Getting through the opener against the visiting Arizona Cardinals without incident would be cause for celebration for Williams, who was diagnosed with a rare cancerous growth on his head in January 2019.
For as quiet as Williams can be, his game has always spoken much louder, and he showed that 18 snaps into his emotional return. Williams threw a block on Arizona linebacker Jordan Hicks so jarring that social media and the internet immediately exploded in a way normally reserved for a Kardashian or, at least, a Mahomes.
In San Francisco’s locker room, Williams’ phone blew up. The texts came in waves as his block made the rounds on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and everything in between. A version of the block on “The Checkdown” Twitter account garnered 1.8 million views.
By the time Williams looked at it, he had played 62 snaps in a loss and had almost forgotten what happened. The 100-plus text messages offered a reminder. What he saw in his Twitter mentions ensured he wouldn’t forget.
“It went crazy,” Williams said. “Social media and all that s— went to a whole different level. I was surprised to kind of see the reaction by it.”
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 13, 2020
Traditionally, offensive linemen only grab attention for the wrong reasons. But when the 49ers visit the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS), Williams, who the Niners are optimistic will return from a sprained elbow for his first playoff game since 2016, will be one of the stars.
Joe Staley, the left tackle who preceded Williams with the Niners, went to six Pro Bowls, but ask Staley his most buzzworthy moment and he will instantly bring up the 2014 game against the Denver Broncos in which DeMarcus Ware beat him with a fake spin move.
Yes, even the best tackles get beat, but the hope is to avoid having the GIF vultures and meme leeches take notice.
Unless, of course, you’re Williams, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound tackle who has been clocked running 19.9 mph in a game, casually bench presses 400-plus pounds and has earned a reputation as such a dominant offensive tackle that he has brought linemen out of anonymity and into the spotlight.
“The things that Trent does, they are truly special,” Niners left guard Laken Tomlinson said. “Not hearing your name called, I think, is a good thing when it comes to offensive linemen. Obviously not for Trent, because he’s a superstar.”
‘That man has a family’
On a recent fall afternoon, Williams sits down and walks ESPN through the block on Hicks, step by step.
The play is a simple gap scheme run in which the right guard, Williams and Tomlinson are going to each take one of three defenders. Before the snap, Williams notes what is called a “guard bubble” in which nobody is lined up over Tomlinson. That alerts Williams to the fact that there’s nobody in his “gap,” which means he might have the chance to run free at Hicks, who is lined up about 7 yards away.
Williams’ hopes aren’t up just yet, though, as he is waiting to see if pre-snap motion will cause a defensive realignment. As Williams drops to a three-point stance, he realizes that isn’t happening.
Although Williams knows he is going to get a head of steam before the snap, he’s still expecting Hicks to see him in time to evade a clean shot. At the snap, Williams sees Hicks peeking at right guard Daniel Brunskill pulling from the opposite side.
As Williams strides toward Hicks, Williams still expects to be noticed before he can make contact. It’s not until he is about 2 yards away that Williams realizes he’s going to get the kind of free block linemen dream about. He runs clean through Hicks, planting him just inside the 15-yard line.
“He looked at me like, ‘What the hell?'” Williams said. “I just got on him so quick. He’s not used to that.”
Chad Orzel, an associate professor of physics at New York’s Union College, broke down the block from the perspective of Hicks, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds.
According to Orzel’s frame-by-frame breakdown of the play, Williams fires out of his stance and gets up to around 5 meters in 1.2 seconds and is in contact with Hicks for roughly 0.2 seconds, during which he drives Hicks backward by just more than a yard from more or less a standing start. That’s an acceleration rate of about 25 meters per second squared or almost 2.6 times the acceleration of gravity.
For a point of comparison, Orzel said that level of acceleration is a bit like what you’d feel if you were running at a wall at about 10 mph and stopped yourself with your arms or if you stopped something moving at 20 mph over a distance of about 10 feet.
“This is a nice illustration of the usual advice about big guys in football, namely that you don’t want to let them get up a head of steam,” Orzel said. “It’s a lot easier to keep them from getting started than to stop them once they’re moving.”
Or if you’d prefer your explanation in viral terms, Williams points to his favorite social media response to the block.
“People kept saying, ‘That man has a family,'” Williams said, laughing.
The evolution of the viral block
Long before social media existed, the only way for a young offensive lineman to watch and learn from those who came before him was to locate a VHS instructional tape, use a VCR and hope to pick up some pointers.
For an aspiring offensive tackle named Walter Jones in Aliceville, Alabama, a copy of “The Fundamental of Offensive Line Play,” starring then future Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz, was the only option.
Jones watched the tape repeatedly, studying everything from footwork to stances to hand placement. He watched it until the tape fell apart. The tape meant so much to Jones, who would go on to the Hall of Fame himself after nine Pro Bowls playing left tackle for the Seattle Seahawks, he is still searching for a copy.
“Every time I see Anthony Munoz, I say, ‘I know you’ve got that VHS somewhere in your garage or your basement or somewhere,'” Jones said. “That’s something I would love to have to put in my trophy case.”
Such relics are a product of a bygone era in which offensive linemen were rarely seen and heard even less. Until Jones and his contemporaries came along. Drafted over a two-year period starting in 1996, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and Jones introduced the world to a new breed of offensive tackle.
As a freshman at Longview (Texas) High School in 2003, Williams was just beginning to wrap his mind around playing offensive line. In pee wee football, he had started out as a running back but quickly grew too heavy. In middle school, he harbored dreams of playing tight end like his father, but Williams was bigger than most of the other kids, and his coach suggested tackle.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 29, 2021
By the time he reached high school, the Longview coaching staff told Williams he could be a rotational tight end or a starting tackle. The choice was easy once Williams understood how the likes of Pace and Ogden were changing the game.
But when Williams watched the top tackles, it was Jones he couldn’t stop watching. Williams saw that Jones was a few inches shorter than Ogden and Pace but a dynamic athlete. At the time, Williams wore No. 70 because his brother also wore it and his mom wanted to buy only one shirt she could wear to the varsity and JV or freshman games.
“Then when I saw Walter Jones, I just became obsessed with him,” Williams said. “I just watched the Seahawks every time I could. Then I switched my number to 71, kind of like wanting to be my own self and get up out of my brothers’ footsteps but then also paying tribute to my idol. That’s kind of how I learned it. When they told me that’s where I’d be, that’s who I wanted to learn from.”
Finding Seahawks games wasn’t always easy, but whenever he could, Williams would study Jones.
One game that wasn’t hard to find: the 2005 NFC Championship Game. It was the day Jones’ Seahawks advanced to their first Super Bowl, but it was also the day Jones delivered the biggest block of his career, one that undoubtedly would have had him trending had it taken place a decade later.
Like Williams, Jones’ biggest block also happened to come on the final play of the first quarter, a handoff to running back Shaun Alexander designed to go around the left side. After engaging the Carolina Panthers‘ Mike Rucker, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound lineman who had a solid, nine-year career, Jones got to Rucker’s outside shoulder and exploded forward, driving Rucker from Carolina’s 18-yard line to the 3-yard line before putting him on his back as Alexander gained 15 yards.
“That’s one of those blocks that you take with you forever,” Jones said. “I played 13 years, and that’s the only one that really stands out, so that just tells you how tough it is to do that in the NFL.”
Of course, while Jones might only really remember that one, there were plenty of others. The difference is he played in an era when such blocks weren’t quickly clipped and posted for the world to consume.
“It just sort of happened recently where people are paying attention to the trenches and how physical it can get in there and how much we can affect the outcome of the game,” Williams said.
Redefining the position
When the 49ers signed Williams to a record-setting deal averaging more than $23 million a year in March, coach Kyle Shanahan said one of the things he was most excited about was all the ways they could use Williams in the offense.
That’s not something you often hear about an offensive tackle, but it’s something Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel don’t shy away from because it challenges them to think about what Williams makes possible.
“Trent is a very unique player at his position in that he’s been probably the best athlete for about a decade at the position,” McDaniel said. “What people don’t realize is that Trent is very mindful about his craft. … Unparalleled talent in conjunction with a guy that it means a lot to, that is trying to be the best of the best each and every day. That’s meant a lot for our team and allowed us to do a lot of cool things with him this season and we’ll hopefully continue to do.”
While the Arizona block remains Williams’ career favorite, he has made a habit of going viral. There was the big block to free quarterback Trey Lance at the goal line for a touchdown in Week 3 this season. And the many times Williams has taken a grown man and tossed him to the ground.
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) September 27, 2021
The easy assumption is Williams uses his size and strength to make that happen, but as he tells it, none of those viral blocks would even have been possible without doing the mental legwork first. On any given play, Williams said his primary concern is getting to his assignment and that he’s never thinking in advance about leveling a defender with a crushing block.
“Sometimes, you have got the perfect angle to take advantage and be physical,” Williams said. “Sometimes, you have got to kind of approach it with white gloves so that you don’t miss.”
It’s not until Williams is engaged and on top of his assignment that he can flip the switch and do something that might set the internet abuzz.
“For offensive line, I know the pancake blocks and s— are real thrilling. But for me, I never go in looking to annihilate somebody; it just has to happen in the context of the play,” Williams said.
And yet, Williams seems to find a way to provide those thrills more often than any lineman in the league. It’s why teammates find themselves marveling at what Williams does both in real time and when they relive previous games on film.
“Trent is one of one,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “On the football field, off the football field, everything he does, there’s no one else that can do what he does and play at the level he does. He’s an incredible monster.”
At 33, Williams seems to be at the top of his game. This season, he earned his ninth Pro Bowl selection, and he is on pace to become the highest-graded player regardless of position in the history of Pro Football Focus. He already has set a new bar for other tackles to reach financially, and he has no designs on slowing down any time soon.
All of which is why the man Williams grew up idolizing believes he’ll one day welcome Williams to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the best to ever do it.
“I love to see the guys who have swag, and I think Trent — it’s just a different swag when you see it on the film,” Jones said. “A lot of times with offensive linemen, we don’t want to be noticed at all. We want to go out and play football. But I tell people all the time that offensive lineman can be rock stars now.”