Much of the talk surrounding the 49ers recent offensive revival has focused on the running game, and rightfully so. After all, San Francisco leads the NFL in rushing and Frank Gore is turning in a career year thus far. It should be noted, however, that there is another vital key to the 49ers' recent success on offense, one that hasn't garnered as much attention as it deserves. That key is tight end Vernon Davis.
Vernon Davis the Receiving Weapon
With a depleted receiving corps, the 49ers needed Vernon Davis to take on an even bigger role in the passing game and he's done that in spades. Through seven games, the eight-year veteran's 518 yards (has it really been eight years already?) trail only Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron in receiving yards amongst tight ends. Keep in mind, he missed the Colts game with a hamstring injury, one that continued to hamper him in the couple weeks that followed.
As Eric Branch noted in a recent SF Gate article, Davis is on pace for 58 receptions, 1,036 yards, and 14 touchdowns. Those yardage and touchdown totals would eclipse the tight end's 2009 breakout campaign. His 46 targets through the midway point of this season are only 15 shy of his total for the 2012 season. Additionally, his surpreme athletic prowess has allowed San Francisco to line him up all over the field to maximize his effectiveness, whether it's in the slot, as an outside receiver, or on the line.
What's more telling of the former Maryland Terrapin's impact is how poorly the 49ers fared in his absence. That hamstring injury forced him out of the game against Seattle and caused him to miss the following week against Indianapolis; the 49ers were manhandled in both of those contests. The absence of Davis allowed defenses to zero in solely on Anquan Boldin, free up more men to stack the box against Gore, and harry Colin Kaepernick on passing downs.
That is, perhaps, the biggest benefit Davis provides to this offense: the attention and respect he commands from opposing defenses. There were many talking heads and fans who would point to Davis' disappearing acts in 2011/2012 and discuss the tight end's lack of consistency. That's a valid point, but in both of those seasons the 49ers never looked as abysmal (minus the late December game at CenturyLink) as they did against Seattle and Indy this year, and the debacle at CenturyLink can be at least partially attributed to a marathon game across the country against New England the week prior.
It's a true testament to how important Davis' mere presence on the field is. It opens up so much for the rest of the 49ers offense. The opposition has to respect his speed, and he's almost always double-teamed. In the rare instances that he's not seeing double coverage, he usually makes defenses pay, especially when he's being matched up against a linebacker.
Vernon Davis the Blocker
When you have the league's number one rushing attack, everyone is doing their part; the mauling offensive line, ever-underrated fullback Bruce Miller, Frank Gore, Greg Roman, running backs coach Tom Rathman, and certainly Vernon Davis. Davis has built a reputation as a staunch blocker, one of the best in the league at his position. As such as crucial asset in run and pass blocking, the freakishly gifted tight end can't always be tearing up that seam route.
According to the Pro Football Focus grading system, Davis ranks 1st in overall performance, as well as 1st in receiving, among tight ends playing at least 60% of offensive snaps. His pass blocking is ranked 8th, while his run blocking is ranked 3rd in that same statistical population. If game plan dictates that it's vital to have Davis do more blocking, he'll do it. If a defense allows for Davis to be more involved in the passing game, Roman will dial it up without hesitation, and the tight end will happily accept.
In many instances, Davis displays both talents concurrently. How many times have you seen Davis lock onto or briefly occupy a defender near the goal line, then break off into a shallow route for the touchdown? Here are a couple examples to jog your memory:
- 1-yard touchdown against the Steelers, December 2011
- 3-yard touchdown in Kaepernick's debut against the Bears, November 2012
His versatility cannot be overstated, and having a player willing and content to shift gears from week to week is a huge plus. It's because of those blocking skills that Davis is sometimes rendered silent in the passing game, but just because you don't hear his name being called doesn't mean he's not making a positive impact on the game.
Vernon Davis the Leader
There's no better portrayal of Davis' passion and love for the game than the historic finish to the 2011 Divisional playoff game against the Saints. In a scene that borrowed script from the 49ers' 1998 Wild Card thriller against Green Bay, Davis, mobbed by his teammates, walked to the sideline overwrought; tears of joy and elation streaming down his face. That's the kind of person Davis is: an emotional guy who approaches the game of football and his life off of the gridiron with gusto.
His well-documented transformation under Mike Singletary in 2009 recast Vernon Davis as a selfless team player and leader in the locker room. While Gore and Kaepernick are often touted as the offensive figureheads (which they certainly are), let's not forget Davis' role in that department. He has developed a great rapport with Kaepernick, providing veteran insight to help the young quarterback further hone his craft.
When looking at the entire body of work and digging beyond the dazzling 50+ yard touchdowns, it's abundantly clear that Davis is a key cog in the 49ers offensive machine. It's easy to forget when Davis has a quiet game or two, but take a moment to observe him when the ball isn't being thrown his way, or in the run game, or on the sidelines, and you'll be immensely impressed with what you see. A true professional and top-tier talent, Davis is just as a big a part of the 49ers' recent success as anyone.