While those who enjoy making free money off of NFL football lost, oh, somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million collectively last night due to Jim Harbaugh’s decision to take points off the board and decline a safety (Pizzola’s Twitter rantings properly show the seven stages of grief), fantasy owners of the few skill players worth starting Thursday had another source for their ire and/or incessant worry.
More specifically, it’s Vernon Davis who’s causing hair to change color along with the tree leaves this fall. Davis entered last night as the second-highest fantasy point producer at his position with 55 points through six games, which is behind only Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez using standard ESPN scoring. Yet the Seahawks held him to zero receptions last night, the first time that’s happened since 2008.
But they did more, and the extra measure they took to truly stuff Davis is what’s petrifying. He didn’t even receive a single target.
Before I go further, let’s make it abundantly clear that we should all be well aware of two quite obvious facts around Davis’ Thursday night shutdown. Led by Brandon Browner, the Seahawks have one of the youngest and most physically imposing secondaries in the league, and after they held Alex Smith to just 140 passing yards, their per game average for yards allowed through the air is at 212.3. Which leads to the second point against Davis and his production: this game was therefore all Frank Gore, all the time, as the running back had 131 yards on just 16 carries, accounting for 48 percent of the 49ers’ total offense.
But still, when an elite tight end of Davis’ caliber isn’t even targeted once and given an opportunity to make a play, there’s cause for serious concern regardless of the game circumstances. Even if the Niners were literally playing against a brick wall that was 12-feet tall and stood at the 50-yard line, I would still expect Davis to get a few targets as San Fran attempted to bust through that menacing brick.
Yet there he was, target-less and listless. Point to the simple lack of passing by Smith and the 49ers’ offense if you’d like to make yourself feel warm, but you’re doing that in blind ignorance of the fact that under Harbaugh the 49ers largely haven’t been a passing offense, yet Davis has still produced. Smith attempted 23 passes last night, which is below his season average of 27.1, but not significantly. Blaming just that loss of five attempts — especially from a quarterback who had a very average completion percentage of 60.8 — seems short sighted.
Taking that further, last year Smith’s average attempts per game was nearly identical (27.8), and he had three games with 23 or fewer attempts. In those games against St. Louis, Tampa, and Seattle again (with Seattle and St. Louis averaging a combined 213.1 passing yards allowed in 2011) he threw five touchdowns, two of which were to Davis, who had 13 receptions during the three games for 118 yards. That yardage isn’t impressive, but that’s expected against top tier secondaries. What’s important is that Davis was still getting open and was still utilized enough to contribute, two essential, core qualities of any viable fantasy option that were absent last night.
Growing the concern around Davis are the lack of a red-zone looks. The 49ers had four red-zone opportunities last night, two of which resulted in David Akers field goals, and one was killed by Smith’s end-zone interception. But on their only successful trip deep into Seattle territory, it was Delanie Walker who was targeted for a 12-yard score. He also plays tight end which is, you know, the same position Davis plays.
Davis didn’t really have answers as to why he wasn’t looked at while Gore and Michael Crabtree received the bulk of the targets (12 combined). What once worked is simply being shut down, with the opposition keying on San Fran’s most threatening receiving option.
From the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Some of the routes I usually run, they are taking them away,” Davis said. “The (routes) up the sideline, it’s not there. Nothing’s there. When I run my corner routes, the cornerback is dropping to the corner. They are just taking stuff away, some of my explosive routes and stuff.”
Asked how he could adjust, Davis, who said he wasn’t frustrated as long as the 49ers win, was at a loss.
“That’s up to the offensive coordinator,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. I run my routes hard to get open but there’s nothing there. We’ll see, we’ll see.”
He’s right with that last part, as a multiple-game decline hints strongly at a book on Davis that has been written, and read thoroughly by defenses league wide.
A week ago against the Giants, Davis collected a 24-yard garbage time reception to make his final line look at lot better than what it was headed for, as he had only two catches for 12 yards through three quarters. And while his 106-yard outburst in Week 5 against the Bills looks nice, 30 percent of Davis’ 171 yards over the last four weeks came on one catch (a 53 yarder against Buffalo).
Conversely, though, there’s great reason to not worry at all. This is what you purchased with Davis: a tight end in a rushing-oriented offense who will get sporadic targets and therefore will also have sporadic production, meaning there will be weeks when he causes you grew pain. Since we play a game where week-to-week results are paramount, the hurt of Davis’ valleys is always balanced by the elation of the peaks.