SANTA CLARA –- To understand how far Vernon Davis has come it’s imperative to remember the rocky start to his NFL career.
The San Francisco 49ers had high hopes for the hulking tight end with return-man speed when they drafted him out of Maryland with the sixth overall pick in 2006.
Davis showed promise in his first two professional seasons, but started the 2008 campaign slowly. By Week 8’s matchup against the Seahawks, he had yet to find the end zone and made matters worse when he was flagged for a personal foul penalty for making contact with a Seattle player’s helmet. That led Mike Singletary, making his head coaching debut, to rip Davis in front of coaches, players, fans and TV cameras before sending him to the locker room.
After the game Singletary put on a postgame press conference show for the ages with comments directed at Davis:
“I will not tolerate players who think it's about them when it's about the team. And we cannot make decisions that cost the team and then come off the sideline nonchalant…I told him he would do a better job for us to take a shower and watch the game on the sidelines rather than take the field.”
While the ‘I want winners’ rant remains Singletary's signature moment in San Francisco, eventually getting through to Davis might be his coaching legacy.
“When I first came in, it was all about me. I’m not going to lie,” Davis admitted. “It was all about what I wanted. I didn’t look at it from a team standpoint. And I grew. Coach Singletary was here and he helped me make that transition from a boy to a young man. And I’m very thankful for that. I thank God for that. And now it’s all about the team.”
That attitude was tested after Jim Harbaugh made the switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.
Before the 49ers’ Week 11 game against the St. Louis Rams, in which Smith sustained a concussion and never re-gained the starting job, Davis had racked up 25 receptions for 374 yards and four scores. Then in Kaepernick’s first start in Week 12 against the Chicago Bears, Davis appeared to be a top target of the second-year QB, as he went off for eight catches, 83 yards and a score on Monday Night Football. After that, however, Davis went missing in action.
While Kaepernick looked to Michael Crabtree early and often, Davis caught just six balls for 61 yards and no touchdowns over the 49ers’ final six games. But unlike the young Davis, who would’ve likely complained about the lack of targets and his talents going to waste, the older and wiser Davis was a good soldier. He maintained that he was satisfied as long as the team was winning and content to do his part in the blocking game.
“I get happy just to see other guys’ success, you know Delanie [Waker], Crabtree, Frank [Gore],” Davis said. “And I had a chance to sit back and watch these guys make plays. Not saying that I wasn’t making plays. I was helping in the blocking game. Not much in the passing game because the opportunity wasn’t there. I’m still thankful for the opportunities that I had to even help in the blocking game. So this was a lesson learned for me this year. It tested my patience. I was patient and waited for my opportunity.”
Davis’ opportunity came last Sunday, when the 49ers’ advanced to the Super Bowl by erasing a 17-0 deficit on the road against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcon. Kaepernick connected with Davis six times for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday that there was no mandate to target Davis more. Instead, it was simply a matter of responding to what the Falcons were doing on defense.
“Everything we do in the passing game is really reacting,” Roman said. “I don’t think we’ve, knock on wood, we haven’t thrown a lot of interceptions here the past couple years. But, hopefully that has something to do with the fact that we’re going to try to throw the ball to the open guy. And Vernon was open just by the way things played out. And he did a great job.”
“It’s all about timing,” Davis said. “My number was called, I got open, they didn’t play me the way they should have, and I just took advantage of the opportunities. And that’s what it’s about in this game. It’s about taking advantage of your opportunities and stepping up when your name is called.”
So did Davis ever ask Kaepernick to look for No. 85 more often?
“I didn’t talk about any of that,” Davis said. “I didn’t feel like I had to. Only thing I talked to Kap about was different routes that I was running, just getting the timing down and things like that. But I didn’t talk to him about watching me or throwing me the ball because I wasn’t worried about that.”
Now all Davis has to worry about is the Baltimore Ravens’ stout defense. For now, he is simply enjoying his role on one of the two teams in the NFL still alive.
“This is what we play for,” Davis said. “This is our final destination. We have to have the focus we’ve never had in our lives. It has to be exact. We have to be poised and we have to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Roman would be foolish to reveal how much Davis will be involved in the passing attack next Sunday in New Orleans, but he knows he can depend on Davis to do whatever is asked of him.
“Vernon has been such a valuable member of this team,” Roman said. “The time we’ve been here, not just catching passes, but blocking. And helping get our running game going and pass protection as well. And sometimes, just flat out being a decoy to draw coverage away from somebody else. And he’s done it with a big smile on his face and just a need and a want to win.”
With Davis now receiving praise like that, maybe Singletary knew what he was doing when he boldly insisted he wanted winners and implied his tight end wasn't one.