In part four of this series, I (finally) started discussing the top 5 threats in the NFC West with Cardinals punt returner Patrick Peterson. Previously, I wrote about three other groups of players in the NFC West, calling them The Ignored, The In-Between, and The Threats.
Here's the six players I've written about most recently: Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Jason Jones, Chris Clemons, Calais Campbell, and Aldon Smith. After a total of six defensive players in a row, I was beginning to think every NFC West game was going to end with a final score of 6 to 3. Luckily, this column showed me there are still very good weapons on the offensive side of the ball to match the impact of the defensive players.
Let's take a quick look back at the 2006 NFL Draft. The Rams were coming off of a 6-10 season which saw long time Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz fired. The team had also missed the playoffs after having participated in the postseason for five of the previous six seasons. They still had a very talented offense, with wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, two time Pro Bowl quarterback Marc Bulger, and running back Steven Jackson.
After a lengthy search, Martz's replacement was found in "offensive genius" Scott Linehan. He had been offensive coordinator for some great offenses in Minnesota, including the 2003 offense who led the NFL in yardage. With the regime change, and the city panicking about the team possibly falling apart, the 2006 NFL Draft was the most important of any draft since the Rams' arrival in St. Louis.
As the 2006 draft got closer, I began to hear some buzz about a young tight end out of Maryland named Vernon Davis. Although his receiving numbers didn't overwhelm, he was supposed to be a physical freak. He could run like a wide receiver, block like a fullback, and had the size NFL offensive coordinators would die to have on their squad. With the Rams in possession of the 15th overall pick, there was a good chance he would be available, and the team's offense would have another weapon to pair with Jackson for the next decade.
Then the NFL Combine happened and just like that, the Rams' hopes for getting him were gone. Davis ran a 4.38 40 yard dash, had a huge 42" vertical, and measured a bit over 6' 3". Davis flew up draft boards, and ended up being taken with the 6th overall pick by the rival 49ers. The Rams took cornerback Tye Hill at 15, and the end of the glory days of the St. Louis Rams was official. Since the 2006 draft, the team has compiled a record of 23 wins and 73 losses. The juggernaut had come to a stop, and it all started with the loss of Vernon Davis.
Sadly for Vernon Davis, the most memorable moment of his first three years in the NFL is when then-49ers Head Coach Mike Singletary, with his arms folded, refused to acknowledge Davis, after having sent Vernon to the locker room during the middle of a game against the Seahawks. The coach's response was understandable, considering Davis had just made a short reception, then jumped up and smacked Seattle safety Brian Russell. (The video of the slap has, evidently, been purged from the internet. The nfl.com highlight of the game even has a noticeable jump where the slap was cut.) After the game, Singletary cut loose on Davis and the rest of his team, culminating in his now infamous words, "I want winners! I want people that wanna win!"
Up to the moment he was benched by Coach Singletary, Davis's career had been a big disappointment. Vernon had struggled with injuries (missing 8 games in his first two seasons) and the label of being a "selfish" player. He had noteworthy altercations with teammates Parys Haralson and Larry Grant in training camp.
His production was well below what is expected out of a tight end who went 6th in the draft. Through his first three seasons in the league, Davis had averaged just 34 receptions, 377 yards, and 3 TDs per year. Rumors were beginning to swirl around Davis and the 49ers. The team had dealt with all they were going to from Davis, and were ready to move on, either via trade or outright release.
But Davis came to training camp in 2009 sounding like a new man. He talked about his love for Coach Singletary, saying, "He gets on me every day, but I know he's doing it to make me a better player. It's a blessing to have a coach like him." Coach Singletary returned the love, naming Vernon Davis as a team captain. Vernon even tried to take on a leadership role on the team, saying of WR Michael Crabtree during Crabtree's holdout, "He needs to get his butt here and help this team out".
To go with his new attitude, Davis had a new level of production. In 2009, he finally made the long awaited jump into the upper tier of NFL tight ends. He ended the season with 78 receptions for 965 yards. He also had 13 touchdowns, good enough to both tie for the league lead among all players in receiving touchdowns, and to tie the NFL record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Davis ended the season with his first Pro Bowl berth.
To this day, Vernon still credits a large part of his success to Coach Singletary. After having a career defining game in the 2012 playoffs, Davis was asked about Mike Singletary in an interview, and said "He taught me a lot. I actually learned a lot from Coach Singletary. I’m glad he was aboard from the start because I learned so much from him and not just about football, but about life, about team, being a part of a team, and I take my hat off to him. I learned so much from him."
Now we know how Vernon Davis grew into the player he is, let's look at some of what makes him such a threat to the Rams.
Admittedly, this is not an actual play in an NFL game, but part of what makes Vernon so dangerous is his amazing set of physical tools. This video shows off what a physical freak Davis truly is.
Davis starts off by hitting a 300 pound bag with over 1,500 pounds of force, sending the bag flying back over 12 feet. Rams defensive end Chris Long weighs 270 pounds. Robert Quinn weighs 264 pounds. Even new beastly defensive tackle Michael Brockers weighs 306 pounds. Davis moved a 300 pound bag 12 feet, and blocks Rams defensive players who weigh the same or noticeably less than the bag.
The amount of force Davis hits the bag with, according to the host, is equal to offensive tackles Joe Staley and Marvel Smith. Smith and Staley are both Pro Bowl tackles. Staley weighs 315 pounds. Smith played at 325 pounds. Vernon Davis plays at 250 pounds. Davis is able to hit the bag with as much force as two men who weigh a full 30% more than him, and who block for a living. That is...terrifying.
Vernon then moves on to the pass catching portion of the video, where he is able to locate and catch a ball which is blocked from his view until .35 seconds before he has to make the catch. Do you have any idea how fast .35 seconds is? It is, quite literally, as fast as some people blink their eyes. (Average blink of an eye is between .1 and .4 seconds)
Vernon then swivels his hips 180 degrees in .3 seconds (again, faster than the blink of an eye), and hits a second bag, this time at a full run, for nearly 2,300 pounds of force. He then, amazingly, drags two dummies weighing a combined 360 pounds a total of 20 yards. Add all of this to Davis's sub 4.40 speed, and it's obvious why the 49ers were willing to use the 6th pick on a tight end.
Using all the tools
In this clip, against our beloved Rams, Davis shows off all the tools he has, plus some amazing concentration to make a tremendous touchdown catch. The victim of this play is an overmatched James Laurinaitis, although I defy anyone to show me a linebacker who could have stopped this particular play from happening.
It's hard to choose just one aspect of this play to call the "most impressive". You could argue it's the speed with which he gets up the field. Although the beginning of the play is not in this clip, by the time Davis reaches the end zone, we can see he is a full yard ahead of both Laurinaitis and safety Craig Dahl. Davis has to slow down for a ball which is significantly underthrown and late to arrive, allowing the defenders to catch up to him. If this ball was delivered correctly, Davis would have had an easy touchdown.
You also may argue the most impressive part of this play is the leap. When Davis reaches the top of his jump, his foot is at neck level with 6'1" safety Craig Dahl. If he cared to, Davis could have leapt over him, and this isn't just a standing jump to get as high as Davis is able to. He is at nearly full speed when he reaches the end zone, and leaps up into the sky. By the time the Rams' players have reached the same spot as Davis, he's is already at the peak of his jump. The burst he shows is just astounding.
You could also argue the most impressive part of this touchdown is the catch itself. Davis slightly misjudges his leap, and is actually too high when the ball reaches him. Davis keeps his concentration and makes a fingertip catch behind the head of Laurinaitis. Truly, an amazing amount of focus just to know where the ball was and be able to get his hands on it, much less be able to reel it in for a touchdown.
Finally, you could argue the most impressive part of this touchdown catch is the feeling it gave to the opposing team's fans. I remember watching this play live. It was one of the more terrifying moments I have ever had as a fan of the Rams, because I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my god, look at that catch. And he's only 26 years old. We have to deal with another 5 years of this guy in his prime. We need to get our offense turned around, pronto, because we aren't stopping that guy."
Whatever aspect of the play you want to argue for as the most impressive, what is inarguable is the pure athleticism and skill Davis showed in making such an outstanding catch.
"The Catch III" and The 2011 Playoffs
In 2011, the 49ers hired new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, and - led by a dominant defense - finished the season with a 13 - 3 record and a first round bye in the NFC playoffs. They found themselves on a collision course with the Saints after New Orleans dispatched the Lions in the Wild Card round.
As the week progressed leading up to the showdown between these two 13 win teams, the narrative being told by experts boiled the game down to "49ers defense vs Saints offense". Luckily for San Francisco, their offense - and tight end Vernon Davis - had a different story to tell.
The first three quarters were relatively calm. The 4th quarter started with San Francisco nursing a 20 - 14 lead, having kept the explosive New Orleans offense relatively in-check, partially thanks to five Saints' turnovers. The teams traded field goals in the first half of the 4th quarter, leaving the 49ers with a 6 point lead still. Then all hell broke loose.
With four minutes to go in the game, Darren Sproles gave New Orleans their first lead of the game, when he took a short pass from Drew Brees 44 yards for a touchdown.
The 49ers were quick to respond, needing less than two minutes to get a touchdown of their own. After a 37 yard catch by Vernon Davis gave the 49ers good field position, Alex Smith was able to take the ball 28 yards around the left end for a touchdown to recapture the lead for the 49ers. Unfortunately, this still left Drew Brees with 131 seconds on the clock. This proved to be 97 more than he would need.
The New Orleans offense took the ball straight back down the field, needing just 3 completions to go 88 yards for a touchdown. The Saints successfully converted a two point conversion, giving them a 32 - 29 lead with just 1:37 remaining in the game.
But the 49ers still had Vernon Davis. The 49ers got the ball back on the 15 yard line, needing to go 85 yards. After a couple short passes to Frank Gore, Vernon Davis sprinted down the left sideline for a 47 yard gain. After a spike to stop the clock, the 49ers had one play left to try to get it in the endzone, otherwise they would have to kick a field goal, and hope to be able to win the game in overtime.
With just 14 seconds left in the game and the ball on the 14 yard line, the 49ers called Vernon's number. The route was called "Vernon Post". Vernon ran it to perfection, dropping behind the Saints linebacker playing a zone, and Alex Smith hit Davis in the perfect spot. The ball got to Vernon at the same time as Saints' safety Roman Harper, and Harper and Davis had a massive collision. Davis ended up being the only one left standing. The 49ers had a game winning touchdown, and were headed to the NFC Championship game.
After the game winning catch, which has become known as "The Catch III" by 49ers fans, Davis was overwhelmed with emotion, openly weeping on his way to the sidelines. He embraced Coach Harbaugh with a lengthy hug. Vernon ended the game with 7 receptions, 2 of them for touchdowns, and a tight end playoff record 180 yards.
Vernon followed up his amazing game against New Orleans with another great one the following week in New York against the eventual champion Giants. He was the only reliable weapon for the 49ers, winding up with 112 yards receiving, compared to the entire rest of the team's 84 total yards. He also scored another 2 TDs. His total playoff numbers for two games: 10 receptions for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns.
After everything the 49ers had been through with Davis, all of the ego, the fighting, the poor play, the disagreements with his coaches, finally, Vernon Davis had reached the top of the NFL world. He was the hero of the playoffs for the first 49er team to reach the NFC Championship game in 15 years. Finally, Vernon Davis was showing the world: the 49ers taking a tight end with the 6th overall pick in the draft just may have been a smart idea.
With all of the amazing natural ability Vernon Davis has, what hope do the Rams have to try to stop this athletic freak? He's too big to be covered by typical NFL cornerbacks. He's too fast to be covered by NFL linebackers. Safeties generally don't have the coverage ability to cover Davis one on one. If you double team Davis on passing plays, you take the chance other 49ers offensive players could hurt you. So what chance do the Rams have? Luckily, the Rams are now one of the most well equipped teams to deal with Davis.
There are three legitimate options on how the Rams can handle Vernon Davis. The first is to actually take advantage of one of Vernon's strengths, which is his blocking. Most of the highlights you see of Vernon Davis are him running routes like a gazelle, leaping over hopeless defensemen to make circus catches. But Davis is nearly as good of a blocker as he is a receiver. With the Rams excellent ability to rush the passer, one of their best hopes for dealing with Davis may be to pin their ears back and just go after Alex Smith. This may force the 49ers into keeping Davis in the backfield to help keep Smith upright. If Davis is blocking, he won't be out making ridiculous catches and turning them into lengthy touchdowns.
The second choice the Rams have in stopping Vernon Davis is...to not stop him. The gameplan the Giants employed to beat San Francisco in the NFC Championship game was to completely lockdown the outside receivers of the 49ers, throwing zone coverage at Davis, and just hope to keep him contained. Davis ended up having a very strong game, but no one else could step up for the 49ers. Michael Crabtree had just 1 catch for 3 yards...which lead all San Francisco wide receivers. The 49ers have added new receivers in the offseason, but none of them are very reliable. Moss is just coming out of retirement and was awful in 2010. Manningham has never been a key cog in an NFL offense, and A.J. "I came into camp so out of shape - my coach called me out to the media" Jenkins is out of shape and a rookie. So Davis is likely to still be the only weapon who can consistently get open. Basically, the Rams would lockdown the other guys, make Vernon Davis beat you, and hope he doesn't have another game like he did against the Saints.
The third choice for the Rams is new corner Cortland Finnegan. Standing at just 5' 10", Finnegan will be giving up a bit over 5 inches to Davis, but this situation is not unfamiliar to Cortland. He has been matching up with 6' 3" Andre Johnson since the moment he arrived in the league, and has more than held his own. Johnson and Finnegan have gotten into shoving matches on more than one occasion due to the physical nature of Finnegan's play. Physical players like him have always given Vernon Davis trouble, and Finnegan is a natural fit on the inside covering a tight end. With the inexperienced corners behind Finnegan, against other teams, putting Finnegan on the tight end could come back to hurt the Rams, but the 49ers don't have the kind of players on the outside to burn the Rams under most circumstances.
What conclusions can we reach about trying to slow down the monster that is Vernon Davis? Davis is a great receiving tight end, and shutting him down completely is a nearly impossible task. But if the team focuses on containing the damage he does, whether they do it through the pass rush, or through Finn, or by making sure he is the only one to hurt them...
...Vernon Davis can be dealt with.