It’s been a while since the San Francisco 49ers were last, you know, good. Which means that Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald did not spend a lot of time gaining the experience of being on a winning team during his first four seasons in the league.
A second-round draft pick by San Francisco in 2013, the 49ers did actually go 12-4 that season. They did not win their the division, that honor going to the Seattle Seahawks, but they did reach the NFC Championship game, where they lost to the aforementioned waterbirds.
From 2014 through 2016, however, San Francisco won just 15 games, losing 33. They won just two games in McDonald’s final season there working primarily with Blaine Gabbert and then with Colin Kaepernick.
Coming to Pittsburgh and immediately going 13-3, winning the division title and locking up a playoff bye, all of those were new experiences for McDonald (though to be fair, the Steelers had not earned bye since 2010, nor gone at least 13-3 since 2004).
The tight end was a name that was shopped around even going as far back as the draft, during which the 49ers addressed the position, but there were not suitors at the time willing to give them an offer they could accept. Whether they lowered their asking price or the Steelers stepped up to the plate, the two parties worked out a deal late in the preseason.
That sudden change can be a shock, but McDonald said that what came after the trade certainly made the transition an easier one than it could have been.
“Having the success always helps”, he told the team’s website. “That is something I haven’t had a ton of in my career. I was learning through that and enjoying it. Pittsburgh has had a lot of success in the past, winning and going to the playoffs. I am looking at everybody in the room and they are like, this is normal. Everyone always says winning makes everything easier”.
Even to this day, McDonald has only been a part of the Steelers’ organization for about seven months, having been acquired at the end of August. He spent the entirety of the season trying to catch up and learning the offense while striving to be a contributing…battling a litany of injuries along the way.
While he said that there were times that he felt out of place, he credited the tight end room for helping him feel grounded. “You spend the most time with those guys. Our locker room in general is extremely competitive, there is always talk, it’s fun. It’s a good way to build relationships with other guys even on the other side of the ball. It’s a special place”.
While McDonald did not fill up the stat sheet until the Steelers’ postseason game, there are high expectations for what he can contribute with a full offseason under his belt. The hope is that he will continue to feel comfortable and welcome in the team’s winning ways.