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February 2, 2009
Raye's challenge: Unleash Vernon Davis

Jimmy Raye will fly into Santa Clara this week. On Wednesday, the 49ers' new offensive coordinator will lock himself in one of the team's film rooms and begin familiarizing himself with the players he inherits. One of the 49ers he'll be most interested in is Vernon Davis. Raye has coached some truly gifted, Hall-of-Fame-type offensive players over his 32-year career. One of them was Rams running back Eric Dickerson. Another was Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. In his three seasons as Kansas City's offensive coordinator, Gonzalez caught 228 passes and scored 22 touchdowns. He was the quarterback's first choice when the Chiefs needed a first down and created all sorts of mismatches with defenders.

Raye's success with Gonzalez has to have been one of the things that intrigued the 49ers. Team officials love to talk about what a dominating blocker Davis has become. But let's be frank, that's not why the 49ers drafted him No. 6 overall in 2006. Davis hasn't been a bust - far from it - but there's a sense that the 49ers haven't come close to tapping his full potential. Part of that is due to injuries. His rookie and second seasons were interrupted because he got hurt. In 2007, in fact, he seemed to be taking over a game against the Steelers when a questionable hit by Troy Polamalu sent him to the training table.

This past season, Davis was healthy throughout but found himself in an offense that favored wide receivers over tight ends. So what did Mike Martz do? He made Davis into a wide receiver, sending him deep and hoping he could use his speed to beat the defense for big plays. Despite starting all 16 games in 2008 vs. 14 in 2007, Davis' catches fell from 52 to 31 and his reception yards went from 509 to 358. The problem is that Davis is far better when squaring his shoulders to the football than he is at catching it over his shoulder. This is where Davis' greatest strength - his powerful frame - becomes a hindrance. The very thing that makes him a nightmare to tackle also constricts his agility. The pass has to be perfect in order for him to catch it, and indeed there were instances in games and in practices where Davis didn't make any effort to stretch for balls that were just out of his reach. An acrobat, he is not.

This is the paradox Raye is bound to encounter this week. As was the case in Kansas City, his most physically gifted player in San Francisco is his tight end. But they are entirely different cats. Gonzalez is an ex-basketball player (See also: Gates, Antonio) whose basketball skills have come in handy at tight end. He's lithe, he uses his body to shield defenders, he's a great leaper, he has excellent hands. Davis, meanwhile, used to play basketball. But listen to what he told San Jose Magazine this summer: "I play a little basketball once in a while. But I got strong, so I can't really shoot like I used to." In other words, Davis became so muscle-bound that he lost his game.

Which isn't to say that Davis is useless in the passing game and is incapable of big plays. His first NFL catch, for instance, was a simple toss in the flat that he was able to turn up field for a 31-yard touchdown against the Cardinals. He's faster than Gonzalez and he's harder to bring down in the open field. He can turn the corner and race up field and he can bowl over smaller defensive backs. What Davis needs most is an offensive coordinator who recognizes his strengths - and perhaps more importantly, his weaknesses -- and puts him in a position where he can succeed.

Next: Raye's running backs.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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