This is something I touched up on late last season, before all of us were swept off into playoff madness/glory: the down year for 49ers tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Now, to immediately get a couple things clear to disarm two very facile arguments: Davis was not double-covered for a large portion of the time beyond Week 4 of the season, and Walker was doing very poorly before he got injured.
Walker in particular had an odd year. His skills as a blocker increased by a large margin, particularly when he was able to pick up speed as a lead blocker - he hit with as much force as any fullback in the league, which is surprising, given how substandard he is at blocking from the second tight end position on the left side of the line.
And it wasn't just something that was a result of being used to block more. At one point during the season, Walker did not catch nine-straight passes thrown his way, many of which were complete-able balls. Walker has occasionally had those issues where he drops open passes (while excelling in catching footballs in traffic, hilariously enough), but it was more of a regularity than an irregularity last season.
He seemed to lack concentration through-and-through, and while I'm not about to say I dislike him (he's one of my favorite 49ers), I'm not very secure with the position going forward. That's also because of Vernon Davis and the down year he had. Sure, he had 792 yards and six touchdowns, but he had seven TDs and over 900 yards last season.
In 2010, he had 13 touchdowns (creating a tie for the record for a tight end, which the increasingly annoying but nonetheless impressive Rob Gronkowski mauled last year) and made the jump straight from "blah" to "elite" skipping the "just OK" bit in-between. But we're not just going to talk about numbers here. Because numbers can be misleading - you can spin something bad into something good.
Unfortunately, that's not going to happen here. Sure, Davis was the only perceived threat on offense and thus drew some double coverage early on, but teams quickly realized that his explosiveness wasn't leading to huge numbers and quickly began to pull their best or second-best corners off of him. More and more we saw linebackers on him, and he still did not contribute.
And, again, it's not necessarily because he was kept in to block. Sure, he was in to block for far too many plays in my opinion, but he still wasn't catching the balls thrown his way. We saw an awful lot of the Vernon Davis that tormented us for three years when we drafted him. We saw a guy that was explosive enough to get open and that's about it.
He didn't make tough catches. He didn't lay out for the ball (one of the most maddening things a player can do is give up on a play) and he certainly didn't have sure hands. You may recall me writing about it in the past, when I noted a game late last year in which he played fantastically, making some insane catches. And then there's the game in the playoffs against the Saints.
That was beautiful, and at the perfect time. If he can do that, then great. But it's still a worrying trend to me. The guy was showing the kind of stuff he showed before Mike Singletary took over. Give that man all the hell you want, but you can't deny two things: the guy helped groom Patrick Willis into the best linebacker in the NFL and the guy turned Vernon Davis from disappointment to 250 pounds of rippling realized potential.
I suppose I'm worried that Davis doesn't have the proper coaching from our tight end's coach. Pete Hoener left when Jim Harbaugh came in, and Hoener shared the same coaching style as Singletary (plus actual x's and o's football knowledge). I wrote about this before as well, and some of you thought I was on to something. Maybe Davis just needs a motivator. Needs a guy to yell at him. That's Hoener's style and always has been.
At any rate, let's hope we get the old Vernon Davis back. Or if this is the third one and the first one was the guy we drafted, let's hope we get the middle one back, yeah?