'Vernon, put your horseshoes on'

The San Francisco 49ers were about to go deep for the 73-yard strike that would give Vernon Davis his 13th touchdown of the season, tying Antonio Gates' NFL record for tight ends.

"Vernon, put your horseshoes on, let's go," quarterback Alex Smith said in the huddle during the Jan. 3, 2010 game at St. Louis.

"Roger that," Davis replied.

Roger that, indeed.

Davis has accounted for 37.8 percent of Smith's career touchdown passes, the highest percentage for any current quarterback-tight end combination with at least four scores between them (the stats are since 2001 because that's how far back ESPN Stats & Information could go).

While the 49ers hope Michael Crabtree and others can diversify their options in the passing game this season, the Smith-to-Davis connection appeared strong as ever during my recent three-day visit to 49ers training camp in Santa Clara, Calif.

Everyone knows Davis is a threat down the middle of the field because he's bigger and faster than the defenders covering him, but Smith keeps finding Davis open, even in practice against a defense that knows what is coming. Davis makes catches even when covered -- most famously when he beat the Arizona Cardinals' Adrian Wilson for a touchdown on a Monday night in 2008. Davis caught one off the shoulder of 49ers strong safety Michael Lewis during a recent practice.

"As big and physical as he is and as fast as he is, to call him a unique guy is an understatement," Smith said. "You can't practice it. During the week, guys can't get a look at how fast he is. You can scout team, whatever, you can't get a look at that. So all of a sudden they see it on game days and it's a different deal."

Davis ranked his top three touchdown receptions this way, with two from Smith:

1. Oct. 25, 2009 at Houston: Smith replaces Shaun Hill at quarterback and quickly finds Davis for a 29-yard scoring strike on the opening drive of the third quarter. Davis collided hard with a defender short of the goal line, steadied himself and finished the play. He was shaken up. "The middle of the field was open," Davis said. "I saw it, took it, looked up, the ball was in the air -- touchdown."

2. Nov. 10, 2008 at Arizona. Hill threw this one. Wilson was in coverage and the 49ers were trying to build upon a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter. The 18-yard strike meant so much to Davis, he drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct afterward. "A lot of collisions going on, spread out, got in the end zone, boxed him out, came back to the ball -- touchdown," Davis said.

3. Jan. 3, 2010 at St. Louis. Smith finds a streaking Davis for a 73-yard touchdown. Davis: "Had the corner outside on me. The DB outside of me released. I got as wide as I could, toward the sideline, looked up in the air -- touchdown."

Smith threw the very first NFL pass Davis caught, a play more memorable for Davis' reaction than for the touchdown that resulted. The way Smith tells it, and hard as it might be to believe now, Davis hadn't said much all through camp. He was obviously talented, but he had worked diligently and quietly on all aspects of his game.

It was the 2006 regular-season opener at Arizona and the 49ers took the opening drive 79 yards in seven plays, with Smith finding Davis for a 31-yard score on a crossing route. Davis suddenly went from unassuming rookie to the greatest of all time.

"Vernon comes over and starts yelling they can't cover him, no one can cover him, he's the best there is," Smith said, "and all of us, I remember sitting there, it was like me, Trent Dilfer and Shaun Hill and I don't know if Norv [Turner] was down on the field or whatever and was looking over going, 'What's going on right now?' It was Vernon going off over there on the sideline. It was the first of many post-score celebrations."

The chart ranks current quarterback-tight end combinations by percentage of each quarterback's touchdown passes thrown to that tight end. Stats are since 2001.

Current QB-TE combinations since 2001