Michael Crabtree might not have been blessed with 6’4” size or 4.3 speed, but the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver is truly gifted and there is no refuting it. In 2012, the NCAA's first-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner was finally maturing into his pro form, powering through defensive backs on routes and at the catch point.
You almost had to rub your eyes and do a double-take. Honest to goodness, it looked like vintage Texas Tech Crabtree, particularly at the end there. Sparked by the change at quarterback, the 49ers’ top wideout drew more and more looks and really began performing at the level of one of the league's alpha receivers.
And that is not an overstatement.
Via Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus, Crabtree graded out as a top-10 wide receiver in 2012, perched ahead of marquee players like A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals and Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears. The legitimacy of No. 15 is real, and it will only become more widely acknowledged from here on out.
So let it be known—the NFL has another prominent mechanism operating at the wide receiver position.
Unfortunately for Crabtree and NFL fans alike, there was a hitch in this sudden rise to stardom. As first reported by Mike Garafolo of USA Today in late May, the receiver suffered a full tear of his Achilles tendon in organized team activities. While it was surely a setback in what could have been a monumental building year, it was not crippling.
“The injury used to be an automatic season-ender but has since become one that can sometimes be rehabbed in a matter of months,” Garafolo said, also citing linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive end Da’Quan Bowers and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas as varying examples of players who have returned from said injury.
This meant that a contender like the 49ers could proceed with the knowledge that he’d be back for imperative games in December and January.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, just six months after having his left Achilles surgically repaired, the team reported that Crabtree was officially cleared to practice. This was major. The outlook is good so far, and if all goes according to plan, Garafolo should have one more name to add to his list the next time a player succumbs to this particular injury.
Pending unforeseen circumstances, of course, it’ll be uplifting for the National Football League to add another high-quality player back into the fold on game day, particularly in a year that has been marred by season-ending injuries.
And clearly, Crabtree’s comeback is not only a treat for cursory fans of the league, but also a game-changer for a 6-2 Niners team heading into the soft part of its schedule. Riding a commanding five-game win streak, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is fresh off posting back-to-back Total QBRs of 99.0 and 99.8, which set a new precedent in the history of the stat, via ESPN Stats & Info.
Grind-it-out power rushing and stingy defense headed up by tailback Frank Gore and linebacker NaVorro Bowman, respectively, has also helped keep this team in forward motion in the absence of several players. In that light, it has been a total team effort.
If he is back in 20 days' time or so, he will mend San Francisco’s one position of weakness, which is wide receiver.
So what can we expect from Crabtree?
Well, the following analysis will veer from straight-up stat projections, because honestly, it can be overkill and Crabtree is not going to bang out 100-yard games for the rest of the season, starting from his first game back. It’s not feasible. No, his influence will come in a lot of little areas that are not all noticeable in the box score.
Above all, we'll aim to demonstrate how his return is more about enhancing the overall product of the team.
Bleacher Report NFL columnist Ryan Riddle, formerly a linebacker of the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, was able to shed some light on the concept of chemistry in the NFL. Obviously, unlike stats, it is one of those elements that is hard to quantify or even describe.
Nevertheless, it is profoundly influential when it comes to output, game flow and making things happen in big-time moments.
It was also a chief concept to explore here, seeing as how Crabtree is easily the one that stood out as the team’s dominant receiving threat in 2012; not its current go-to weapon, Vernon Davis. From day one, the bond between Kap and Crab was a hot item on offense. It changed the identity of the team, which had not fielded a productive No. 1 wide receiver in a decade, late in the season.
The 49ers are looking to add that dimension back in. Teams could not stop it, largely because of the trust and timing between the two, as well as their ability to ad-lib in tight situations. It was a relationship that blossomed immediately and only improved each game.
“When you really start learning about each other, when you really start learning about how this player is going to think, how this player is going to react, it’s in game-time situations that the neuro pathways are really firing,” said Riddle.
It did not take long to spark that extrasensory nexus, either. In Kaepernick’s 10 starts last season, Crabtree led the ballclub with 94 targets, 55 more than anyone else (Vernon Davis and Randy Moss tied at 39). It really took off in Kap’s third go behind center.
Crabtree was targeted double-digit times in six of his last eight games and caught a high percentage of those footballs. The proof is in the pudding. Kap and Crab have some sort of symbiotic connection on the field, which has resulted in a number of effortless plays that defenses seem powerless to stop.
And they can attack every inch of the field, horizontally and vertically.
At their core, Kaepernick and Crabtree have a dog-eat-dog mentality in the sense that they buy into the cliché, "whatever it takes." These guys put it on the line and find each other in the meantime. It is overlooked how well they tend to mesh in the clutch.
“In a life-or-death situation, your brain turns on to a new level. It’s like everything is slowing down a little bit. You can do more things. You think faster and absorb more information all at once as a survival tactic,” Riddle said, describing the connection. “It’s the same thing in a game.”
In all the fight-or-flight situations the NFL presents, time and time again, Crabtree and Kaepernick have innately fought together.
It's also bestowed that budding relationship with a killer instinct and quite an advantage because they can enter that mythical Matrix bullet-time zone vets talk about. It is that slow-mo pace that tends to occur for individual players who are well into their years, as Ray Lewis once described, but as far as intangibles go, it is applicable to chemistry between two players.
This eye test on game day backs it up and so do the numbers.
In this week’s chat, Riddle also stressed how being on the same team really helps the reciprocal understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that their verbal and personal chemistry began brewing a year-and-a-half before their on-field relationship.
Practice reps and bonding from 2011-12 helped to lay the groundwork for their eventual game day connection, as preordained by Jim Harbaugh, Trent Baalke and the football gods. It was a perfect storm made of two highly productive college talents, both from explosive backgrounds.
And every conversation, every interaction between them matters in the end. It all contributes to the indistinguishable elements that make their rapport on the field work. In fact, Riddle went as far as to compare the teammate aspect to having the most advanced scouting reports.
He claimed that this helps the fluidity on game day—that there is an incredible in-depth knowledge of one another, including a feel for each other’s body language. While this is common in all sports between two players at interacting positions, there are many versions of this heightened metaphysical aspect.
In some cases, the two click and produce, and it can lead to great things for an organization for years at a time.
For a quarterback-receiver tandem like Kaepernick and Crabtree, it is their innate understanding of each other’s situational tendencies that has contributed to the advanced-looking hookup you see on the field. It has also made them adaptable while providing that indefensible factor at times.
“When you start making those trust connections and getting on the same page with a receiver, in a game, that’s where that relationship is really forged. In those game-time moments. It’s hard to falsify it in practice,” Riddle said.
Chemistry is the most significant factor of Crabtree’s return.
Note: This tight-window throw (below), splitting the safeties in Cover 2, perfectly demonstrates Colin Kaepernick's trust in Michael Crabtree.
Safety Net and Third-Down Specialist
We’ve noticed in 2013 that San Francisco’s receivers have not put themselves in position to bail Kap out when he needs an outlet, and also that there has not been a bona fide go-to-guy on third down. It is an area in which the 49ers have struggled. In terms of passing for first downs, they are dead last in proficiency, per NFL Team Rankings.
That was one of the aspects where Crabtree was most valuable. He was a bull shark when it came to situational football.
According to the stat-keepers at Pro Football Focus, there were 32 plays in 2012 in which Crabtree caught a pass short of the first-down marker and still managed to move the chains. Even more amazing, a league-high 17 of those catches came on third or fourth down, which really reveals the clutch factor here.
Wide receiver Wes Welker (12) and running back Ray Rice (10) were second and third in the category behind the 49ers wide receiver, while no other player in the league had more than seven such catches.
For that reason, you could argue that no player in the NFL was as important to his team when it came to sustaining drives.
This facet is largely a byproduct of Crabtree's yards-after-catch ability.
In his past two seasons from 2011-12, Crabtree forced 27 missed tackles, which is outstanding for a wideout, mostly known as a finesse position. He was also fourth in the NFL in 2012 in yards after the catch (543). In what was his first 1,000-yard campaign, that figure accounted for nearly 50 percent of his total production.
The only player with 35-plus receptions that year to best that YAC rate was, again, Wes Welker.
As a continuance from last year, Kap’s ability to extend the play and Crabtree’s ability to bail his quarterback out of trouble should greatly improve the Niners' efficiency on situational downs (See: vs. Bears, vs. Saints, vs. Cardinals, vs. Packers). Offensively, it is one of the few areas where they stand to get better.
You really want to try and make sure you’re spreading the ball around. Not only is it hard for a defense to keep up if you can spread the ball around, but you’re going to be in a better situation if you lose ‘that guy’ ... Look at what happened to Colin Kaepernick when he did not have Michael Crabtree. — Ryan Riddle
Riddle makes another point here.
And for those who have been following along at Bleacher Report this season, ball distribution has been a recurring issue we've discussed, and one that needs to be addressed in San Francisco. With Crabtree in the lineup, there was no balance, but without him, there was no balance and also a serious lack of aerial production.
His reinsertion should mend the latter almost immediately and provide the Niners with an opportunity to circulate the ball for the first time in three years under the new regime, ultimately opening up the passing attack. At long last, San Francisco will have a dangerous enough corps to make this easy on Kaepernick, who has not been able to take advantage of more than one or two weapons in any given week.
As far-fetched as it may seem, in 2013, Kaepernick has a lowly 32.4 QB rating when targeting any wideout not named Anquan Boldin (59.9 when you include all eligible weapons outside of Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis). The drop-off is substantial any way you look at it.
That being said, Crabtree’s impending return to the lineup presents Greg Roman’s offense with a very real opportunity to distribute the ball in the air. Having more weapons dictates more respect from the defense, so Kaepernick will be able to play to the matchups in the team's favor.
And he’s got a weapons cache in the huddle with him. Having No. 15 back in the mix is only going to open things up.
Between now and his return, defensive assignments will inevitably shift from Boldin hogging No. 1 CBs, to him and Manningham sharing them, to Crabtree eventually garnering No. 1 attention while the rest of the receivers around him accumulate chunks of yards against second-rate cornerbacks.
As a receiving corps, it will really be able to challenge the depth of secondary units in the NFL for the first time in recent history.
That being the case, the 49ers offense will continue its evolution, but it must do so quite vigilantly. Given the contract situations and individual circumstances of players, via Spotrac, this receiving corps is temporary and projects to be in flux this coming offseason, so the team must take advantage of its resources now.
How can it take this opportunity and run with it?
“I like what Drew Brees tends to do—he finds the open receiver,” Riddle noted on the subject of passing offenses. “He finds the mismatch and he trusts everyone equally. He trusts in the situation more than he trusts the player.” This analysis is spot on from a strategic standpoint.
Even though Crabtree is eye candy—especially for Kaepernick and Roman—the 49ers cannot allow the play-calling to get jumbled midseason. Weighing too heavily on him early on will be a mistake in terms of his recovery, as well as in optimizing the full gamut of the receiving corps.
And yes, obviously Kap is not going to see the field like the 2010 Super Bowl MVP, but it speaks to the importance of ball distribution. Look at quarterbacks like Geno Smith (New York Jets) or Phillip Rivers (San Diego Chargers) and their relative success at times this season, even without a true No. 1 wide receiver or filled-out offense.
It comes down to ball distribution.
Teams without a plethora of offensive talent can be competitive by utilizing a virile combination of scheme and ball distribution, especially if they have a safe passer. San Francisco has a chance to be truly great this season because it can preach ball distribution with the inordinate amount of talent it possesses on that side of the ball.
That's what takes the offense to the next plateau and slingshots the team to a second consecutive Super Bowl berth.
When you look at it, the final tumbler falling into place that allows this to happen is Crabtree’s presence. Even if he is not catching footballs right away, he will be a terrific decoy, which will free up other players like Mario Manningham and Anquan Boldin, who are no slouches. At times, they can utilize Crab as bait on plays designed to players around him.
Safeties can no longer overcommit to guarding Vernon Davis, either. They have to keep a watchful eye all around.
Defensive coordinators will be obligated to play chess with the 49ers, and their second- and third-string corners will have to muster something deep inside to compete with variations of San Francisco’s top three receivers all day.
That is awfully tough to do, especially with the respect the run game demands.
Aside from being an esteemed talent and a productive weapon, Michael Crabtree is a momentous gain for the 49ers because he understands the inner workings of the offense and has a cohesive relationship with Kaepernick.
Crabtree is finally coming into his own as a league veteran and can enhance the proficiency of the offense, particularly on situational downs. Running back Anthony Dixon said just the other day, "He is not a captain on paper, but he is out there with his play," per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
As far as matchups go, having Crabtree’s digits back on the field will also manifest opportunities for a lot of other players to get their hands on the ball. And speaking of San Francisco’s personnel and the volume of the playbook, they’ll finally be able to spread teams out with three-plus wide receivers heading into the winter months.
So, in closing, it is just an embarrassment of riches.
The 49ers are No. 1 in rushing yards per game (153) and rushing touchdowns (15), and are just now adding an elite receiving threat to a brigade of weapons that already features three standouts. If there are balance, ball distribution and fundamental play, this offense can outperform its own stellar defense en route to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Special thanks to Jeff Deeney and Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus for providing advanced statistics and NFL columnist Ryan Riddle for his league insight. All other statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise.