Multiple Michigan ties reside in NFL playoffs
It's not often that an offensive tackle plays a leading role on the highlight film of a touchdown run, but Joe Staley of the 49ers was the front man on one of the signature plays so far in this year's NFL playoffs.
Staley sprinted downfield to make the final block on quarterback Alex Smith's 28-yard run down the left sideline in last week's 36-32 divisional round victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Staley's block was delivered in such overpowering style, with a blend of speed, hustle and determination, that it stood out on the highlight reels and got almost as much attention as Smith's run.
As the playoff schedule moves into Sunday's conference championships – Ravens at Patriots in the AFC, Giants at 49ers in the NFC – coaches and players with Michigan roots and backgrounds have prominent places in the national spotlight.
The light shines brightest on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl champion who played at Michigan, and three of the four head coaches. All have strong Michigan connections.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was a young defensive assistant with the Lions in 1976-77.
The Harbaugh brothers – John of the Ravens, Jim of the 49ers – have made history by being the first brothers to get their teams to the playoffs in the same season as head coaches.
Both attended Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. Jim went on to play quarterback at Michigan and spent 15 seasons in the NFL. John was an assistant coach at Western Michigan.
But the spotlight also has landed on Staley, who played at Rockford High School, north of Grand Rapids, and Central Michigan before being drafted by the 49ers in the first round in 2007.
Smith fooled the Saints on a crucial third and 7 in the fourth quarter of last week's game, with clear sailing as he sprinted around left end for a touchdown.
It was an easy first down, but Smith got more than that. Staley got downfield to wipe out Saints safety Asa Adgul-Quddus with a perfect cut block at the 10-yard line.
The touchdown gave the 49ers a 29-24 lead with 2:11 left. There was still more scoring left – a 66-yard TD catch by Jimmy Graham for a 32-29 Saints lead, and Smith's game-winning throw to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds left.
The frenetic finish did not take any luster away from Staley's block.
Jim Harbaugh told reporters later what Staley had said in the locker room after the game.
"Wait until you see my block on film," Staley told his teammates.
Jim Harbaugh brought it up again later in the week when he spoke to reporters in the buildup to Sunday's game against the Giants.
Staley came into the NFL with the reputation of being an unusually athletic offensive lineman. He began his career at Central Michigan as a 225-pound tight end but moved to offensive tackle and gradually grew into the position.
He lost none of his speed, though. In workouts for the scouts before the '07 draft, Staley was timed in 4.74 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Staley displayed that speed in getting downfield on Smith's TD run.
"I would say Joe was running like a tight end, but he wasn't," Jim Harbaugh told reporters earlier this week. "He was running faster. He was running like a DB.
"And it was a tremendous block. The stride. The beauty of the arm action. The leg cycle. The speed.
"Joe is that kind of athlete."
The following is a brief look at others involved in the conference championships with Michigan connections:
49ers: Coach Jim Harbaugh was the Bears' first-round draft pick in 1977 after a stellar career at Michigan. As an active player, he spent seven seasons with the Bears, four with the Colts, one with the Ravens and two with the Chargers.
Harbaugh was cut by the Lions at the end of training camp in 1991. He later signed with Carolina but was not active for a game.
He earned the nickname "Captain Comeback" for leading the 1995 Colts teams to comeback victories. They lost to the Steelers in the AFC Championship.
Center Jonathan Goodwin, who played at Michigan, is in his 10th pro season but first with the 49ers. Goodwin was a starter on the 2009 Saints team that won the Super Bowl.
Giants: Center David Baas played at Michigan and began his career with the 49ers as a second-round draft pick in 2005. Baas signed with the Giants this season.
Wide receivers Marion Manningham (Michigan) and Devin Thomas (Michigan State) and rookie linebacker Greg Jones (Michigan State) are backups.
Jim Hermann, who coaches the Giants' linebackers, was a player and assistant coach at Michigan and played at Dearborn Divine Child High School.
Patriots: The coach-quarterback combination of Belichick and Brady already has achieved legendary status, and it continues to grow.
Brady's pro career certainly dwarfs anything he accomplished at Michigan. His greatness and stature all have been achieved after departing Ann Arbor.
Belichick and Brady began their NFL careers on common ground. No one could have foreseen greatness for either.
Belichick began as a special assistant with the Colts in 1975 and moved on to the Lions after one year. He was a bright, energetic defensive assistant and quickly climbed the coaching ladder.
Brady was a sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2000 – Belichick's first season as their head coach. Brady threw only one pass as a rookie – against the Lions in a lopsided loss on Thanksgiving Day – but Belichick and his staff saw enough potential that they kept four quarterbacks on the roster.
An injury to Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season elevated Brady to the starting job, and he never relinquished it.
Brady was competent as a starter at Michigan, where he posted a 20-4 record as a starter, but it was overshadowed by a forced competition with Drew Henson.
Brian Hoyer (Michigan State) and Ryan Mallett (Michigan, transfer to Arkansas) are Brady's backups.
Punter Zolton Mesko was drafted out of Michigan in 2010. Guard Rick McDonald, who started two games in 2011, made the roster in 2010 as an undrafted rookie out of Grand Valley State and Henry Ford High School in Detroit.
Assistant coach Pepper Johnson played 13 NFL seasons as a linebacker, including 1996 with the Lions. He also played at Detroit Mackenzie High before going to Ohio State.
Ravens: John Harbaugh played at Ann Arbor Pioneer and later was an assistant coach at Western Michigan for three years (1984-86).
John Harbaugh was hired as head coach of the Ravens in 2008 after 10 seasons as the Eagles' special-teams coordinator. The Ravens have made the playoffs all four seasons with Harbaugh as head coach.
Defensive tackle Corey Redding played six seasons with the Lions and one with Seattle before going to the Ravens in 2010.
Brandon McKinney of Michigan State is a backup on the defensive line.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was an assistant coach at Michigan. Andy Moeller is a defensive assistant who was a player and assistant coach at Michigan.