This is my Thursday column.
Let me get this straight.
Ten games into the season, the 49ers have thrown one pass to Vernon Davis in the red zone. That was Week 1. He scored a touchdown.
Ten games into the season, the 49ers have by far the worst red-zone offense in the NFC.
Could those two facts be related?
I’m just asking.
Before the season, Colin Kaepernick said the Niners needed to improve their red-zone offense: “I think that’s something that we know we’ve struggled with here,” he carefully explained.
Before the season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman promised he would emphasize the red zone in training camp: “We’ve spent a lot of time there and will continue to do that. I don’t think there’s anything other to say except you get what you emphasize.”
Did Roman get what he emphasized? Hardly. He got a 25-percent drop in red-zone touchdowns from last season to this season.
The 49ers never should let Roman emphasize anything ever again. Take away his highlighters and his red pens and his state-of-the-art laser pointer. Emphasis is obviously his kiss of death.
I like to imagine the preseason speech Roman might have given to the rest of the coaching staff, the speech in which Roman laid out his master plan to improve the red-zone offense.
This is the scene I imagine: Roman fires up an over-head projector, grabs a felt pen, writes “RED ZONE” on a plastic slide, underlines the words three times, circles them and projects them onto a wall so they’re ten-feet tall.
“Two words, one area,” Roman lectures in a loud voice, “Red. Zone.”
The words echo around the room as Roman stares silently at the coaches who stare back full of hope.
“THAT is what we must improve,” he says. “And here’s how we’re going to improve it. Vernon Davis is our best red-zone receiver, one of the most productive red-zone receivers in football — everyone knows that. Teams expect us to throw him the ball in the red zone. So we’re not going to. We’re going to deke them out of their pants. We’re going throw Davis zero passes in the red zone this season. Other teams won’t expect that.”
The defensive coaches gasp. Vic Fangio, usually self-composed, falls out of his chair. Jim Harbaugh stands up and grimly shakes his head.
“Greg, that’s not going to work.”
Fangio sighs in relief and climbs back into the chair.
“A better idea,” Harbaugh says, “is to throw Davis the ball our first trip inside the red zone, then never throw him another pass inside the red zone again. THAT will catch other teams off guard.”
“Brilliant,” Roman whispers. “You’re brilliant. That’s why you’re Jim Harbaugh.”
“WE’RE brilliant,” Harbaugh says, and they embrace.
The defensive coaches stare at each other in horror, mouths agape. Fangio leans toward Jim Tomsula and whispers, “Jimmy, looks like we’re carrying the team again this season.”
Maybe it didn’t go down that way. Harbaugh and Roman probably are smarter than how I portrayed them. Still, they’re ignoring their best red-zone receiver for some silly reason. Here’s a theory.
Didn’t Vernon Davis hold out of training camp? Are the 49ers punishing Davis by freezing him out in the red zone? Could they be that petty, that self-destructive?
I’m just asking. One red-zone target in 10 games is no coincidence. It’s a plan.
Davis deserves at least one red-zone target per game. Last season, he received 18 red-zone targets and converted them into eight touchdowns. In his career, he has made 1 TD catch every 2.2 times he has been targeted in the red zone. Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates each have made 1 TD catch every 2.4 red-zone targets in their careers. They are great players but they are not in Davis’ class in the red zone. Rob Gronkowski has made 1 TD catch every 1.9 red-zone targets in his career. He is other-worldly. But Davis ranks among the best.
The 49ers are spiting themselves if they think they’re spiting Davis for holding out. Again, this is just a theory. If you have a better explanation, let me know.
I asked Davis why his red-zone touchdowns are down this year. He shrugged. “I don’t know why,” he said. He’s as confused as we are.
The Niners are converting just 39 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns this season. The past 10 seasons, every Super Bowl champion has converted at least 53 percent of its red-zone trips into touchdowns. The Niners aren’t even close to acceptable.
Thursday afternoon, a reporter asked Roman why Davis’ numbers are down in the red zone. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting him the football,” Roman said.
Sounds dangerously like emphasis, to me.
Davis better be careful. He might disappear completely.
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.