For 49ers, offensive success is all on the line
NEW ORLEANS -- It was not difficult to find the members of the San Francisco 49ers' offensive line on the turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday, even though thousands of people were there, including peppy guys dressed as superheroes and kings, and foreign television personalities whose pants bore the same relationship to their lower extremities as saran wrap does to pre-shucked ears of supermarket corn.
For one thing, the Niners' linemen are by and large enormous, even for men of their chosen profession. The five starters stand an average of 6-foot-5, and weigh an average of 317 pounds. For another, most of them are about as famous as people who play their positions can become. Three of San Francisco's starters were first-round draft picks, and three have made the Pro Bowl.
At Media Day, left tackle Joe Staley -- a 2007 first-rounder out of Central Michigan, and a two-time All-Pro -- was given his own podium, from which he good-naturedly held forth on topics such as what it feels like to play an NFL game ("Run five miles, then smash yourself into a cement wall 50 times, then run again") and whether he prefers American Idol or The Voice (the former, he said, before launching into his best Ryan Seacrest: "THIS ... is American Idol!")
Left guard Mike Iupati, a 2010 first-rounder and a Pro Bowler this year, was asked to record a greeting to his undoubtedly teeming fan base in Brazil. Jonathan Goodwin, the center and a Pro Bowl reserve in 2010, was asked when he had learned that this year's Super Bowl would be held in New Orleans, where he used to play with the Saints ("Uh, I guess when everybody else did"). Both right tackle Anthony Davis (the 11th overall pick in 2010) and veteran reserve Leonard Davis (himself a former first-rounder and Pro Bowler) spent the hour-long session as the center of swarms.
The 49ers linemen are entirely deserving of all the extra attention, not just because of their pedigrees, but because of their collective performance, particularly when their team chooses to run the ball. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2012 Niners were not just the best run blocking team in the NFL, but the best since the analytics website began assigning grades to such a thing five years ago. In other words, San Francisco's rushing average of 5.1 yards per carry -- the NFL's third highest -- stems not from the running talents of tailback Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick alone.
Part of the line's effectiveness against the run comes from the fact that it has been unusually healthy, and unusually cohesive. San Francisco was one of three teams to field the same five starters, in the same alignment, in every game this season. Goodwin, as the center and, at 34, the line's senior member, is the vocal leader. "He's our father figure," says Staley. "On our last drive in the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons, he was screaming something, and I said, 'You're yelling at me like you're my dad!' "
"I do get to yelling at them a lot on the field," admits Goodwin. Often, though, the center does not need to say anything at all, because his line has come to work in such a natural symbiosis. "A lot of times, we don't need to make calls, because we know by now what the other guys are thinking," he says. "That's a huge advantage, especially when you're playing in places with crowd noise and things like that."
It is one of many advantages the 49ers will have in the cacophonous Superdome on Sunday, against Baltimore's defensive front. "This is probably the best offensive line we'll play, just their size, athleticism and speed," says Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a future Hall of Famer.
Another difficulty that the Niners' line presents, says Ngata, is that unlike most, it does not have a weak link. There is no one lineman that a defense can attack when rushing the passer, and none whose run blocking deficiencies forces the offense to direct rushing attempts away from him, which would make its attack at least somewhat predictable. In the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons, for example, Gore ran left seven times, up the middle six times, and right eight times. "We feel pretty good running to either side," says head coach Jim Harbaugh, in something of an understatement
Entering the regular season, it seemed as if there would be at least one member of the line whom opposing defenses would be able to exploit. At Tuesday's Media Day, he was among the team's least approached players, even though, at 6-8, he was the tallest person in the building. Right guard, the position played by Alex Boone, is perhaps the least glamorous on the entire field, and unlike many of his linemates, Boone was not a first-rounder (he was undrafted) and he has not been a Pro Bowler. He stood near the back of the throng, and one or two reporters approached him at a time, if any did at all. "There were a lot of question marks going into the season," says offensive coordinator Greg Roman about Boone, and the public has apparently yet to catch up to the fact that Boone -- in his first season as a starter -- has answered every one of them. "He's a beauty," says Roman. "He just is. Every day, he brings a lot of energy, enthusiasm, a no-fear mindset to the table. We're fortunate he was able to take that step and play as well as he has."
According to PFF, Boone, who had not before 2012 started a single game in his four-year career, was the third-best guard in the league, and the second-best lineman on his team, behind only Staley. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider that Boone had previously always been a tackle, and is extraordinarily tall for a guard. "It's like having a fight in a phone booth," Boone says, of the challenges of his still-new position. "When you're a tackle, you always want to create space, and it's more a matter of hand-fighting out there. Inside, it's more grappling, you're punching, you're going nuts. Going in, I was like, 'Man, this is going to be cake. Guards are lazy, they don't do anything.' My first day, I was like, 'No, this is not going to be cake.' These guys have it harder than the tackles. A lot more chaos, bigger guys, they're out to kill ya. It's a different world on the inside. I love it, though."
In recent years, Boone has faced challenges even more daunting than a move a few feet to his left. He went undrafted out of Ohio State in 2009 not because he didn't possess the size -- obviously -- nor the experience (he was a two-time All Big-Ten selection), but mainly because he was an alcoholic. He once admitted that in college he would drink 30 to 40 beers a day, and he has a few alcohol-related arrests to his name, one of which came just before the Combine, when police found him jumping on parked cars and swinging from the cable of a tow truck. "Had some lows, some very low lows," he says. When he arrived at the Combine, he found that NFL teams knew not just about his arrests, but about other incidents that had gone publicly unreported.
"I was very naïve," he says. "I was like, 'Come on, these alcohol problems are not a problem, they're going to love me!' But at the Combine, I sat down with GMs, coaches, and every one of them was like, 'You are an issue. You are a problem. We don't want to deal with this. You are a major headcase, you drink way too much, you are not worth the hassle.'"
"I can play football, though," Boone told them.
"We don't care," they said.
The 49ers took a chance on Boone, and put him on their practice squad in 2009. There, he began to get his life in order, with the help of former Saints and Browns center LeCharles Bentley, his offensive line tutor back at home in Ohio and his mentor. He stopped his outrageous drinking. "Going undrafted, my eyes were wide open after that," Boone says. "This isn't a joke anymore. This is what I want to do. I gotta get sober, I gotta stop." Not entirely unrelatedly, he dropped 40 pounds of fat (he is now a relatively svelte 300). He made his pro debut in the last game of the 2010 season, and he played off the bench in every game in 2011. This year, it has only seemed as if he has come out of nowhere to become an anchor in a line full of them.
"Coming in as a rookie, if you were to see how he was then, and how he is now, it's been night and day," says Staley. "Really changed his lifestyle -- everything, eating, working out. He's been a big part of why we've had success up front. He's very intelligent, keeps things together."
For most of his life, Alex Boone felt out of place. He was taller than his first grade teacher, and had to have his own special desk in the back of his elementary school classrooms, because he couldn't wedge himself into those assigned to his classmates. "It was very embarrassing," he says. That he felt like an outcast for so long might have been one source of his troubles with alcohol. Now, though, he has found his place among the Niners' offensive linemen, even if he is at present less celebrated than the rest of them. "They build me up, they make me look good all the time, and I'm fortunate to be with them," he says. As they prepare to face the Ravens, the 49ers are fortunate, too, as Boone has become the unlikely final key to what might be the greatest of their many strengths.