San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Vernon Davis must get his swagger back

If Vernon Davis returns to his previous form, will the 49ers’ faltering offense follow suit?
If Vernon Davis returns to his previous form, will the 49ers’ faltering offense follow suit? AP

Where have you gone, Vernon Davis?

When the 49ers drafted the tight end sixth overall in 2006, he was muscle-bound almost to the point of being cartoonish, and he absolutely dripped with pugnacity and swagger. Perhaps too much of each.

Davis routinely got into practice-field fights in training camp, one time throwing aside veteran linebacker Parys Haralson – 255 pounds with arms like oaks – as if he were made of potpourri. Davis even got into a scrape with fellow offensive players, including Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen, which, if you’ve ever seen Allen or read about his feats of strength, is like picking a fight with a polar bear.

When, as a rookie, Davis caught a touchdown pass in a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, he bragged afterward it was the “first of many.”

Davis didn’t possess an ounce of finesse early on, but when he got the ball in his hands, he was dangerous. He was fast and aggressive, squaring up with smaller defenders and swatting them to the side with one hand as he made his way – violently, ferociously, purposefully – upfield.

To his credit, he worked hard to transform himself into a more fleet, flexible athlete and a better receiver. He began catching more over-the-shoulder deep passes, and his first-of-many-touchdowns prediction began to ring true. He scored 13 times in 2009, had four touchdowns in the 2011 postseason alone, then scored 15 total last season.

Davis’ persona began to change as well.

He went from brash blockhead to a veteran player who prided himself on thoughtful responses. He opened an art gallery in San Jose, bought a Jamba Juice franchise in Santa Clara and became part tight end, part businessman.

Watching him this year, you have to wonder if the transformation has gone too far.

The tight end who began his career being too aggressive has seemed awfully hesitant, consistently dropping passes – there was another one Sunday vs. Washington – with a defender looming in front of him. Davis’ most famous catch was his final-second end-zone grab against the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 divisional playoffs in which he absorbed a huge hit by safety Roman Harper, holding onto the ball and knocking Harper to the ground.

Does he make that catch this season?

Even his blocking ability – Davis’ hallmark early in his career – is not nearly as robust. The scouting service Pro Football Focus gives Davis a -7.3 grade as a run blocker this year. Overall? Out of 68 tight ends, they rate him 65th.

To be fair, Davis dealt with an ankle injury in Week 3 and a back injury in Week 5 and was slow to recover from the latter. The 49ers have tried to get him involved in the offense in recent weeks, targeting him five times against the New York Giants and another five times against Washington.

Before Sunday’s game, Jim Harbaugh used his trusty olive jar analogy to describe the type of breakout game that awaited Davis.

“The olives are packed in there real tight and you open up the lid and you can’t get any to come out,” Harbaugh said. “You can even dump it upside down and it doesn’t come out. But if you get that one to come out, then they just want to all come out and plop out. So I think it’s going to happen soon. Hopefully this weekend. Get that one big one and then they start coming out.”

If anything, it seemed as if Davis had olive oil on his hands. He dropped a potentially big reception, his sixth drop of the season, and the player who once bulldozed defenders was stopped short of the first-down marker on two third-down plays.

His minimal impact has been symbolic of a 49ers team that in recent seasons has leaned heavily on its tight ends but this year had drifted toward a more wide receiver-based offense.

With fellow tight ends Vance McDonald and Derek Carrier nursing injuries this week, it seems as if wide receivers and the passing game, not tight ends and the rushing attack, again will be the main feature Thursday.

That’s not going to cut it.

Against Seattle’s rapacious and No. 1-ranked defense, the 49ers will need everything they have on offense. They certainly can use the finesse that new receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd bring. But more than that, they need to combat the Seahawks’ bullying style with some toughness, grit and swagger of their own.

That is, they could use the old Vernon Davis back.

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