Coming down the final stretch of the 2013-14 season, the NFL could see one of its most prominent title contenders flip a switch and transform what has been a dire weakness into a position of strength.
As the San Francisco 49ers fuse star wide receiver Michael Crabtree in with a robust corps of pass-catching threats, this is looking more and more like a team with almost no limitations. It is a restocked unit that is beginning to fire on all cylinders, which could spell trouble for their remaining opponents.
They’ve had consistency across the board, from special teams coverage to the defense to the ground-and-pound by Frank Gore—but now, an aerial assault?
Sure, entering this game versus the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers were the league’s worst passing offense and were particularly bad passing on third down, but this is just a pockmark on a very irregular season. This is not reflective of the team they'll field from Weeks 14 to 17 and perhaps into the postseason, which is when production matters most.
At 8-4, with two more home games in four weeks, they’re getting healthy at the right time, which will greatly impact the way this offense is able to attack.
Over the past three weeks, the Niners have returned last year’s starting receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, adding them to a lineup that has been surviving on powering performances by veteran wideout Anquan Boldin and big plays from tight end Vernon Davis.
Doubling up on firepower this late in the game should put the rest of the league on notice.
From here on out, the 49ers will have a lavish arsenal at their disposal, complementing a team that mostly identifies with power rushing and hard-nosed defense. One has to ask: Does this receiving corps make San Francisco the most complete team in the National Football League?
The Element of a True No. 1 Wide Receiver
More than anything else, Michael Crabtree’s presence restores the natural order of things, since he is the only true No. 1 wideout on the roster. While there are other high-profile weapons at receiver, namely Manningham and Boldin, they are clearly most effective functioning in auxiliary roles.
When they were acquired by the franchise, that's the way it was intended.
So first and foremost, Crabtree being back in the lineup finally allows everyone to settle into the optimal roles that were predetermined before his Achilles tear in May's OTA session. This is important because aside from bringing the tangible production you can see in the box score, a No. 1 wideout opens the offense up.
The attention Crabtree garners allows Manningham and Boldin to pick on lesser corners.
It didn’t take long to come to fruition, either. Boldin’s performance versus the St. Louis Rams on Sunday was proof that Crabtree doesn’t have to catch the ball to make an impact. The veteran Boldin posted a total of nine grabs for 98 yards, which were both season highs aside from his Week 1 performance versus the Packers (13 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown).
He was targeted 13 times to Crabtree’s four.
And when it comes to producing on his own, Crabtree is a bona fide No. 1.
Back in 2012, his fourth campaign, he graded out as a top-10 wide receiver, ahead of marquee players like A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals and Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears, via Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Crab went on to become the franchise’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2003 (Terrell Owens).
And like a bolt of lightning, he really began to thrive as a pro once the 49ers made the change at quarterback.
In Colin Kaepernick’s 10 starts at quarterback last season, Crabtree blew up, leading the ballclub with a whopping 94 targets, 55 more than anyone else. He would finish with 61 catches for 880 yards and eight TDs in that span.
And better yet, Kap had a very strong 130.4 rating when targeting him, which is an element the 49ers are hoping to get back.
This is the type of quarterback-wide receiver relationship that benefits a team in all facets, whether it’s engineering clutch scoring drives, keeping a series alive on third down or making something out of nothing when a defense thinks it's got them dead to rights.
Because of the caliber of player Crabtree is and this undeniable chemistry he has with the quarterback, the 49ers will get No. 1 production and the schematic advantages that come with it. That should make a noticeable difference after they trudged through the majority of the season without such benefits.
After working around it, trying to win games on the ground, the passing attack is now becoming something they can lean on.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Bowen Breaks Down How Michael Crabtree Opens the Offense Up Scheme-Wise
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree provide the San Francisco offense with two significant chess pieces in the passing game, which they can mobilize to create opportunities for one another, as well as a strong supporting cast made up of Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, Quinton Patton and Vance McDonald.
The Supporting Cast
|49ers Wide Receivers in Three Years Under Jim Harbaugh|
|Michael Crabtree||Michael Crabtree||Michael Crabtree|
|Braylon Edwards*||Mario Manningham*||Anquan Boldin|
|Josh Morgan||Randy Moss||Mario Manningham|
|Ted Ginn Jr.||Kyle Williams*||Quinton Patton|
|Kyle Williams||Ted Ginn Jr.||Jon Baldwin|
|Brett Swain||A.J. Jenkins||Kassim Osgood|
|Pro Football Reference|
While San Francisco’s secondary weapons do work best in spot roles as Nos. 2 and 3 receivers, this entire corps is accustomed to carrying the load. Wide receivers Manningham and Boldin are sure-handed players that hail from revered backgrounds. If the field is open to them, each can put up double-digit catches and triple-digit receiving games.
On any day, any one of them can go off, which makes it difficult for defenses to game-plan.
Even going back to their college days, it was Michael Crabtree who beat out Mario Manningham for the 2007 Biletnikoff Award, given to college football’s best wide receiver. All the while, Anquan Boldin was staking his claim as a polished Pro Bowler starring opposite Larry Fitzgerald.
These are three very talented receivers who are used to being "the guy."
In fact, Boldin has now been to two Super Bowls on two different teams in a starring role (Cardinals and Ravens), coming away with a ring on one occasion. And he is having what a lot of folks would deem a Hall of Fame career.
Manningham has also had his moment as a Super Bowl hero with the New York Giants.
All in all, the 49ers have three workhorse receivers who all have the talent and intestinal fortitude to rise to the occasion. So after going 1-for-13 on third down in the 2011 NFC Championship game and falling five yards short in Super Bowl XLVII, they finally appear to have the remedy to what ailed them.
Not to mention that tight end Vernon Davis is beginning to peak as the team's hybrid threat.
What Does It All Mean?
It means the original expectations for this team are very real again.
Aside from having the flexibility to game-plan around the run or the pass—depending on their opponent—the 49ers become a far more proficient aerial team week in and week out because Colin Kaepernick can get back to confidently slinging the rock around the yard.
It is about the quarterback having viable targets that can defeat bump-and-run coverage and make big catches in big games. No matter who it is, a quarterback is not complete without his receivers. Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck have all succumbed to similar circumstances this season.
The 49ers haven’t had that outside threat, and it hindered Kaepernick’s game in what should have been a monumental building year. But now the receiving corps is back, and in a big way, which could positively alter the quarterback’s trajectory just before playoff time.
Most football fans know Colin Kaepernick can run wild and make all the throws, but the one knock on him has been his ability to read the defense and spread the ball around.
Welcoming Michael Crabtree back into the lineup provides the quarterback with his safety net, which should make Kap more comfortable assessing the rest of the field, knowing in the back of his mind that his favorite guy will be there to bail him out if nothing is there.
The 49ers want Kaepernick mentally calm and playing with the killer instinct he displayed in his 2012 coming-out party. Ultimately, they want him thinking less and reacting more, which should happen as the depth of this receiving corps provides him with more red jerseys running free.
Having so many weapons also places strain on an opponent because the defense is thrust into a position where it just has to pick its poison. It’ll become a weekly string of matchup football.
This being the case, if Kap continues to find the open man, this offensive unit could make another quantum leap.