SANTA CLARA — It’s not often an offensive lineman is in the crosshairs of media cameras at playoff time.
Then again, there is no offensive lineman like Trent Williams, and perhaps no one’s health status is more significant going into the 49ers’ wild-card game Sunday at the Dallas Cowboys.
Williams, with his sprained elbow wrapped in support tape, practiced Thursday for the first time since getting injured. A bigger revelation came afterward, when he revealed he “gritted through” the injury after getting hurt only six snaps into a Jan. 2 win over the Houston Texans.
Now comes a trip to his native Texas to try upsetting the No. 3-seed Cowboys for his first career playoff win.
“It always feels good to go to Jerry’s World, to go to Texas, which I believe is the mecca of football, and to be one of the biggest shows on turf,” Williams said. “Come Sunday, everyone will be tuning in.
“This is a classic matchup that can go either way. Being in a game like that in an atmosphere like Texas, that gets me juiced up.”
Offensive tackles certainly could dictate where Sunday’s matchup goes — and whether quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Dak Prescott got protected. That concept wasn’t lost on the players who spoke Thursday.
Nick Bosa, the 49ers’ leader in sacks with 15 1/2, sure didn’t sound intimidated after complimenting the Cowboys’ starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, calling Smith a future Hall of Famer and citing him with Williams as the NFL’s best tackles.
“But they’re definitely beatable. There’s tape on them getting beat and we’re trying to do the same,” Bosa said of the Cowboys’ duo. “They’ve definitely been in and out of the lineup a lot this year and past years. Just the game plan is to make them work.”
As for the 49ers, Williams has missed two games all year, and veteran Tom Compton has come on strong the past seven starts at right tackle since replacing an injured Mike McGlinchey.
Williams was a late scratch before Sunday’s playoff-clinching comeback over the Los Angeles Rams, and he got his wish at returning this week in search of his first career playoff win; he lost wild-card games with Washington in 2012 and ’15.
Williams’ return is vital to help mitigate what he calls the NFL’s most dynamic trio of pass rushers: Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and rookie star Micah Parsons.
“I’ve played against him a bunch, obviously with Washington (three times, in 2015-18), and he gets the best out of me,” Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory told Dallas-area reporters. “He’s definitely up there as far as being considered one of the best tackles in the game. I’ll have to bring my ‘A’ game, physicality and all.”
Demarcus Lawrence balked at anticipating Williams’ impact, telling a Dallas-area reporter: “I think you’re trying to ask me what the challenge is that we present. And I’m not going to give it to you today. But just make sure you tune in on Sunday and we’ll let you know.”
If the 49ers (10-7) need to keep pace with the NFL’s most productive offense (31.2 points, 407 yards per game), then having Williams at left tackle is key. One byproduct is it would allow tight end George Kittle to run more pass routes than stay in to help block, something he did last game with Williams’ replacement, Colton McKivitz.
“He’s the best football player I’ve ever played with, so it’s very helpful,” Kittle said. “He makes everybody’s life a lot easier. Trent a little bit hurt is still better than almost everybody in the NFL, regardless of the position.”
Williams, 33, could received Associated Press All-Pro honors on Friday, marking the first time in his otherwise decorated career. He’s already been named to his ninth Pro Bowl, just as the 49ers hoped last spring upon awarding him the largest contract in NFL history for an offensive lineman (six years, $138.06 million).
“I’ve been disappointed year after year after year, so it’s come to a point I’m almost numb to it,” Williams said of the All-Pro team. “Yeah, I’d like to make it, but I’m not looking forward to it. If it happens, it happens, I thank God and keep moving.”
Looks like all participating:
LT Trent Williams (elbow)
Q! Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb)
RB Elijah Mitchell (knee)
S Jaquiski Tartt (groin)
LBs Greenlaw, Al-Shaair, Harris
P Wishnowsky pic.twitter.com/sxU8yYEiyP
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) January 13, 2022
Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel is aware he’s a candidate to coach the Miami Dolphins, and he’s not letting that distract him from this week’s task.
“There is no juggling,” McDaniel said. “It’s about the Dallas Cowboys, and the 49ers offense going down there and performing, and the team trying to do whatever it takes to get a win against a very good team.”
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who is black, has not been linked to any of the eight coach vacancies, and he said he hopes to someday mimic the annual excellence of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, the league’s only active black coach.
“As this new cycle comes around, multiple guys will get opportunities,” Ryans said, “and I would hope to see some change there and get many other African Americans get that gig, get that head-coaching job and be in a position to lead these young men.”
After leading Sunday’s comeback in Los Angeles, Jimmy Garoppolo continues to practice with a sprained thumb, and with the strong endorsement of his coaches, which included McDaniel on Thursday.
“He’s exhibiting even more ownership of the offense,” McDaniel said. “He’s really flexing his mental ability to get his vision forward, take any obstacle as a challenge.
“We’re seeing the best football Jimmy has played. His teammates feel it, you feel it, the fans feel it. To his credit, it’s his reps in the system, cutting it loose and teammates playing well around him.”
Garoppolo, after being limited in practices since last week, was a full participant Thursday.
Every player with health issues participated in the 49ers’ only full-speed workout this week. That included limited work for Williams, running back Elijah Mitchell (knee), punter Mitch Wishnowsky (concussion), safeties Jaquiski Tartt (groin) and Talanoa Hufanga (knee), and linebackers Azeez Al-Shaair (knee) and Marcell Harris (Achilles).
Full participants were linebacker Dre Greenlaw (groin), cornerback K’Waun Williams (COVID recovery), defensive tackle Mo Hurst (calf) and kick returner Trenton Cannon (Dec. 5 concussion).
Left guard Laken Tomlinson, the only Niner to play 100 percent of the snaps offensively or defensively, received a $264,705 bonus, which is what his $4.5 million salary amounted to per game, according to ESPN. His three-year contract is expiring and he is poised to hit free agency for the first time since entering the NFL as a 2015 first-round pick of the Detroit Lions, who dealt him to the 49ers in 2017. He’s appeared in 80 consecutive regular-season games.
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