The fellowship is finally coming together. And with the treacherous road that lies ahead for the San Francisco 49ers—possibly worse than the one braved by Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippen— it couldn't have happened at a more impeccable time.
It was scattered slowly. We're talking of course about the 49ers' offense, which lost Mario Manningham late last season to a torn ACL and Michael Crabtree to an Achilles injury during training camp. Without two of his favorite receivers from the previous year, Colin Kaepernick never came close to reaching his potential as one of the league's most dangerous and exciting quarterbacks.
Instead, the passing attack has been more dreadful than the latest Thor movie, ranking last in the NFL and at times moving backwards in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Monday night provided a positive glimpse of what might lie in store throughout the rest of the season and the playoffs, despite the fact that Kaepernick was far from perfect against a tender defense that's been marinating since Week 1.
The most reassuring sight of the night was Manningham catching the ball on quick slant routes, finally giving the 49ers a viable receiving target outside of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. With Frank Gore and the running game curtailed by the Redskins' rush-wary defense, San Francisco's receiving corps cratered the undermanned secondary, at times dragging three or four defensive backs another 10 yards and drawing exasperated groans from the home crowd, most of who reserved their energy to cheer their offense to a pair of field goals.
Now, with Michael Crabtree set to return next week against the Rams, the 49ers offense finally has the necessary firepower to try and do what the Giants and Packers did in the 2007 and 2010 postseason: conquer three teams on the road to reach the Super Bowl.
Both teams won, or so I heard.
There's no guarantee that Crabtree will be the same lethal wideout that caught 85 passes for 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns last season, often playing catch with Colin Kaepernick even in airtight coverage schemes. But his return could be a shock of adrenaline to a lethargic passing game, the only weakness that teams have been able to exploit in all four of the 49ers' losses this season.
San Francisco's defense is awesome. The front seven is the best in the NFL, snuffing out running backs and zeroing in on short passes and quick-outs with deadly precision. The secondary has also been one of the biggest surprises of the year, featuring breakout players like Tramaine Brock and rookie standout Eric Reid. With a defense that has yet to allow 30 points this season, the 49ers already have half of what it takes to make an epic playoff run.
The running game looks pretty good, and Phil Dawson has helped Niner fans purge the nightmare that was David Akers, so that leaves Colin Kaepernick and the 32nd-ranked passing attack to step up their game and elevate this team into the echelons of perfection.
Getting Crabtree back gives the 49ers not one, but two upgrades in their aerial scheme. The return of the star wideout would move Anquan Boldin into the No. 2 slot, where Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin often cramped up from a lack of exercise. With threats on the left, middle and right side of the field, defenses won't be able to stack the box and leave their corners in man-to-man coverage.
Add Mario Manningham to the third spot on the depth chart where he belongs, and the receiving corps suddenly becomes as scary as Denver and Green Bay's.
The biggest concern is whether Kaepernick can stop himself from looking only in Crabtree's direction.
It's hard not to empathize.
Crabtree is an extremely versatile receiver with sticky hands and quick feet that enable him to get great separation from his defenders. He also has impressive acrobatic abilities which he demonstrated more than any other time last season after Kaepernick became the 49ers' starting quarterback. But what makes him especially dangerous is the way he can catch a ball five yards out, juke out a defender, turn the ball upfield and run for 30 yards before making a few more lateral shifts and stiff-arming his way to pay dirt.
Check out this play from Super Bowl XLVII, where Crabtree catches the ball in traffic and bounces off two would-be tacklers before trotting into the end zone for an easy touchdown.
Crabtree is listed at 6'1", 215 pounds, though he plays more like 6'3" 245. He was fourth among NFL receivers in 2012 with 543 yards after catch, and his quickness, shiftiness and resilience make him just as capable of scoring on a quick slant as he is on a post route.
Sometimes this can be a weakness. In the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a drag route which almost resulted in a touchdown, but instead morphed into a turnover when he had the ball ripped out of his hands at the 1-yard line. Had Crabtree just gone down instead of fighting for that extra inch, the Niners would have had the chance to run the ball in for an easy score on the next play.
But who wouldn't want a receiver who fights for every last yard? It's what we saw from Vernon Davis last week and something that Anquan Boldin has done ever since he learned how to catch a football.
While breaking tackles is always a fun thing to see—probably a bit more so when it's your offense on the field—nothing is more satisfying that the sight of a quarterback stepping forward in the pocket and threading a missile into heavy traffic.
It's something that we saw time and time again last season—Michael Crabtree ditching a defensive back with a nifty move and beating the safety to the perfectly placed throw. According to profootballfocus, Kaepernick targeted Crabtree 75 times in 2012 with a completion success rate of 68.3 percent.
Against the Packers in the first round of last year's playoffs, watch how easily Crabtree scores in tight coverage on a perfect throw from Kaepernick 30 yards out.
We just haven't seen that same fearless approach this season from Kaepernick, who prefers only to throw to wide open receivers and rarely ever hits them in stride.
That all might change Sunday. While the 49ers have remained coy about how much playing time Crabtree will receive, Jim Harbaugh has never been one to tip his hand. Or give a straight answer to anyone with a microphone.
On Crabtree's return, Harbaugh said, "I would anticipate that yes." "I would anticipate that," via CBS Sports.
That's the closest thing to a yes in three years. Feel free to get excited.
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