The San Francisco 49ers' disappointing loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 10 halted their five-game win streak, and it begs the question: Should the 49ers still be considered Super Bowl contenders?
In terms of talent, this team has it all; however, talent isn't everything. It seems after all of the success of the past two years, complacency is beginning to kick in.
I stated this before, but all good teams suffer from complacency. Can we honestly say the Panthers are the better team? Is the 49ers offense this pathetic? Has Colin Kaepernick regressed this much?
Complacency is an issue that needs to be addressed, but that isn't even the biggest problem facing the defending NFC champions.
Injuries, injuries, injuries. Now, excuses shouldn't be made, because all teams go through the injury bug, but there is one player the 49ers can ill avoid to lose.
Vernon Davis, come on down.
Vernon Davis isn't really injury prone, so when he does miss time, especially this season, you begin to clearly see just how one-dimensional the 49ers become on offense.
With a great defense and running game in place, the 49ers passing offense has to become more consistent. It starts with Colin Kaepernick, but it ends with Vernon Davis.
Here are three reasons why Vernon Davis is key to a 49ers Super Bowl run this season.
Vernon Davis is one of the more explosive athletes in the NFL, but it's his blocking ability that distinguishes him from the rest of the crop.
With three first-round picks on their offensive line, the 49ers have one of the best run-blocking lines in the league, but it's the blocking ability of their receivers and tight ends that makes this unit special.
Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are excellent blockers. The 49ers also have a fantastic lead blocker in fullback Bruce Miller, and of course, don't forget Vernon Davis.
Coming out of the University of Maryland, Davis wasn't known as an in-line blocker. In fact, this was one of the weakest areas in his game coming out of college.
Davis had all of the physical tools to develop into a great blocker at the next level, but his technique was a bit off. However, after a few years of fine tuning his technique, people started to notice his blocking ability out on the edge.
Even when Vernon Davis is not catching footballs, he makes quite an impact. How many tight ends can say that?
The 49ers use of "12" personnel is well documented. If you are unaware of certain personnel groupings, here's a great reference article by my colleague, Erik Frenz.
Essentially, "12" personnel focuses on a one-back, two-tight end scheme. The 49ers love to use two tight ends in their hybrid West Coast scheme.
When the concussed Vernon Davis had to leave the game against the Panthers, the 49ers were down to tight ends in Garrett Celek and rookie Vance McDonald.
Then the unimaginable happened.
Garrett Celek was ruled out of the Panthers game due to a hamstring strain. This left the 49ers with one tight end in a scheme centered around two. Celek wasn't much of a pass-catcher to begin with, but he was a very good run-blocker.
Without another tight end, quarterback Colin Kaepernick had to focus much of the passing game on receivers he has yet to trust. As many already witnessed, the 49ers are struggling in the receiver department.
Not to mention the damage it did to the running game. As I already stated before, the absence of Davis' blocking ability hurts the run-first 49ers.
You take the 49ers' best weapon away from an already bad passing team, and the results shouldn't be surprising.
Many of the top tight ends in the league are classified under the "move" or "joker" category. Some would even call them a hybrid H-back, but to be blunt, these tight ends are essentially receivers out on the field.
Yes, Davis doesn't put up the same numbers as Gronk or Graham, but his impact is still felt. Ask any safety or linebacker if they feel comfortable single-covering Davis?
Gronkowski and Graham are special in their own right, but Davis brings a skill set unlike any tight end we'll ever see. Davis, unlike Graham and Gronkowski, is a deep threat.
Now, some might argue Graham could match Davis's foot speed, but that's false. Graham is a bigger target than Davis, and for his size, is frighteningly fast, but the New Orleans Saints tight end is not a deep threat in the traditional sense.
You can put a corner on Graham, and that defensive back should be able to keep up with him. Stopping him on jump balls is another thing. That's where his size makes a difference.
On the other hand, Davis can beat corners on deep hooks and go routes rather easily. Safeties and linebackers don't stand a chance.
With Michael Crabtree out, Vernon Davis was really the only other receiver, with the exception of Boldin, who could create separation at the line of scrimmage and in open space.
Even if Davis is being used as a decoy, he still opens up the rest of the field for Frank Gore and Co. The 49ers will need Davis at full strength against the New Orleans Saints if they hope to secure a victory in Week 11.
Vernon Davis may not be considered the best tight end in football, but in my eyes, the former University of Maryland alum makes the biggest impact.
Need more proof? ESPN reporter Bill Williamson tweeted this:
"How badly do 49ers need V. Davis to get healthy? He has caught 78 pct. of their touchdown catches. Highest in league by 21 percent."
Even with Crabtree, Vernon Davis is by far the most important player on this 49ers squad. Without him, the 49ers could be looking at an early exit in the playoffs.