing.”
Unlike in other positions, when an offensive lineman is singled out, it’s usually not for something good. They are appreciated by their quarterbacks and their running backs, but, save Trent Williams, this position group is not the one that’s getting all the glory.
“You show up and you do work and you go home,” said 49ers’ center Jake Brendel. “Usually if you’re singled out, it’s usually because you’e doing something bad. So you just kind of keep your nose to the grindstone and you just show up and you try and do the best you can for the team and for the guys around you…I feel like the guys next to me in the offensive line do a really good job at doing their best to help me, as do I to them, and it’s been working out.”
On the times when an O-lineman is singled out for something positive, the 49ers unit wants to keep everyone’s ego in check, so to speak.
“In our room, we have a little joking around where, when guys do do well we kind of call him out, just kind of fun,” said the offensive line’s sixth man, so to speak, Daniel Brunskill. “We’re still giving him credit, but it’s just to make sure a guy doesn’t get full of himself, take too much credit, start feeling like he’s super badass or something. This is all of us together. And so, I mean it’s just kind of way we keep our group grounded, and it’s always been a great thing we’ve had.”
McGlinchey has a particular way of congratulating his fellow linemen.
“If you see Mike McGlinchey, you go watch some of the times when he sees his guy do something well, he goes and tries to head butt him as hard as he can,” Brunskill said. “It’s always funny.”
The O-line has had to block for three different quarterbacks. The season started with Trey Lance. Jimmy Garoppolo took over for Lance after he was injured in Week 2. Then it was the rookie Brock Purdy taking over for Purdy when Garoppolo went down in Week 13. Is there an adjustment from quarterback to quarterback?
“The cadence, that’s probably the only thing,” rookie Spencer Burford said. “Other than that, at the end of the day, you still going to have to do the same thing. Some quarterbacks get out faster than others, some don’t, so at the end of the day, you’re going to have to block for whoever’s back there. If they throw Kyle [Shanahan] back there, he’s got to throw the ball. We’re going to have to block for Kyle. Regardless of what happens after that, we got to make sure that we do our part first.”
It’s probably safe to say that if Shanahan takes over as QB1, things have gone terribly wrong.
“You’ve got to have a short mentality, a one play mentality, one play at a time,” Burford said. “You can’t go back and correct something that already happened, what happened happened, so you’ve got to move on, make sure to keep your head in the game and stay focused.”
It is definitely a benefit to both the younger linemen and the veterans to have an All-Pro and the best left tackle in the league as part of their unit.
“Trent is amazing, just the type of player he is,” said Daniel Brunskill. “He’s a seasoned vet, he’s seen a lot of football, so he’s always bringing up little things that kind of just help…And then just to watch some of his play…just to see a guy move and make some crazy blocks, just kind of makes you learn some things and try to do better, just like him.”
Chemistry and cohesiveness are two qualities of a high-performing offensive line, and this one has it.
“Our guys stick together really well and we have a good group of guys that hang together pretty tight,” Foerster said. “There is a lot of ribbing when you get called out good, you don’t want to get called out good too much and when it is bad, they do rally around each other. It’s a good group…Guys like working together to help each other get better. They all see the benefit…Everybody at this point just realizes that if we just keep building and working together, we can do something special.”
For the seventh-round draft pick, third-string, rookie quarterback, having the unit protect him has been extremely helpful for Brock Purdy.
“I think that they’ve done a tremendous job all season, even before I got in,” Purdy said. “And then obviously with me as well, being able to extend plays and whatnot, that happens when the defense does a good job in covering our guys, but if you look at our pass protection, those guys have done a great job all year. Both of our tackles, guards, center they communicate very well and they give me a pocket to step up in and to make plays and to make my reads…What they’ve done and how they’ve been coached by coach Foerster, man, it’s been a blessing for me to be able to grow in terms of trusting the pocket, go through my progressions.”
Next up, the Dallas defense on Sunday at 3:30 pm PT for a trip to Philadelphia and the NFC Championship.