NFL: Willis upset to miss 49ers finale
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – Missing the first game of his NFL career hurts Patrick Willis more than the broken right hand keeping him out.
“It hurts not to be able to complete this season,” Willis said Thursday. “Because it’s a fact that some of us won’t be together next year.”
The 49ers could see some changes following a disappointing season in which they fell short of expectations in the weak NFC West and missed the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.
Coach Mike Singletary was fired after Sunday’s loss in St. Louis eliminated the 49ers from playoff contention.
The most immediate change for the 49ers? Not having the linebacker they drafted in the first round in 2007. The NFL’s defensive rookie of the year that season, Willis has started each of San Francisco last 63 games.
He broke a bone in his hand during a Dec. 12 victory against Seattle, but he was able to play with a cast on the hand the next two weeks during losses at San Diego and St. Louis.
Willis did further damage to the hand during last week’s loss and has been ruled out by team doctors for the Arizona game. Selected earlier this week as a NFC starter in the Pro Bowl, Willis said his status for that Jan. 30 game also is uncertain.
With defensive four starters scheduled to become free agents in 2011, Sunday’s game likely will be the last time together for coordinator Greg Manusky and several of his players.
“The future’s going to come, and it is what it is,” Manusky said. “Whatever happens, happens and I can’t control that. I’ve got a job, they told me to coach 16-plus games. That’s all I do. That’s the way it is in this league.”
Manusky is replacing Willis in the lineup this week with rookie NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco’s third-round draft pick who will be making his first NFL start.
Willis is a tough guy to replace. Willis led the NFL in tackles in 2007 and 2009 and ranked second in the league in 2008. Willis ranks sixth in the NFL this year and leads the 49ers with 136 tackles to go along with a career-high five sacks.
With Willis out, the lead role in the middle of San Francisco’s 3-4 defense will go to Takeo Spikes, a 13th-year veteran who has been overshadowed by Willis during his three seasons in San Francisco.
Spikes, a two-time Pro Bowler, leads the team with three interceptions and ranks second to Willis with 114 tackles. Spikes’ 17 tackles against Green Bay earlier this month are the third-most by a NFL player in a game this season.
But Spikes’ contract with the 49ers ends after this season. Like impending free-agent defenders Manny Lawson, Dashon Goldson and Aubrayo Franklin, Spikes doesn’t know if he’ll be back with the same defense next year. Cornerback Nate Clements, who is due a base salary of $7.25 million in 2011, also is unlikely to return to the team, at least not under the terms of his current contract.
“That’s the reality of it,” Spikes said. “Chances are this probably will be the last time we’re together as a whole.”