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Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Smarter Patrick Willis might play longer

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

The 49ers put together a Patrick Willis highlight video commemorating his contract extension and I wasn't sure which play stood out as the best.

On one, Willis runs through the Rams' Mike Karney without seeming to notice the 260-pound fullback on his way to tackling running back Steven Jackson.

Patrick WIllis
Patrick Willis will be chasing 49ers' opponents until at least 2016.
On another, Willis knocks out Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck with a touchdown-saving shot to the back.

On yet another, Willis delivers a knockout hit on Brad Smith, the Jets receiver who dared come across the middle.

Such plays made the 49ers' decision to extend Willis' contract through 2016 an easy one. Everything about Willis -- specifically the way he has played hurt, relished contact and taken pride in overcoming humble beginnings -- suggests the big payday will only push him harder.

"I'm still going to be the same Patrick, humble and hungry," Willis said during a phone interview Tuesday.

Believe him. Willis knows no other way.

Asked about the hit on Hasselbeck last season, Willis discussed it briefly, then began simmering over the 1-yard touchdown pass the 49ers allowed to Seneca Wallace on the next play.

"It made me so mad," he said. "We had the perfect defense called."

Willis' focus and intensity will not preclude him from playing a smarter game beginning in 2010. Before signing the extension, Willis agreed to take coach Mike Singletary's advice about wearing more pads. Some players have gravitated away from wearing knee pads and thigh pads, as if looking sleek meant more to them protecting their bodies.

The seemingly minor injury Willis suffered from banging his knee on artificial turf last season helped him come around to Singletary's way of thinking. The injury nagged Willis all offseason until doctors performed surgery to remove an angry bursa sac. Willis withdrew from the Pro Bowl.

Singletary had implored Willis to wear thick knee pads when the 49ers play on artificial surfaces.

"But look how you looked when you played," Willis would respond, cringing at visions of a 1980s-era Singletary playing with elbow pads, thick knee pads and thigh pads that appeared suited for a guard.

"But now look at me," Singletary would respond, and Willis had to admit Singletary looked good bouncing around the practice field.

Singletary has held up well enough physically to run through football drills with his son (Matt Singletary is a defensive end at Baylor). Willis, reliant on crutches while he recovered this offseason, has become a believer.

If the extra padding extends his career, the 49ers will have to make room on that highlight reel. They should probably extend it anyway. If forced to reduce his career to a single highlight, Willis pointed to one that didn't make the cut: his weaving 86-yard interception return for a touchdown at Seattle in 2008.

I then reminded him of the play I thought symbolized his career: the time he tracked down Cardinals receiver Sean Morey in overtime after a 62-yard catch-and-run. The 49ers won the game.

"I will never forget that play," Willis said.

Willis' new deal gives him until at least 2016 to come up with a better one. The 49ers have got to like his chances.

Update: Singletary's son is reportedly transferring from Baylor to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Thanks to KinneySf for the assist in the comments section.