Mike Singletary touched on something during the 49ers' just-wrapped-up press conference. He said that when teams reward a player with a huge contract, they often worry about how the big money will change that player. Will he remain as hungry? Will he play hurt? Will he be the same player? With Patrick Willis, there is no concern, Singletary said. And that's something that had to make the 49ers' decision makers breathe easy about making Willis the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history.
"This is one of the most unique individuals I've ever been around," Singletary said. "If you didn't know who he was, you'd think he was just this special teams player. He's a guy that's very unassuming." Asked what he expected of Willis now that he has signed a $50 million contract extension, Singletary said, "The same thing I've been getting. There's no one harder on Pat than himself."
Willis, however, said he expects more. He said he looks at film from his rookie year and sees everything he was doing wrong in 2007. And he expects to make similar improvements in coming years. Willis said he speaks to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis from time to time. Lewis' message: "In this game, you must always continue to work." And by the way, given the context and the eventual outcome, the below play may be the finest I've witnessed since covering the 49ers.
A couple of thoughts about Willis' deal:
1. I've written this before, but it keeps getting hammered home - first through the draft and now with Willis' extension -- so I'll write it again. Today's press conference involved a former middle linebacker introducing a current middle linebacker, who is now more than ever the heart and soul of the 49ers. Which is to say, the 49ers are as far away from the Bill Walsh model as they can possibly be. I'm not saying this is good or bad. It just is.
2. Don't overlook the timing of this deal. The 49ers have a crucial stadium vote looming on June 8. By taking care of their best defensive player, the 49ers essentially are declaring that they are a financially robust team with their eye on the future. In other words, it's a positive news story a month before the vote.
3. The extension also sends a message to the rest of the team - we take care of our top performers. The next guy to be extended has to be Vernon Davis, who had a breakout season last year. I've had more than one league observer tell me that, like Willis, Davis has hall-of-fame potential. I also thought it was telling that the 49ers asked Davis to appear at last week's stadium meeting involving Silicon Valley bigwigs. Two seasons ago, Davis was booted out of a game. Now he's rubbing shoulders with Roger Goodell, Jed York and Techie CEOs a month before the stadium vote. It shows how valuable the team finds Davis.
-- Matt Barrows