SANTA CLARA, Calif. – When Colin Kaepernick made his stunning debut as an NFL starting quarterback last November, performing so prolifically that he would supplant Alex Smith atop the San Francisco 49ers' depth chart and spark a Super Bowl run, Vernon Davis played a pivotal role, catching six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Three days after that productive Monday Night Football performance in a win over the Chicago Bears, the Niners' talented tight end enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast. Then famine set in: Over the final six games of the regular season, Davis caught a grand total of six passes for 61 yards without reaching the end zone.
During that perplexing stretch, Lennay Kekua was less invisible than the former Pro Bowler.
Yet Davis never turned negative, displaying the maturity and perspective the sixth overall pick of the 2006 draft lacked early in his career. Back then, the player who former Niners coach Mike Singletary notoriously sent to the showers during his trou-dropping 2008 coaching debut wouldn't have handled such a dry spell well.
"As the team was winning and having success, I'd probably have been the one complaining," Davis said Thursday as he sat in a small office at the 49ers' training facility, where he and his teammates were preparing for the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years . "I would have probably been in the media, making a scene, going to the coach and just being a cancer to the team."
With just one team, the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens, standing between the Niners and a championship – they'll meet Feb. 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans – no San Francisco player symbolizes the organization's transformation from stupor to Super as much as the seventh-year tight end.
While Davis might be a tad excessive in his self-punitive assessment, there's little doubt that he has undergone a dramatic attitude adjustment. A man once spotted by teammates admiring his oiled-up physique in the mirror before a game (and blowing kisses to his massive biceps) now takes pride in the less conspicuous elements of his craft.
Even in the wake of his resounding re-emergence – a five-reception, 106-yard, one-touchdown effort that helped the Niners fight back from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in last Sunday's NFC championship game – Davis insists he's just as fulfilled by opening holes for running back Frank Gore, keeping pass rushers away from Kaepernick or serving as a decoy to create openings for other receivers, as long as the team keeps winning.
"I didn't go into that game thinking I was gonna have a big day," Davis said. "A big day for me is blocking. Throughout the season, I had a chance to relate to that – the blocking game and pass protection. It took time, but over the course of the season it kind of grew on me. I was like, ‘We're winning, and I am a big piece of this.'"
Early on in his career, Davis was portrayed as a piece of something else entirely. When Singletary took over the Niners in October of 2008, the former Hall of Fame middle linebacker singled out Davis for his selfishness, and the two clashed almost immediately.
Of getting sent to the locker room in Singletary's first game on the sidelines, and the coach's subsequent "Cannot win with 'em" postgame news-conference rant, Davis says, "It was pretty embarrassing for me. I'm not gonna lie about that. I know everyone was thinking, ‘Hey, where's Vernon going? Why is he sending him to the locker room?'I was like, ‘These guys might really kick me out of here if I don't get my act together.'"
Recalls Delanie Walker, the Niners' No. 2 tight end: "In that situation, there were two people trying to be in charge, and the coach won, I guess. Vernon has changed, most definitely, but I liked him the way he was, too. It was just that the coach made it seem like he was all about himself, but I didn't see that."
Davis, however, concedes he had some diva qualities.
"As I think back, I think I was more concerned with the guys before me ... guys like Steve Smith and Chad Johnson [who] wanted the ball," Davis says. "It was like, ‘Throw me the ball.' So I looked up to those guys and figured that that was the way to go, that was the route. But it wasn't. It definitely wasn't the route."
Finding the proper direction, Davis says, was a direct result of his former coach's tough love. It was under Singletary that Davis, in 2009, had his breakout season, catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, the latter total matching the NFL single-season record for a tight end at the time (it has since been broken by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, who had 17 in 2011). And Singletary saw that success coming, telling me early that season he believed Davis would soon be the best tight end in football.
"I just had to realize that the team was bigger than me," Davis says. "It wasn't just about me. This is not a one-man game. And as far as making me realize those things, we had Coach Singletary here to point 'em out to me, and he stayed on me – man, he was always on me. He was like, ‘Vernon, you won't take off, you won't succeed until you put the team first.'
"So I started to realize that portion of it, and I took it one step at a time. I put the team first and everything started to happen for me."
The Niners, however, continued to struggle, and Singletary was fired late in the 2010 season. The following summer, when Davis returned from the lockout, it took some time for him to adjust to new coach Jim Harbaugh's offense.
After a solid 2011 regular season (67 catches, 792 yards, six TDs), Davis had a monster game in the 49ers' 36-32, divisional-round playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints, catching seven passes for 180 yards (an NFL single-game postseason record for a tight end) and two scores, including a game-winning, 14-yard touchdown from Alex Smith with nine seconds remaining.
By then the quarterback and tight end had developed a strong connection, something with which Davis and Kaepernick clearly struggled after the second-year passer's promising debut against the Bears.
"He has come a long way," Smith says of Davis. "I think he understands that, especially the way our offense is built, it's gonna cycle through: When one guy's covered, another guy will step up. I think he has a good understanding of, ‘I might not be having the numbers I'd like for a few weeks, but if they take me away it will open things up for someone else, and my time will come.'"
If Davis was in fact frustrated during his recent six-game stretch of futility, he did a great job of concealing it from his coaches and teammates – and from the reporters who frequently asked questions probing for such feelings.
"Everyone was looking for that, like, ‘Vernon ain't getting the ball ... Kaep is overthrowing him,'" Davis says. "I knew it was part of the process. You know, it takes time, man. It really does. You can't expect a quarterback just to get in there and the timing to be perfect. You have to understand that, and I do, just from playing with Alex over the past couple of years.
"It took time. When I first got here we didn't connect just like that. Everyone always said that it's important to build chemistry and get the timing down with your quarterback, but I didn't quite understand that until me and Alex started to connect. And then it all started to come together for me, like a puzzle. You unscramble a puzzle and then you put it together, then you understand the meaning of that puzzle, and what the puzzle is trying to represent."
Davis may well be a significant piece of San Francisco's offensive puzzle in Super Bowl XLVII, or perhaps he'll play a complementary role in the Ultimate Game. Either way, it's clear these 49ers can win with him, and you won't hear him complaining about that.
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