Just 24 hours before the San Francisco 49ers kick off what they hope will be a very special season, they made another very substantial investment in their future.
As I predicted earlier this offseason, the 49ers signed team captain and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis to a five year, incentive-laden contract extension. The deal is guaranteed to pay Davis $23 million over the life of the contract, but could be worth as much as $37 million if certain performance criteria are met, according to sfgate.com.
The incentive-based pay-out is an excellent compromise, affording Davis the opportunity earn close to the $40 million figure he had been clamoring for earlier this offseason, while still affording the 49ers some financial protection in the event that Davis's production tails off from his record-tying 2009 levels. Finalizing the deal prior to the start of the regular season also ensures there will be no possibility of a lingering distraction moving forward.
On another level, however, the deal reflects the growing resurgence of the class, respect, and family values that were so critical in forging and maintaining the dynasty throughout the DeBartolo Era.
Earlier this offseason, the 49ers signed elite middle linebacker and unquestioned face of the franchise Patrick Willis to a similar five-year extension. The deal came as Willis was entering the final season on his rookie contract, rewarding the emerging super star for his incredible development to date and ensuring the team would never face the possibility of losing him to free agency by allowing him to play the contract out.
Saturday, they did the same for Davis. These signings not only secure two of the most talented young players at their positions in the NFL, but also show Davis, Willis, and the rest of the team that production, success, and character will not go unappreciated by the 49ers brass.
Willis has been a stellar performer and model citizen since game one, but Davis took some time to mature. After getting "excused" from duty in head coach Mike Singletary's interim debut in October of 2008, Davis has poured his heart and soul into turning his career around—and it has paid off.
The one-time denigrated sixth-overall draft pick went from being a team pariah and draft bust to a team captain and Pro Bowler in just one season. Even despite this dramatic turn around, the humility and team-oriented posture the 2008 incident inspired in him stuck with him into the 2010 offseason.
Despite Davis's repeated expressions of serious interest in reworking his contract in the wake of the May signing of Patrick Willis's extension, Davis set personal interests and pride aside and did ALL the right things as organized team activities, offseason conditioning, mini-camps, and training camp came and went. Unlike teammate Manny Lawson—who abstained from all voluntary team activities until mandatory mini-camps while he too pleaded for a new contract on the merits of far less-impressive statistics—Davis put the team's interest first and participated in every offseason team practice, even putting in additional one-on-one time developing stronger chemistry with starting quarterback Alex Smith.
Had the 49ers gone into the regular season with Davis still playing out his original contract, it would have sent a very confusing message to the team. In effect, team management would have been saying to Vernon Davis, "We really appreciate all you have done over the last 18 months. We think you have become one of the best tight ends in the game. But we are still willing to run the risk of losing you next offseason (or creating a franchise-tag hold out controversy), because we do not fully trust that what we saw last year was what we will continue to get moving forward."
This would not exactly serve as stellar motivation for Davis and other players to sell out for the good of the team every week. But the new extensions for Davis and Willis prove the 49ers want to win and will reward hard work with just dues. These deals tell all the players that if you buy in to the system and do what is best for the team, if you are willing to become part of the 49er Family, the family will not turn its back on you.
It is a strong and encouraging parallel to the DeBartolo Era as Jed York continues to follow in his Uncle Eddie's footsteps. Hopefully, this is just the first parallel of many to come.
Keep the Faith!