A year or two ago wjackalope came up with the graphic to right here, just without the crossed out "in the making." Patrick Willis's performance yesterday afternoon definitely had me thinking he was making that leap to the next level. Willis has had games with a lot of tackles. He's had games with an INT returned for a touchdown. He's had sacks. Yesterday, Bamm Bamm put it all together for what might have been the most impressive performance of his still young career. He finished the game with 8 tackles (3 for a loss), 2.5 sacks, a pass deflection, 3 QB hits, and of course a nice little interception returned for a touchdown. That is what you call a complete performance.
At this point the only real negative that I see as a regular NFL fan is that he still occasionally ends up out of position on plays due to his aggressive play. Of course, he often is able to get back and make a play because of his crazy athleticism, but it is still certainly an area to improve. However, in his post-game press conference, Mike Singletary had some interesting comments about our all-world linebacker:
On where the defense stands right now:
...Guys like Patrick Willis, who had a great day today. Pat is still just scratching the surface...
On what LB Patrick Willis will do once he scratches the surface:
"Wow. Just wow would be the only thing I can say, wow, because he has so much talent. He just has to tie his talent and knowledge together and that’s where he’s going to take it to the next level."
Given Mike Singletary's own pedigree, I'll certainly take him at his word that Patrick Willis is just scratching the surface. If that's the case, can you imagine how good Patrick Willis could be? At this point he's gotta be in the argument for best linebacker in the league. I'm not saying he's definitely the best, but I do think he at least deserves some consideration.
Given all that, my assessment of Singletary's comment is that at this point Patrick Willis is still relying more on his athletic skills. It sounds like Willis's next step is to better understand the nuances of the game and figure out what kind of play is coming. If he can do that, he can be in the right position more quickly and conserve some of that athleticism for when it's really needed. Feel free to correct me if you think I'm wrong, but I think that's the point he was making.
Assuming he's able to take that next step, how filthy could Patrick Willis become? It seems to me that you can more or less remove the ceiling from Patrick Willis's career. He's certainly not the greatest insider/middle linebacker in NFL history, but is it safe to say that is his new ceiling?
It's safe to say it's finally a good time to be a 49ers fan!