This is my Tuesday column on Vernon Davis holding out.
SANTA CLARA – Taped to Vernon Davis’ locker is a white piece of paper that has a message printed on it: “Please come by the EQ Room and try on your helmet. Needs to be fitted by Friday, 5/23.”
I guess Davis missed that message.
You can tell he hasn’t visited his locker in a while. It looks like a diorama collecting dust in a museum. Inside are two packages, three big envelopes, clean shirts on hangers, white socks folded into little balls, bottles of lotion, a stool and pads.
No helmet, though. Only players who showed up to the mandatory mini-camp have 49ers helmets in their lockers.
Last week, I asked Jim Harbaugh if he expected Davis to attend this week’s mini-camp. Harbaugh said yes. He expected incorrectly. Davis wants the 49ers to renegotiate his contract before he returns to the team, so he’s holding out. Starting right guard Alex Boone is holding out, too.
Outside the 49ers’ locker room Tuesday afternoon, looking toward the 49ers’ new stadium and his narrow, open face squinting in the Santa Clara sunlight, Harbaugh answered questions about Davis and Boone. “I’m disappointed in that decision, for them not to be here. There was a voluntary segment to the offseason and we appreciate those guys volunteering to make the team better. Now, it’s mandatory. Not the decision that I envision being the 49er way. Really nothing more to be said about it. The focus will be on what’s going on here. Others may try to make the focus on that story, but our story is on the football side of it.”
The past few months, Harbaugh was happy to put the focus on Colin Kaeperick’s contract. A reporter asked Harbaugh on May 28 if he expected the 49ers to extend Kaepernick’s contract before training camp. “I’m hopeful,” said Harbaugh. “I’m a big proponent of Colin Kaepernick, his abilities. On record as stating that I would like to see that happen.”
Harbaugh lobbied for Kaepernick. Will he lobby for Davis, too? Tuesday afternoon, I asked Harbaugh if he thinks Davis deserves an extension.
“I’m not going to put the focus on that. I’ve told you where the focus is going to be. I understand your desire to make the story something else, and so be it. That’s as clear as I can possibly be.”
In other words, no – Harbaugh does not think Davis deserves a new contract. If Harbaugh thought Davis deserved it, Harbaugh would have said so. The 49ers clearly don’t want to renegotiate Davis’ deal. They expect him to give up his holdout, to fold.
Davis has pushed too many chips into the pot to fold now. He has lost about $270,000 by not showing up to OTAs or mini-camp.
I’d be shocked if Davis ends his holdout without getting a new deal. He is due to earn about $4 million next season, way below his value to the 49ers. He knows he can make or break this particular team. He’s the offense’s only deep threat. He stretches opposing defenses. Without him, the 49ers would have one of the slowest offenses in the NFL. Opposing defenses could play closer to the line of scrimmage. The Niners’ offense would become much more congested and easy to defend.
Davis never will have a better opportunity to ask for a new deal. He caught 13 touchdown passes last season. He almost certainly will catch fewer next season if Michael Crabtree plays the whole year. Greg Roman loves to use Davis as a decoy, extensively used him as a decoy during 2012 when Crabtree was healthy. Davis caught just five touchdown passes that season. If Davis catches five next season, the Niners can say to him, “Gee, you’re 31 and your numbers are declining. Sorry, no raise for you.”
I expect Davis to call the 49ers’ bluff, not the other way around. If Davis holds out into the season, the 49ers would open their brand new stadium without three of their best players – Aldon Smith (likely suspended), NaVorro Bowman (injured knee) and Davis. The 49ers can’t afford to risk losing a bunch of games early in the season and falling behind in the NFC West, the toughest division in football. That’s no way to open a new stadium.
The 49ers should pay Davis. But they can’t capitulate and pay him too soon. If they do, what would they do about Boone and the other players who want to renegotiate? Crabtree wants a new deal. Mike Iupati wants a new deal.
I expect Davis’ holdout to carry into training camp and maybe even through the first three preseason games. And then I expect Davis will get what he wants.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.