Willis knows defense could have different look in 2011

In college, Patrick Willis played with a broken middle finger held together by eight screws.

In his four NFL seasons, he’s played 10 full games – the equivalent of 16 percent of his career – with a broken hand.

Willis, obviously, can withstand pain. But he couldn’t do much when he received a concerned look after the results of an X-ray on his broken right hand came back after Sunday’s 25-17 loss to the Rams.

Willis, who didn’t think he’d done further damage, was surprised. His broken metacarpal bone, held together by a pin, had shifted out of alignment, potentially causing long-term damage if not corrected.

Willis, who had surgery earlier this week, now has three pins after his second procedure in two weeks. His streak of 63 consecutive games played to begin his career will be snapped Sunday when the Niners host the Cardinals.

“Little did I know I was going to get that look after the X-ray,” Willis said. “I was all laughing — thinking everything was good and he looked at me — and I’m like, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’”

Willis, who said the recovery time is about six to eight weeks, didn’t rule out playing in the Pro Bowl. But it seems highly unlikely that he’d play on Jan. 30 in Honolulu.

• Although Sunday’s game is largely meaningless, Willis said it was a particularly painful game to miss because it will likely mark the last time many of his defensive teammates play together.

Four defensive starters – nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, safety Dashon Goldson and linebackers Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson – will be free agents after the season. Linebacker Travis LaBoy, out with a season-ending  knee injury, is also a free agent and cornerback Nate Clements, 31, whose contract jumps from $6 million to $7.25 million in 2011, could be released.

“Even though we’re not going to the playoffs, it’s just the pride aspect of it and being able to play with these guys that, truth of the matter, some of us may not be here next year,” Willis said. “So I wanted to go out there and at least play with them.”

Given the uncertain labor situation, it’s not known when free agency will begin, but Franklin said he intends to test the market. For his part, Lawson, who has been largely quiet after a midseason surge, said he’d like to return. Lawson has two sacks this season – none since Oct. 31.

“You know, I love my teammates. I’ve been here for five years, it’s the only team I know,” Lawson said. “You know, trying to go someplace new and, you know, try to acclimate myself again, establish myself, you know, it (would) be different.”

Spikes said he didn’t want to discuss his future after Sunday’s game, but Willis sounds like he’s ready to dip into his own pocket to ensure his teammate returns after a brilliant season. According to NFL stats, Spikes has 106 tackles, his most since 2003, and shares the team lead with three interceptions.

“I do want him back,” Willis said. “If they were to ask me right now, at this very moment, I’d say: ‘What do I need to do to make that happen?’”

• The beat writers presented Spikes with the Garry Niver Memorial Award, given to the player who is the most courteous and professional in dealing with the media. Spikes, in effect, became the team spokesman this season and was available after each loss.

A 13-year veteran who has never made the playoffs, Spikes said this week has been particularly difficult for him. For that reason, his voice cracked slightly when he delivered an acceptance speech, of sorts, after he was told he’d won the Niver (I’m just guessing the honor didn’t inspire such a strong emotion).

Still, Spikes seemed to genuinely appreciate the award — saying he always strived to “do the little things right.”

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