San Francisco 49ers: Why Patrick Willis Is Team's Most Important Veteran

Luke Petkac@@LukePetkacFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2012

San Francisco 49ers: Why Patrick Willis Is Team's Most Important Veteran

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    After experiencing years of mediocrity, San Francisco erupted last season as a Super Bowl contender. The 49ers went 13-3 and won their first NFC West title since 2002.

    None of it would have been possible without Patrick Willis.

    Willis, the 49ers' defensive captain, is one of the most intimidating linebackers in the entire league. He keys the stingy San Francisco defense, and no linebacker in the league can match his all-around skill set.

    For these reasons and many more, Willis is the San Francisco 49ers' most important veteran.

He's the Best Player on the Team

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    This is a pretty obvious one. Willis is important because he's quite simply the 49ers' best player. With all due respect to guys like Frank Gore, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith, Willis is still the driving force behind the team.

    Willis has been voted onto the All-Pro team in all five of the years that he's been in the NFL. In those five years, he's amassed 692 tackles, 17 sacks, 12 forced fumbles and five interceptions. Those are outrageous numbers.

    And don't be fooled into thinking that Willis is just one of those linebackers that looks good on paper. In 2011, New York Jets linebacker David Harris told USA TODAY's Nate Davis:

    There are some guys that have a lot of numbers — tackles — but you're not (necessarily) impressed by that. Pat? He's not one of them.

    He also mentioned that Willis was:

    By far the best linebacker in the game.

    After five seasons in the league, Willis is a veteran. But in no way is he slowing down. At 27 years old, he's just hitting his peak and is set to lead the 49ers for years to come.

He's the Team Leader

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    A team is only as good as its leader, and outside of head coach Jim Harbaugh, no one leads the 49ers like Willis does.

    Everyone knows that Willis is an incredible leader on the field. He's the one who makes all the on-field defensive adjustments, and he does it very well. There's a reason that the 49ers were ranked fourth in total defense last season.

    But even off the gridiron, he acts as both a friend and a mentor.

    Kevin Lynch of reported that Willis was recently asked by NaVorro Bowman to become the godfather of Bowman's twins.

    In his typically humble fashion, Willis told Lynch:

    That's probably one of the biggest things, as an individual, is to be asked to be someone's godfather. For him to ask me, I was like, 'Man, really?' I don't know the first thing about it. But I'm just a phone call away or a drive away, and I will do the very best I can.

    The camaraderie that the 49ers have on and off the field lends itself tremendously to the team's long-term success, and Willis' leadership is its driving force.

He's the Perfect Mentor for NaVorro Bowman

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    NoVorro Bowman, Willis' partner at inside linebacker, exploded onto the NFL scene last year.

    Bowman amassed 143 total tackles last season (good for seventh in the league) and made the All-Pro team in just his second year in the NFL.

    But Bowman never could have done it without Willis' help. Ron Kroichick of reports that on an episode of ESPN's “Rome is Burning,” Bowman said:

    For me and Patrick to have the chance to be out there together this season, he's done nothing but help me on the field.

    Willis has no problem acting as a mentor for the younger Bowman. He told Kroichick:

    When we're watching film the day after a game, I see him make a play and tell him that was a good tackle or a good shed. I always try to be supportive and let him know I'm watching every play.

    Bowman's emergence played a huge part in San Francisco's successful season, and a lot of credit goes to Willis for his guidance.

    Bowman will only get better and better with Willis' help, which spells great things for the 49ers.

He Drives Their Super Bowl Aspirations

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    The 49ers blew it in last year's NFC Championship Game. Young receiver Kyle Williams turned the ball over twice on special teams, which ultimately allowed the New York Giants to leave Candlestick Park with a 20-17 victory.

    Had San Francisco eliminated the careless mistakes, we would have seen the 49ers in the Super Bowl. They clearly have the talent. It's just up to them to capitalize on it.

    Obviously, it's not Willis' fault that the 49ers lost to the Giants. But how they respond to that loss will be, in large part, up to him.

    As I mentioned before, Willis is the team leader. He's the guy that everyone looks to when things go wrong.

    If Willis acts as the leader that fans know he is, the 49ers should have no problems returning to the NFC Championship game and walking away with a win.