SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Since taking over the offense in 2011, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and their slew of offensive assistants have gotten a lot out of the 49ers tight ends. But the production from that position took a serious nose dive in 2014.
It all starts with Vernon Davis, who, aside from quarterback Colin Kaepernick, could be considered a poster child for the team's offensive struggles this season, leading to a 7-6 record with playoff hopes hanging by a thread before Sunday's game in Seattle.
Davis is having the worst statistical season of his nine-year career, averaging a career-low 21.5 receiving yards per game with two touchdowns, both coming in the season-opening victory in Dallas. It's odd, because in 2013, Davis caught 13 touchdown passes in the regular season and added two more in the playoffs, in one of the most productive seasons of his career.
But what made Davis such a dynamic piece of San Francisco's offense was his combination of elite speed for the position and high productivity when it came to run blocking. No skill player in a gold helmet did more for the offense because of that unique dual-threat ability since Harbaugh took over.
It allowed the 49ers to run the ball at the second-highest rate in the NFL, despite facing more eight-man fronts than any team in the league. Defenses couldn't over commit to the run because of the fear Davis instilled with his ability to run by safeties for big plays. The 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL when using play action, with Davis playing a big role. This year, that club has been taking out of their bag.
Davis' touchdowns averaged 22.6 yards in 2013, including scores from 64, 61, 35 and 52 yards out. This season, Davis has just 236 receiving yards on 25 catches and hasn't been the big-play threat that balanced the run-heavy offense of seasons past.
"As far as not getting the ball, (I) leave it up to the offensive coordinator. It’s his call,” Davis told reporters Wednesday.
That thought comes in stark contrast to what Davis said before the team's 24-13 loss to the Oakland Raiders, when he had two catches for 26 yards. When asked about his season-long struggles leading up to that game, Davis wasn't nearly as willing to question Roman's offense.
"I try to stay in my lane and control the things that I can control. I don’t go to the coaches. I don’t ask them about 'why this, why that.' I just do my job," Davis said. "Because at the end of the day, I figure they know what they have in me. As far as contributing to the team. So I just stay in my lane and leave it up to those guys, leave it up to the coaches."
The frustration accompanying losing has a way of changing perspective, particularly when losing to an 11-loss local rival effectively costs the team its shot at the playoffs.
And after holding out in the offseason looking for a contract extension, that frustration could be mounting even more. Davis' future with the 49ers is uncertain considering this season's production paired with 2015's cap number that exceeds $7 million. Davis turns 31 on Jan. 31.
But the passing game hasn't been the only part of Davis' game to take a serious downturn. He's also dropped off significantly as a run blocker.
In each of the last three seasons, Davis was one of Pro Football Focus' 10 best at the position. This year? He's ranked 56th. To be fair, Davis has also dealt with injuries this season, including an ankle and self-described debilitating back injury he says has been fine since the team's bye week in late October.
"After the bye week I was ready to go," Davis said. "Before that, uh uh. I was struggling. It was tough. Any time you’re dealing with muscle spams...I don’t wish that on anybody. Anybody."
When it comes to his run blocking this year, Davis says he's done better than PFF's metrics indicate.
"I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I don’t like sit here and talk about myself or what I’ve done. (I will) let you guys determine that. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good as far as everything they’ve asked me to do. Whether it’s in the run game, or contributing as a player," Davis said.
San Francisco's running attack hasn't been nearly effective in 2014. There are a number of factors to consider: a lower overall usage rate, constant turnover on the right side of the offensive line, and injuries to all three of the team's tight ends it started the year with.
The 49ers this week placed Vance McDonald (PFF's second-ranked blocking tight end) on injured reserve with a back injury, joining Derek Carrier, who hit IR before San Francisco lost to the Seahawks on Thanksgiving.
This season, the running game is averaging 4.0 yards per carry (21st in the NFL), down from 4.4 in 2013, ranking ninth in the league. Davis, tasked with blocking linebackers and defensive ends, has played 87 percent of the snaps when healthy.
According to Roman, Davis should not shoulder any blame for the inconsistencies in the running game, and downplayed the idea of Pro-Bowl tight end's dissatisfaction with the offense.
"Vernon and I have a great relationship, starting from the day I walked in this building," Roman said Thursday. "...And sure we want him to get involved and there have been opportunities for that, but it’s just something we’ve got to work through.
"He’s done a tremendous job, though, of dealing with that fact, the certain circumstances and really, really applying himself. Like he’s blocked. He’s blocking right now as good as he’s ever done. What does that tell me about him as a professional? What does that tell me about him as a teammate? Man, it tells me everything I need to know because he’s had some really tough duty as far as blocking goes."
Davis has struggled in Seattle, as has the offense as a whole, averaging 38 yards on 3.6 receptions since Pete Carroll took over as Seahawks coach in 2010. Davis hasn't caught a touchdown pass at CenturyLink Field since 2009.