NEW ORLEANS – Tight end Vernon Davis practically revels in his disappearance from the San Francisco passing attack over the last six weeks of the regular season.
Just about the time Colin Kaepernick checked into the 49ers offense as the starting quarterback, Davis checked out. Kaepernick took over with eight games to go. Over the last six games, Davis caught just six passes and had no touchdowns.
No touches? No problem, says Davis.
“The difference between me now and when I first came into the league, was that it was all about me,” Davis said this week as he prepared for Super Bowl XLVII. “I came in with the attitude to catch balls and get statistics and things like that. I didn’t care about the team. I was about Vernon, always. But now I could care less about catching balls and getting statistics because I understand that the team is much bigger.”
For many tight ends, a six-game disappearance would be no big deal. But Davis, a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder in his seventh year, is an athletic freak. Coming out of college, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. No tight end has run faster over the past 12 years. He broad jumped 10 feet, 8 inches, fourth best among tight ends since 2000.
Davis averaged 67 catches and nine touchdowns over the previous three seasons, and his 13 TD catches in 2009 was an NFL single-season record until New England’s Rob Gronkowski broke it last year.
If the lack of use bothered him, he has done a great job of hiding it. Over and over the past two months, Davis has unwaveringly embraced the team approach.
“I didn’t see many balls,” Davis said. “At first I started to wonder: What’s going on? But I read something that said, ‘In order to be great you have to be a servant. You have to be a slave,’ ” Davis said. “It’s a way of saying that you have to be humble, and that’s something that I’ve learned here. I meditated on that and continued to do my job. I’m not worried about statistics and things like that.”
Davis got the chance to show his true value in the Niners’ 28-24 NFC Championship Game victory over Atlanta. He caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Davis looms as a huge worry for the Baltimore Ravens’ defense in today’s game at the Superdome because he is a matchup nightmare in the passing game.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan this year said of Davis: “The guy runs a 4.3, the best tight end, the No. 1 tight end in football, in my opinion. You got that Gronkowski kid, but this guy is a 4.3 speed guy.”
Ryan’s ranking may be a stretch. Davis has improved his blocking and is acceptable in that area. But he’s not a monster blocker like Gronkowski, who is 6-6 and 268 pounds. (Gronkowski runs a 4.68 40-yard dash.)
Davis’ team-first epiphany came during a game on Oct. 26, 2008. After receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Davis was banished to the locker room by then Niners head coach Mike Singletary. A Hall-of-Famer and old-school disciplinarian, Singletary had enough of Davis’ underachieving.
“I would rather play with 10 people and get penalized all the way, rather than play with 11 when right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team,” Singletary famously railed after the game.
“When Singletary sent me to the locker room, that was a moment right there that changed my whole life around,” Davis said. “After the game in the locker room I told Singletary that I wanted to leave. He said, ‘OK, you’ll leave. We’ll get you to another team.’ We shed tears. After that my focus went to another level.”
The next season, Davis went “supernova,” catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 TDs.
“I had to figure this thing out,” Davis said. “I had to find out who I really was as a player. I think Singletary really helped me channel my emotions.”
Davis is a thoughtful guy. He majored in studio art at the University of Maryland and he likes to paint in his spare time. His acrylic on canvas works were on display earlier this year at a San Francisco gallery. He recently opened an interior-design company. He has a foundation that supports art scholarships, a football academy and a halfway house for addicted and abused women.
Davis on painting: “It relaxes my mind and takes me to a whole nother place that I can’t go with football. It takes me away when I’m stressed or I have some things I want to get off my mind. I go to the canvas and I paint.”
Davis also managed to get himself named as honorary captain of the U.S. curling team for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The connection began when he was asked by a reporter how he might fare sliding a curling stone down the ice. He decided to see for himself and visited a Bay Area curling club. One thing led to another, and Davis paid his own way to Vancouver to offer moral support to the U.S. team.
The team. It has become Davis’ mantra.
“Everything that I do, I put my teammates first,” Davis said. “To me, that’s the mark of a true leader.”