Two years ago, San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was “asked” by his head coach (then interim) Mike Singletary to leave the field in the fourth quarter of a home game against the Seattle Seahawks. A late retaliatory jab by Davis against a Seattle defender drew a personal foul penalty against the embattled TE, and Coach Sing was not at all pleased with Davis’s “nonchalant” attitude toward the situation upon leaving the field.
The incident was the low point in a series of antics highlighted by in-game altercations and training camp fights. Davis was already widely considered to be a team pariah, prima donna, and draft bust, as the sixth overall selection in 2006 had tallied just seven touchdowns and fewer than 1,000 yards to date. Many speculated he might not survive the rest of the season under Coach Sing, let alone the offseason.
Instead, the incident marked the pivotal point in the stunning turnaround of Davis’s career. He was visually humbled by the experience, and became a team player, a hard worker, and a model teammate. His offseason metamorphosis and work ethic overhaul so impressed his coaches—particularly Coach Sing—that one year ago, Davis was named as a team captain.
While the move was heavily questioned, Davis delivered.
He racked up 965 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns (tying an NFL single-season record for TEs) on his way to a Pro Bowl start.
Now—one year later—are the 49ers poised for another such breakout season?
Quarterback Alex Smith has been with the team since they selected him first overall in 2005 in the hopes that he could solidify a position that had floundered since the departure of Jeff Garcia (who himself never truly replaced legends Joe Montana and Steve Young).
It was an uphill battle from the beginning, as nearly everyone except then-general manager and offensive coordinator Scott McCloughan and Mike McCarthy were convinced (and still are in many cases) that hometown hero and Cal standout Aaron Rodgers should have been taken over Smith. The divergence of the pair’s career statistics—however justifiable by circumstance—has not helped.
Rodgers was afforded the luxury of easing into a stable offensive system behind a first-ballot Hall of Famer before being given the reins in 2008. His stats as a starter are unquestionably impressive, but he has had the means to achieve such ends. Smith was forced to start from the outset and battled through injuries and a constantly revolving offensive game plan to post mediocre-at-best numbers until finally showing some promise after relieving Shaun Hill midway through last season.
While Smith has rarely if ever been called a selfish player or team pariah, he has been hounded with nearly every other conceivable form or criticism, as well as speculation that nearly every other QB to come through San Francisco during his tenure was “clearly” better. He has taken it all in stride, built on his solid performance last year and earned the nod as a team captain.
This move is bound to be questioned and criticized, and even if Alex Smith leads the 49ers to the next five straight Super Bowl titles, fans will probably still speculate about how many MORE they would have had with Aaron Rodgers.
Nonetheless, Vernon Davis’s performance last year proves that the captaincy is more than just a motivational or political ploy. Coach Sing named Alex Smith as a captain because he believes he has improved enough to lead the team. If he can do half as well Davis did after being named captain in 2009, the 49ers should be just fine.
As for a Pro Bowl performance? If anyone on the offense stands a chance at big numbers it would be the QB—as other position players will likely split touches to such an extent that they deplete one another’s totals. The 49ers seem to be intent on running the ball with regularity though, so Smith’s overall totals may not be eye-popping.
Gaudy stats would be great, but as long as Smith can embody the leadership qualities that inspired Coach Sing and the 49ers to pin the captaincy title on him, the offense should be in good hands. If that comes to pass, with the weapons on the 49er offense, the sky is the limit.
Keep the faith!