Trent Williams is an all-time great reminder of Washington’s mistakes

The best way to think about the Washington Commanders as a new year dawns is to focus on the future and not wallow in the past. Who wants to be depressed right now? As 2024 opens, the entire operation will be blown up (please) in a (checks calendar) week. What’s ahead as new ownership enters its first full offseason has to be better than the dreck that’s on hand now, not to mention the quarter century that preceded it.

But a past so loaded with gaffes both minor and major is hard to shake, a dog that’s got your pants leg and won’t let go. Here, then, was Trent Williams on Sunday afternoon, toweling off and pulling on his size 14 sneakers in the visitors’ locker room at FedEx Field. There was so much to celebrate, what with his San Francisco 49ers’ 27-10 victory over the Commanders, then Arizona’s upset of reeling Philadelphia that clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs for Williams’s squad.

He endured so much in 10 seasons with Washington. Sunday afternoon, with a cross-country flight to take him into the new year, he beamed.

“I’ve got a great, great organization, great teammates,” Williams said. “They keep me young. I got a lot of young guys in here that I feed off of. They keep work fun. I’m having a blast.”

He is 35, and nearly 14 years after Washington took him with the fourth pick in the draft, he remains exactly the kind of player and person to build a team around. He was here, and he was essentially run off. That he arrived back at FedEx on a team that will be a favorite to reach the Super Bowl is a reminder of the stench that so recently defined the franchise. It matters still that Daniel Snyder employed Bruce Allen as team president, and Bruce Allen took a vengeful stance against Williams.

After outcry, Commanders add Trent Williams to ‘90 Greatest’ ballot

We’ll get to that, because it’s a reminder of how much damage was inflicted during Snyder’s reign, and how monumental the task facing new owner Josh Harris and his partners will be in the coming weeks and months and years. But even in recognizing Williams in a 49ers uniform as a symbol of all that has gone wrong in Ashburn, there should be an appreciation for just how — how to put this? How absolutely awesome a football player he is.

“It’s tough to win without a left tackle you can trust,” said Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco’s head coach who was Washington’s offensive coordinator when his father selected Williams out of Oklahoma in the 2010 draft. “And it helps you win when you probably have the best left tackle ever.”

“You can ask whatever you want about 71,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “I’ll stand on a soapbox for him.”

“He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Kittle said, “every … single … day.”

Couldn’t that have been the case in Washington? Not the way Washington operated.

“When they dealt me away for nothing,” Williams said, “I still had a lot left in the tank.”

He’s so right. In 2019, Williams was (understandably) furious that Washington’s medical staff didn’t accurately diagnose what turned out to be a cancerous tumor on his scalp. That offseason, he held out. When he returned to Ashburn just before the trade deadline prepared to play, the team instead decided to put him on the non-football injury list. Williams has always presumed Allen was behind the move that essentially told the best tackle of his generation to get lost.

The wounds were deep. But Williams has moved on. During warm-ups in the hours before Sunday’s game, he hugged Washington staffers on the FedEx sidelines. The last time he played here was five years ago. That’s a football lifetime.

“I honestly didn’t really feel a whole lot of emotion,” Williams said, “just because it’s been so long.”

What he did was what he does, and that’s play with a combination of strength and precision that is stunning. Even on an offense that includes Christian McCaffery, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kittle — yes, they’re all somehow on the same team — Williams can be the most fascinating player to watch.

On the 49ers’ very first play Sunday, he quickly turned his 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame to seal Commanders defensive end Casey Toohill. Boom — there’s the hole through which McCaffery easily gained nine yards. San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy wasn’t sacked all day. Williams is such a security blanket.

“It’s a combination of his athleticism, his size, and then just knowing what to do on every play,” Kittle said. “As a D-lineman, you just don’t know what to do. It’s just awesome. He can block anybody in any pass rush. And then in the run game, if you come off the ball too hard, he’ll just do his ninja stuff and throw you to the ground. Or if you try to plant, he’ll just run through your face and put you 10 yards back.”

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ loss to the 49ers

Shanahan knows exactly what he has in Williams. He gets him out in space, which is a sight to behold. He asks him to lead on screens and rushes out on the edge, knowing Williams has the athleticism to get wide in a hurry and then the size to bury defensive backs who aren’t accustomed to taking on such specimens.

“I appreciate how much he leans on me,” Williams said.

Shanahan knows Williams can’t and won’t bend his knees as deeply in walk-through as he did when he was a rookie all those years ago. He gives Williams grief for it.

“But once that ball snaps, he looks like he’s 23,” Shanahan said. “He’s as good an athlete as I’ve been around.”

And he now plays for the clear NFC favorites. For a player whose career began in Washington, this is uncharted territory.

“It all came full circle,” Williams said. “I’m really blessed to come back here and actually claim the No. 1 seed and do something I’ve never done in my career before.”

Simply keeping Williams couldn’t have saved Ron Rivera’s tenure as coach and football czar in Washington because the list of mistakes has grown too long. But in hindsight, that Rivera couldn’t or wouldn’t make every effort to mend those fences has to be added to the stew of failures that define his tenure. Allen had been fired. Part of assembling the best team for 2020 and beyond should have been identifying the assets that could have helped going forward.

Williams, in both talent and stature, fit. And Washington dealt him for one third-rounder and one fifth-rounder. Pennies on the dollar.

It hurt at the time. Sunday, he smiled broadly, because he knows life on the other side.

“They spare no expense when it comes to making sure players are taken care of, making sure that a player’s got every opportunity to be successful,” Williams said of the 49ers. “Whether that’s taking care of body maintenance off the field, whether that’s making sure we’ve got five-star chefs in the kitchen making us whatever we need, it starts from the top and goes down all the way to the bottom. I think the continuity our GM, head coach and owner have … creates the environment for us to be successful.”

Williams grew up in this sport knowing only dysfunction and defeat. He now knows what success looks like, feels like, smells like. If Harris’s 2023 was all about taking notes on how to right wrongs and do things better in the future, remember how the best offensive tackle of his generation — or ever — was mistreated here. This is the kind of stuff that can’t happen again.

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