Senior NFL Columnist

Niners must get TE Davis involved more to keep progressing

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Davis: 'I wish I was one of those guys who got the ball 10-12 times a game. That's a dream.' (Getty Images)  
Davis: 'I wish I was one of those guys who got the ball 10-12 times a game. That's a dream.' (Getty Images)  

HOUSTON -- San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is a physical specimen, even just standing at his locker stuffing things into a bag as he readies to take a long flight back to San Francisco.

It's that size, speed, and ability to stretch a defense that makes Davis the perfect choice to probe about the 49ers need to improve the passing game, something that has to happen if they are truly to become an elite team.

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At first, the questions that I asked him following his team's preseason game here with the Houston Texans last Saturday night seemed to knock him back like a linebacker jarring him at the point of attack.

He wasn't sure where I was going.

So I led. And I led. And I led.

Eventually, he got the point, which is this: Don't you need to get with the times and throw the ball more and have more than 65 catches and an 11.8 per-catch average, especially at a time when Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham each are coming off seasons of at least 90 catches?

Ding, ding, ding.

"I watch those guys," Davis said. "I wish I was one of those guys who got the ball 10-12 times a game. That's a dream. I can't beg. All I can do is play my role and continue to be a leader. I can only take what I can get. I can't beg."

Maybe it's time. The 49ers are the chic, trendy NFC pick as a potential Super Bowl team. They made it to the NFC championship game last season, but lost to the New York Giants in a game that featured two lost punts by Kyle Williams to set up Giants scores.

The 49ers' backers will say that's all the proof you need to know that they did things the right way. Their run-first, play-good-defense style of football worked.

For a year, it did.

It can't work again. It won't work again. It's not sustainable.

Aside from that title game, the 49ers had almost every ball bounce their way. They had 38 takeaways and 10 turnovers, which gave them a league-best plus-28 ratio.

They were also second in the NFL in scoring defense, showcasing a fierce unit that saw a lot of players have career years.

It's hard to count on all that going right again. So that's why in a league where passing is now king, the 49ers have to do more throwing it.

San Francisco was 26th in total offense last year, but eighth in rushing and 29th in passing. The only other playoff team in the bottom 10 of the league in passing was Denver, and we know the reason why that happened, some run-first quarterback named Tebow.

49ers quarterback Alex Smith had his best season in the league and still was 20th in attempts, 17th in completions and 19th in yards among all quarterbacks.

He was tops in one category: Interception ratio. He threw just five all season. To me, that's a function of a team that doesn't take chances. So is his 7.1-per pass average, which was the lowest of any of the top-15 passers from a year ago.

"We're not a cookie-cutter deal," Smith said. "We don't try to get a set number. We're trying to score points. I don't care how many you throw for or how many you run for. We don't put stock in that. We have to do what it takes to win."

In the divisional playoff victory over the Saints, Smith showed he could do it --- if asked -- for a game. He was sensational, throwing for 299 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-32 victory. His 42 attempts were the most he had last season.

"We're a little old-school," Smith said of the team's style. "We have a different style. You had three guys throw for 5,000 yards last season, so times are kind of changing. But there are a lot of ways to win football games."

Teams that play the style the 49ers used don't last. We've seen it before. I like to use the 2008 Tennessee Titans. They went 13-3 with a run-heavy, defense-based team and Kerry Collins at quarterback.

The Titans were seventh in rushing and 16th in passing. They were first in total defense. They lost to the Ravens in the playoffs and went 7-9 the next season.

Is that where the 49ers are headed? A soft division might prevent that big a drop, but a tough schedule won't help.

To help liven up their passing game, the 49ers signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. One is old and hasn't done a thing in two years and the other was little more than a No. 3 receiver in New York.

"They each bring a unique skill set," Smith said. "I am excited to work with them."

If they don't open it up, does it really matter?

"Maybe that's [passing game] something we need to work on," Davis said.

Harbaugh is a run-first coach. He was that way at Stanford, even though he had Andrew Luck as his quarterback. That's his style.

I just wonder if Smith and the passing game are good enough to put this team into Super contention again. They can't expect the turnover ratio to be that good again, even with a good defense.

As our chat wound down, I told Davis he should be a 90-catch tight end in the Gronk and Graham mold.

"I understand what you are saying," Davis said. "I understand. But that's not on me. All I can do is run what is called."

For the sake of the 49ers, it better be more passes.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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