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Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Mike Sando's MVP Watch

By Mike Sando

Patrick Willis
Patrick Willis debuts on the MVP Watch list after another standout performance in Week 11.
The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh should be a relatively easy choice for NFL coach of the year unless the Green Bay Packers go undefeated.

Trent Baalke, the 49ers' general manager, and Jed York, their team president, could qualify for consideration as top executives for 2011.

Identifying a single 49ers player as an MVP candidate isn't so easy. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis makes his debut on the MVP Watch list this week because he has stepped up his already dominant play in recent weeks, becoming the player most qualified to represent the 9-1 49ers this week. Harbaugh has called Willis the "least talked about great player" in the league. With the 49ers visiting Baltimore on Thanksgiving and facing Pittsburgh in a Monday night game three weeks later, perhaps that will start to change.

"He’s the five-tool linebacker," Harbaugh said. "Plays downhill, I think, better than any linebacker in football, but he can also cover. ... He can run sideline to sideline. He can run plays down from the backside. He’s got the speed to shoot a gap and make a play from behind and you see that many times. Excellent blitzer."

No defensive player has won MVP honors since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Willis isn't going to end that streak in a league increasingly dominated by quarterbacks, but the 49ers needed representation here, and Willis gets the call.

Running back Frank Gore has frequented the MVP Watch list recently, peaking at No. 2 after a string of five consecutive games with at least 107 yards rushing. A six-carry, zero-yard performance against the New York Giants in arguably the 49ers' most impressive victory undercut his candidacy. His overall stats aren't in line with those for MVP running backs.

Quarterback Alex Smith deserves credit for avoiding mistakes and chipping away at the negative connotations surrounding the term "game manager," but 14 quarterbacks have more touchdown passes than Smith this season. Three have at least twice as many. Smith has been valuable to the 49ers, no question, but not that valuable.