The latest Niners legend: Patrick Willis

There were play-calling problems, sideline shout-a-thons, coach cannings and desultory defeats.

And then there was Patrick Willis — a diamond amid the dysfunction.

Willis was a bright spot in a largely dreary season, a line you’ve likely read more than once before.

In his four-year career, the Niners have a 26-38 record and Willis has been the only position player on the team to earn first-team All-Pro honors.

He did it again Monday, earning first-team All-Pro recognition for the third time in his career.

The focus this offseason is appropriately centered on new coach Jim Harbaugh and, presumably, a new quarterback.

But it’s also appropriate to recognize Willis, part of the old guard, who is a long-awaited legend for a struggling franchise once stuffed with superstars.

Montana, Lott, Rice, Young … and now, finally, Willis.

The most indelible Willis memory of the season, to me, came in the Niners’ 25-17 loss at St. Louis on Dec. 26.

San Francisco, inexplicably, came out of the locker room looking lifeless in a must-win-game.

The Rams led 9-0 late in the first quarter and had a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line, ready to kill any suspense. Someone on the Niners had to do something. And then, on cue, Willis clobbered Sam Bradford and forced a fumble that San Francisco recovered.

Maybe it’s because he bolted into the backfield with an impossibly large black cast on his broken right hand. And maybe it’s because, looking back, I know he suffered further damage to his hand and needed a second surgery following the game. Or maybe it’s just because, in my mind, everything about the Niners was substandard and embarrassing in that game until Willis, like a Porsche surrounded by Pintos, made that play.

Whatever the reason, the moment struck me as borderline heroic, silly as that sounds.

Willis had single-handedly saved the season.

Maybe that’s not really heroism.

But it is greatness.

• Willis will celebrate his 26th birthday today.

And, if his first four seasons are any indication, he’ll celebrate his Hall-of-Fame induction in roughly 15 years.

In four seasons, Willis already has more first-team All-Pro selections (3) than seven of the 19 linebackers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Here’s a look at the list, in order of first-team All-Pro selections:

Bill George (1952-1966)
Joe Schmidt (1953-1965)
Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993)

Mike Singletary (1981-1992)

Bobby Bell (1963-74)
Jack Ham (1971-1982)
Jack Lambert (1974-1984)

Nick Buoniconti (1962-1974, 1976)
Dick Butkus (1965-1973)

George Connor (1948-1955)
Ted Hendricks (1969-1983)

Willie Lanier (1967-1977)

Sam Huff (1956-1967, 1969)
Ray Nitschke (1958-1972)
Derrick Thomas (1989-1999)
Andre Tippett (1982-1993)
Dave Wilcox (1964-1974)

Harry Carson (1976-1988)*
Rickey Jackson (1981-1995)#


* Carson was a four-time second-team All-Pro.
# Jackson was a five-time second-team All-Pro.

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