Davis has chosen his words carefully this week
Some of the most competitive battles during 49ers practice sessions in recent years came when Vernon Davis and Manny Lawson were matched up during passing plays – two fast, athletic talents pitting strength versus strength. The former teammates will be at it again Sunday when the Niners play the Cincinnati Bengals, but this time they’ll be doing it in a real game, and the final results will count.
Davis is eager for that day to come for more reasons than one.
The 49ers’ star tight end is looking forward to another rendition of his long-running competition with Lawson that dates back to their college days, but also for an opportunity to get more involved in a San Francisco offense that practically ignored his receiving talents during last week’s 27-24 overtime loss to Dallas.
But first there’s Lawson, who joined the Bengals as a free agent last month after spending his first five NFL seasons with the 49ers.
Davis and Lawson were practically intertwined during their careers together with the 49ers after San Francisco selected both in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft. The Niners used their own No. 6 overall pick to land Davis, then traded up later in the round to grab Lawson with the No. 22 pick.
They remained interconnected during their continual sparring sessions in practice over the years, with neither giving an inch in an individual competition that was watched closely by coaches and teammates alike and surely made both players better. That is particularly true of Davis, who has blossomed into a Pro Bowl tight end after his career with the Niners got off to a slow start.
But the pair hasn’t been pitted against each other with this much on the line since Davis was playing tight end at the University of Maryland and Lawson was on the other side of the football playing for North Carolina State.
Along with San Francisco’s wide receiver corps, Davis will see another familiar face in the passing lanes Sunday. Cincinnati’s starting left cornerback is Nate Clements, who started for the 49ers the past four seasons and regularly matched up in practice with the team’s wideouts before San Francisco cut Clements in July and he signed days later with the Bengals.
“It’ll be a fun and interesting game, especially knowing those guys,” Davis said. “I’ve been going against Manny since I was in college, so I know him very well. I’m familiar with Nate, going against him in practice, so it makes my assignment a little easier because I know those guys.”
Davis is looking for more assignments as a receiving target than he’s gotten so far in San Francisco’s first two games, and a lot more than last week against Dallas, when the sixth-year veteran had only two passes thrown his way on a day when the Niners’ offense was sputtering to just 206 yards of total offense while allowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to slip away.
Davis has matured both on the field and in the locker room the past two years, so he was diplomatic after the game but also made some rather pointed comments about his diminished role in the offense. He didn’t have to spell out his frustration. It was evident earlier between the lines, when Davis’ biggest contribution to the attack was as a blocker.
That led to a powwow this week with coach Jim Harbaugh, who typically had little to say about the details of their discussion.
“Not going to share much,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a two-way conversation, me and him, and it was just about football. It wasn’t about frustration or anything else that you’d categorize. We talked. Talk to a lot of players every day.”
But Davis isn’t just any other player for a coach who’s trying to get his team up to speed in a new offense, as Harbaugh’s doing with the Niners in his version of the West Coast system. A system, by the way, that featured the tight end prominently in the passing game when Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were running it the past four seasons at Stanford.
Davis is arguably the top offensive weapon Harbaugh has at his disposal. Yet, instead of using Davis to exploit a Dallas secondary depleted by injury, Harbaugh opted to use Davis’ strong blocking skills instead to help combat a Dallas defensive front that was causing havoc all day when the 49ers attempted to pass.
Davis caught both passes thrown at him against the Cowboys and leads the 49ers with seven receptions for 65 yards. But those are unfulfilling numbers for a guy who averaged 16.3 yards on his 56 receptions last year and has led San Francisco in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns each of the past two seasons, the first tight end in franchise history to accomplish that feat.
Davis appeared satisfied with what he heard from his coach this week, and also with the way he anticipates he’ll be used moving forward. Davis said he didn’t plead with Harbaugh for a larger role in the offense, but instead talked about getting everybody involved and doing whatever he can to help the 49ers win games.
“I had on my mind some things I thought we could have done better in the game, and I pointed them out as far as getting everybody involved,” Davis said. “It’s still early. That’s why I didn’t have to talk to him about that too much.
“I looked at the film and I agree with everything coach Harbaugh has to say. He’s the head coach. I have to agree with everything he says, because he’s the guy. I didn’t disagree with him with anything. I totally understood everything that he had to say to me, and everything that he had to say was correct. Now I’m just excited about the upcoming game, my role.”
On at least a few occasions Sunday, that role figures to have Davis isolated in coverage with Lawson, who will be more of a coverage linebacker with the Bengals now that he’s playing in Cincinnati’s 4-3 system rather than San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme that never seemed to be the best fit for Lawson’s skills.
It will seem just like old times for Davis, who won more of those practice battles than he lost over the years. Harbaugh and his crew should keep that in mind when they’re drawing up their game plan this week.
“I strongly believe that coach Harbaugh and the rest of the staff will do everything that they can to put us in a great situation to make plays – everybody,” Davis said. “I put it in their hands. They’ve got it. They know what they’re doing. I trust and believe in that and just continue to play ball.”