Jim Harbaugh tossed out the first mongo superlative of his 49ers career Wednesday, which was notable mostly because Harbaugh's hyperbole didn't seem exaggerated.
It sounded deadly accurate.
Harbaugh can't stop talking about inside linebacker Patrick Willis, credited with 18 tackles in Sunday's victory over Tampa Bay.
And Willis deserves every bit of praise and glory, even to the Harbaugh extreme.
"Just like Willie Mays . . . (and) Willie Mays is the greatest of all-time," Harbaugh said when asked about his 26-year-old defensive centerpiece.
"And Patrick Willis has a chance to be one of the all-time great linebackers, if he's able to play at this elite level in all five facets over a long period of time."
Harbaugh is a baseball fan, and his point is that Mays was baseball's unsurpassed five-tool player. That, of course, is true.
Meanwhile, in his fifth NFL season, and first for Harbaugh, Willis is playing brilliantly, as usual, and perhaps even better than usual.
He just won't say so himself.
"He's quiet, humble, just the type of superstar you would want on your team," said NaVorro Bowman, Willis' partner at inside linebacker .
Logically, Willis has been compared to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis at various points in his early career.
But this season, Willis seems to have grabbed the mantle as the NFL's most complete and most feared linebacker.
The next great inside/middle linebacker will be compared to him, and what he's doing right now.
"I believe he's got a chance, yes, like Ray, to be one of the all-time greats," Harbaugh said.
The last player I heard Harbaugh gush about like this? Andrew Luck, last season, while Harbaugh was coaching him at Stanford.
Willis is a five-tool linebacker, Harbaugh emphasized, because Willis can smash up the run game, can drop into coverage, can tackle ball-carriers in open space, can blitz and can run sideline-to-sideline.
And Willis is doing it on every play in every game, keying the 49ers' defensive swarm during this unexpected 4-1 start.
"I'm the same guy I was a few years ago," Willis said with a smile when Harbaugh's comments were relayed to him. "Just a little older and a little wiser, that's all."
But some things have changed, beyond the upgrade in the standings.
After three seasons playing alongside veteran Takeo Spikes, Willis is paired with Bowman, who is young, aggressive and very athletic.
Now Willis is the old hand.
"Playing with Takeo really calmed me down," Willis said. "He was there when I didn't understand myself"&
"But now to have someone like NaVorro who's young and kind of like where I was when Takeo came in, I just hope that he can continue to grow, continue to prosper as he has and I know he will."
It's not hard to speculate that Bowman's explosiveness has spurred Willis to play even more dynamically -- sometimes it seems like the two are competing to get to the ball-carrier fastest and most violently.
Another change: New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio challenged Willis in very specific and somewhat surprising ways, given that Willis has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four NFL seasons.
Fangio wanted Willis to be a better blitzer when called upon, and to play pass coverage more fluidly.
Through five games in 2011: Done and done.
"I think what he came in and asked is not anything I didn't already know," Willis said of Fangio. "When someone says something to me, I don't take it as a bad thing"&
"It was, you know, you're a good player but these are some things you have to work on and I understood that and I respected that."
Where does that leave the 49ers? In a very nice situation.
While Willis has never boasted about his own play, in recent seasons he has declared that the 49ers defense was the best in the league and would continue to dominate.
That didn't always come true.
Now the 49ers are cruising atop the division, the defense is stocked with young legs, the offense is alive, and Willis is staying away from public proclamations.
"It's not something that I want to talk about or boast about," Willis said. "I know at the end of the day, when you're doing good, people have good things to say. When you're doing bad, they have bad things to say.
"I'll just stay quiet and let us play."
It's OK. Willis' coach is describing it colorfully enough, and Willis' play is impossible to keep quiet.