|Ratto: Willis has earned the title of 'Mr. 49ers'
The 49ers have struggled in the post-Super Bowl era (13 years and running) to find and hold "the face of the franchise." Indeed, it became the first official justification for the hiring of Mike Nolan - because the team needed that face, and more to the point because John York was tired of being that face.
They've gone through the Mariucci face, the Owens face, the Garcia face, the Donahue face, the York face, the Nolan face, the Smith face, the Gore face, and most recently the Clements face. None have stuck for any particular period, because losing typically does that to you. This, despite the Raiders having landed on the same hard times as the 49ers and never having had a problem identifying the face of their franchise, since it's been the same guy since 1963.
But the 49ers have a new "face," and though people have not yet seized upon it, it will be thrust upon them. It is neither York nor Nolan nor Smith nor Gore nor Clements, nor can it be.
It is, based on play, presence, vision and intent Patrick Willis, the linebacker who started his pro career last April as the 11th draft pick and finished in December as one of the game's best 11 players. There is no other candidate, and that allows that 49er fans obsess upon the quarterback to an almost unnatural degree. Willis is it, because he earned it, and because nobody else has his credentials.
Not even Andy Lee, the punter.
And while Willis is loath to say so because his background and upbringing prevent him from doing so, he knows it. So much so that he spent a couple of hours earlier this week with Ronnie Lott, getting what might best be termed "face" lessons from someone who has all the face a head can bear.
"We were sitting next to each other at a community promotion signing things, and I thought I should sit down with him some time and talk about wanting to be great, and the things it took to get there," Willis said. "So we set it up, and we talked for a couple of hours about a lot of things, some football, some not. Like making the right decisions, about thinking ahead, about wanting to be the kind of person whose grandchildren say, 'He was a great football player and an extraordinary person.' "
Well, as long as he's keeping the bar low, why not shoot for governor of Mississippi?
Truth is, Willis has outsized long-term aspirations, and even allowing for his remarkable jump start (he was defensive rookie of the year, and the first defensive rookie to make the All-Pro team since Lott did it in 1981), he has an unusual grasp on what he did, and what he didn't.
"I had an OK year," he said of his league-high in tackles and his collection of plaques for exemplary work as a first-timer. "I did well. Last year was all right. But I didn't do good. I kind of look at it like, first you do well, then you're good, then you're great. This year, I want to be good. I have to do better."
Better than All-Pro as a rookie? This should be interesting.
"I made a lot of tackles, and the stats looked good, I guess," he said. "But I want to be a game-changer. I want to make the big hit, force the fumble that gets taken back for the touchdown that wins the game, or make the timely interception and run it back. I want us to earn the right to have a swagger when we take the field."
Being 6-10 doesn't do it. Being the best player on a defense that ranks in the lower half of the league in all the significant categories doesn't do it. Being the face means being the face the other players rally around and look to for leadership and mentoring. And Patrick Willis is 23.
"I was thinking about it yesterday," he said, "and I think about times when maybe I say things and I am more vocal, and then sometimes I think my actions should speak for me. I'm still learning that part. It's hard to give a big spiel to your teammates about what you have to do when you haven't done it yourself yet.
"I was talking about that with Ray (Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens' face) at the Pro Bowl, and he talked to me about a lot of things like that, and then he sort of stopped and said, 'I'm telling you too much.' It wasn't like he didn't want to give away all his secrets. I thought he was being like a teacher who could tell you to read the whole chapter and come back tomorrow to discuss it, or a teacher who gives you one section today and one section tomorrow, and then discuss it when you've learned everything about the chapter. I think he didn't want to give me too much all at once, before I was ready to understand it. He didn't want to overwhelm me."
Besides, Willis also has linebackers coach Mike Singletary to lean on as a mentor. While Singletary's lessons sound a lot like Lewis' and Lott's ("their terminology's different, that's all," Willis said with a laugh), it's the nuance in the delivery that makes the difference. And Willis is a voracious learner - while he was picking Lewis' brain in Honolulu, he also went to school on veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal. "He was giving me knowledge about what comes at what stage of your career, and Ray was giving me wisdom," he said.
Through it all, Willis knows that his chosen career can end in a moment. He wants to play as long and with as much impact as Lott and Lewis and Neal and Singletary, but the actuarial tables for football players make that rather a longshot.
But Willis is preparing as though he will be a model of permanence. After all, he knows that you can't be a face if you're a short-timer, and he has every intention being a face not just now but for the duration.
And after that, maybe the governor thing. After all, it's good to have goals.
E-mail Ray Ratto at .