Why the 49ers need Vernon Davis

This is my Friday column.

Forget about contracts and holdouts for a moment. Let’s focus on why Vernon Davis is vital to the 49ers’ offense.

Before I hit you with a barrage of X’s and O’s, there’s one stat you should know about Davis. He scored a touchdown once every four catches last season — the best rate in the NFL. If he had played in an offense that didn’t attempt the fewest passes in the league, who knows, Davis might have scored 20 touchdowns.

Davis is by far the 49ers’ No. 1 threat on offense, and defenses treat him accordingly. Take the Panthers. They had the second-best defense in football last season, and they played the Niners twice — once during the regular season and once during the postseason.

The Panthers knocked out Vernon Davis during the second quarter of Game 1. During the first two quarters — before Davis left the game with a concussion — the Panthers used defensive schemes designed primarily to frustrate Davis. After he left the game, the Panthers switched to defenses that primarily frustrated wide receivers. Let me explain.

When Davis was in the game, the Panthers used “Cover 3” (a zone defense) or “Cover 1” — a man-to-man defense. Both defenses have just one safety deep in the middle of the field. In Cover 1, the free safety plays deep and the strong safety covers Davis man-to-man. In Cover 3, the free safety plays center field and the cornerbacks drop deep down the sideline, so if Davis runs deep down the middle, he runs into the free safety. And if he cuts to either sideline, he runs into a cornerback. By using Cover 3 and Cover 1, the Panthers never had to cover Davis man-to-man with a linebacker — they always covered him with a safety or a cornerback or both. Better matchups for the Panthers.

After Davis left Game 1, the Panthers switched to Cover 2 in the second half. Cover 2 involves two safeties playing deep and a linebacker covering the tight end. The Panthers’ middle linebacker — Luke Kuechly — is better than the 49ers’ backup tight end — Vance McDonald. If the tight end isn’t a threat — and McDonald isn’t a threat yet — there is no sense in covering him with a strong safety. Cover 2 allows the two cornerbacks and the two safeties to double-cover the wide receivers. But with Davis on the field, they can’t do that. His presence makes it harder on the defense.

Just look at the playoff game between the 49ers and Panthers last season. Davis had just one catch for 1 yard, but he was the MVP of the offense.

The 49ers’ first drive of the game would have been a three-and-out if not for Davis. It was third-and-10. After the snap, Davis ran a shallow crossing route from right to left and four Panthers followed him — two linebackers, the nickelback and the right cornerback. The right cornerback was left alone with Quinton Patton, had no help. He stared at Davis and let Patton jog alone down the left sideline almost unopposed. Colin Kaepernick hit Patton for an easy 23-yard gain. The 49ers scored a field goal at the end of the drive.

At the end of the first half, the 49ers were down four points at Carolina’s 1. The Panthers left Davis one-on-one with Kuechly on second-and-goal. Davis beat Kuechly to the back-right corner of the end zone and caught a touchdown pass from Kaepernick. Bad things happen to opposing defenses when they try to cover Davis with a linebacker.

In the third quarter, the 49ers were at midfield and winning by three. Davis ran a quick out route to his right, and three Panthers followed him — a linebacker, the strong safety and the left cornerback. The left cornerback was so focused on Davis he let Anquan Boldin run right past him. A repeat of the Patton-play in the first quarter, except on the other side of the field. Kaepernick hit a wide-open Boldin for a 45-yard gain, bringing the offense to the Panthers’ 2. Kaepernick ran the ball into the end zone two plays later.

To summarize: Even when Davis doesn’t catch a pass, he frees everyone else up. When he’s not there, defenses can focus on the wide receivers. And they do.

Now I want to focus on contracts and holdouts again. Davis wants the 49ers to renegotiate his contract even though he has two years left on his current deal. Some people believe Davis is being morally wrong — he should play out the contract he signed.

News flash: NFL contracts are not guaranteed. If Davis had played poorly last year, the 49ers could have approached him and said, “Agree to a pay cut, or we’ll release you.”

The 49ers traded for Colt McCoy last year. He did not play well in preseason, so the 49ers got him to agree to take almost a $1 million cut in his base salary, from $1.5 million to $630,000.

The 49ers signed Carlos Rogers in 2012 to a four-year, $31.3 million contract. The Niners wanted to cut his salary after the first year of the deal, according to CSNBayArea, but they lost the leverage to do so when Chris Culliver tore his ACL in training camp. So, they waited a year and cut him this offseason with two years remaining on his deal.

The Niners are not obligated to honor the entirety of a contract, and neither is Davis. The Niners are obligated to do what’s in the best interest of the team. And that means working it out with Davis. They need him.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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  1. I think if Kaep gets it together we can make due with the WRs/TEs that are available to play (like the Hawks did last year) and win the Super Bowl.

    If Kaep doesn’t get it completely together we won’t win the Super Bowl, Davis or no Davis.

  2. Lloyd and the ability to go 4 WR with Hyde or Lattimore out of the Shotgun will be part of the formula for Davis’ retirement this season. Hammer layed it out excellently in his latest opus….

  3. Except that Davis didn’t really do anything particularly spectacular last year despite (or perhaps in spite of) the fact that the 49ers really had no one else. He didn’t go all Jimmy Graham on anyone, he did his job and sucked up TDs because there was no one else, aside from Boldin, was available to catch TDs. He had a pretty good year, and he’s getting paid pretty well. Done and done. Do not renegotiate until next season.

  4. Roman said they stripped the engine to it’s base element. The previous championship offenses verbiage was too convoluted. Simplification means a lot of 11 personnel in my opinion. That’s about as simple as it gets. 3 wide receivers and one TE and one RB. Similar to what Peyton runs in Denver, but with different Kapcentric formations and plays. Ideally they’d like Crabs/Boldin/Johnson/VD/Gore all on the field at the same time, but that’s predicated on if Mr. Davis comes out of retirement or not…….

    1. Razor, I think Roman’s comment may be a little more subtle than that. We are still a power run based offense so we’re still going to run the ball 50% + or – 3%. I’m thinking Roman meant the following additions to help make our power based offense even more effective:

      1. Paring back overshifting and doing excessive pre-snap stuff to confuse the defense (and really not being very effective against defenses after 3 years of Harbaugh film is out there). This will allow Kap to wait to the last second to snap the ball, or to snap the ball with 6 seconds to go and catch defenses flatfooted. It will also cut back on delay of game penalties and spent TOs.

      2. Running “11” personnel at unconventional times (i.e. on 1st or 2nd down or in short yardage situations).

      3. Running the ball effectively out of “11” personnel when defenses are expecting us to pass.

      4. Possibly running TE option routes as allforfunnplay has said multiple times.

      1. Yea, the 49ers were DOA when it came to 11 personnel on obvious running plays, i.e. 1st & 10, 2&1-6. That’s probably where you might see the most significant increase….

      2. “Paring back overshifting and doing excessive pre-snap stuff…” You have my vote!

        As it is now defenses know the 49ers aren’t running plays form the initial formation, so they stay relaxed and rested until 5 seconds before snap.

        A few Stabler style “quick count” runs on hut 1 (and occasional play action) would make the remaining shifting plays more effective. Defenses would have to stay tensed from initial lineup to snap (tires em out).

  5. News flash: the 49ers refused to work out a deal with Gore a couple of years ago until he ended his holdout and reported. Both Davis and Boone need to quit whining and report in if they actually want an extension or a new deal.

  6. Grant, very good rundown of how Davis has value, even when his games stats are unspectacular. His very presence creates holes in defenses. Its up to other 49ers to exploit those holes.

    I see either win/win with Vernon returning before the season starts… or lose/lose with a game of chicken between Vernon and the 49ers. The 49ers would hurt. Vernon would hurt more.

    1. Agree, Brodie. Very strongly stated position, and well supported by good examples… Nice job, Grant.
      I think you’re probably right about Vernon, too, Brodie. Hope Vernon decides to come back to work.

  7. As far as Boone is concerned, what has he proven? Is he a good lineman, yes. Is he good enough to hold out? Hell no. He should be thanking the 49ers for even giving him a chance, taking him off the scrap heap and molding him into a quality player. Keep doing your job and earn a new contract when your deal expires Mr. Ungrateful.

  8. A true holdout would test Baalke’s unbending policy of setting a value (in cash or draft capital) figure in his head for a particular player, and never exceeding it.

    What irks me is Vernon’s deception about what he makes. He states the current contract amount, omitting the fact that he’s already been partially paid for 2014-15 in his 2010 front loaded. Vernon’s been paid. Now he wants more.

    It’s kind of funny. Vernon’s treating the 49ers the way most teams treat their host cities. “We’ve agreed to a deal. We’ve both profited well from it. My analysts tell me I can squeeze more out of you, so fork it over.”

  9. If Jack Hammer is here, very interesting article on rantsports. How do you think Stevie Johnson fits into your theory if Crabtree and Lloyd are the outside receivers and Boldin is playing a ton at the joker position?

    1. Thank you. Johnson would be a rotational guy. With Boldin at Joker/TE, Johnson would go in as the “slot” receiver.

  10. Grant, I think your article is correct in that Davis does force defenses to alter their coverages. I hope we get him back into camp because he’s a clear weapon for Kap. The Jimmy Graham grievance process may help or hinder that process.

    1. Thinking I’ll have to revise my 53 projection; Gabbert in , Johnson out.

  11. If the Niners are going to pay VD to become the highest paid TE again, trade him to NO and give Jimmy Graham the money.

    1. Jimmy Graham doesn’t block and the Niners require guys who are willing blockers. Still a run first team.

  12. Yeah, Vernon Davis is great, but he is not under paid and he is not the most importnat player on the offense: that would be Kaepernick. How many game do you think they would win without Kaepernick? How many touchdowns would Davis have had with McCoy throwing the ball? He is being fairly paid for what he bring to the table. I wonder how good the Davis “brand” will be if it becomes closely associated with the term “couch potato”.

    He will play or we will be at the business end of a class action lawsuit for violating his fiduciary responsibility to his share holders. My guess is that he will be in camp without a new contract.

  13. There is no doubt that when Vernon is on the field he draws a lot of the defenses attention. Last year when they had only one other good WR that was fully healthy he was almost essential to the offense.

    This year, with Vernon, this offense could be very difficult on defenses, as there are a number of WRs that could thrive on 1-on-1 matchups. If Vernon is out though, given the number of quality WRs, there would still be good 1-on-1 matchups to be found. Vernon’s presence would help greatly, but I don’t think it is as essential as last year.

  14. If Davis wants a guaranteed contract then he should go to work for the government like all the other dumb liberals. I am very close friends with one of the 49er coaches, will not mentioned his name…..I was told by this coach that the 49ers are not going to renegotiate Davi’s contract and they have told his agent if he insists on holding out and not coming to practice then the 49ers will trade him before training camp begins.The 49ers don’t need Vernon Davis, 2 very good teams got to the Super Bowl this year without him Seattle and Denver!.

    1. Great story Bro. Only problem with it is that there is no practice before training camp starts. He would have to be traded before July 23 to be make the trade before training camp, and there are no practices between then and now to not show up for. You need to get your friend the 49er coach to clarify this whole thing for us all. I’ll be holding my breath waiting for that to happen so try to hurry, okay?

  15. Grant, you are being ridiculous. The contract Davis signed, in which he was paid the majority of the full contract’s value up front (which is why his 2014 salary is less than $5 million), includes provisions for termination of the contract. All contracts have similar clauses. The 49ers can release Davis at any time, because it is in the contract. However, while the contract is in effect, the 49ers must abide by its terms.

    Conversely, Davis is bound by the terms of the contract he signed, which includes fines for him not showing up at mandatory mini-camp and training camp. Davis cannot go to another team because that would be a breach of contract. Of course, he can choose not to play – though that would seriously reduce the value of his “brand” – and lose the money to which he is entitled if he does play. He can choose to not show up at training camp, in which case he will be fined #30,000 a day. Additionally, when he finally decides to play football for the team with which he contracted, he will likely be out of football shape and have to work up to playing.

    All the while, other players are getting more opportunities to hone their skills.

    Davis would be smarter to come to training camp and enter into discussions with the FO about an extension. Until he shows up, the 49ers will (rightfully, IMO) not even consider any extension.

    BTW, the 49ers don’t need to extend Davis. They have him for two more years and could franchise him for a third year, if they want. He has no leverage whatsoever.

    1. Davis has no leverage at all correct. He had a lot more before last season when losing him would have left us crippled on offense. Stevie coming in and Crabtree being back have made us much better offensively and we could survive letting him sit out part of the regular season even.

      I do not see any way in which he gets paid and he has already done damage to his reputation (brand). I would take a serious hard line with him, tell him if he isn’t there with the team he will ride the bench for 2 years and see how much he gets in FA after sitting out of football for 2 seasons.

  16. Without Davis the Niners should have a dangerous passing attack, more than capable of winning games. But with him, we could be lethal. I genuinely hate the monetary aspects of sports, nobody comes out looking too good.
    To me Kaeps deal was a breath of fresh air, the rarity of a player basically taking less to help ensure the rest of his team stays strong, Is sadly a rare break from the norm.

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