Delineating the 2013 season for the San Francisco 49ers was the long-awaited arrival of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who, as a fixture in this offense, carried the potential to alleviate most of their concerns as a Super Bowl contender. His delayed return, of course, was prompted by an Achilles rupture in OTAs in May.
And that would be the question to loom around the 2013 49ers. Could Crabtree come back at 100 percent and restore balance to the 49ers offense?
The team was certainly counting on that one element, having snubbed trade opportunities despite touting one of the worst receiving corps in the league. They wouldn't have gotten anywhere limping like that. Any run was largely contingent on Crabtree’s health and the restoration of his on-field relationship with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Needless to say, Crab has met expectations.
With an eight-catch, 125-yard clinic versus the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Wild Card, accounting for 55 percent of Kaepernick’s total passing yardage, Michael Crabtree looked the sharpest he has to date.
Once again, coach Jim Harbaugh made a bold declaration, professing Crabtree as the best hands catcher of all time.
“If my life depended on it and somebody had to catch a ball, I’d enlist Michael Crabtree to do it,” said the 49ers head coach, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.
This is not the first time Harbaugh has spoken like this, but Crab’s contributions in 2013 have certainly made an impact, reminding coach and everyone else how important No. 15 is to this team.
The 49ers have not lost a game since Crabtree returned (6-0), but they lost back-to-back games for the first time during Harbaugh’s tenure twice (Weeks 2-3 and Weeks 10-11) without him.
Can’t say that about All-Pro pass rusher Aldon Smith, who was present for all four of San Francisco’s losses. These losses even bordered Smith's departure and return from his leave of absence.
Crabtree is the team’s MVP, not only because he plays his game at the highest level but also because he brings to life the player the 49ers need to win a Super Bowl: Colin Kaepernick. What they do together is the definition of playmaking. They draw the best out of each other and create when nothing is there.
From what we can tell, this connection is San Francisco's golden ticket to a world championship.
Winning the Most Vital Down in Football
For obvious reasons, third down is the most important of all.
Units proficient in that regard never have to leave the field. As a passing team, San Francisco was easily one of the worst teams in football when it came to third-down situations, per NFL Team Rankings. It was quite a predicament, as the 49ers were dead last for most of the season (finished No. 31).
Offensively, they could not convert, and since they were passing so much on first and second down, they were often pitted against 3rd-and-longs.
Without Crabtree, the 49ers were a travesty here, but the day he plugged back into the lineup, the problem was virtually corrected.
The 49ers also increased their success rate because of Crabtree’s symbiotic connection with the star quarterback. They have a good read on each other, and both seem to have a clutch gene, which fluctuates even more when they are on the field at the same time.
And you can’t sack or intercept chemistry like this.
When they're clicking, it's hard to stop them. With Kaepernick’s natural elusiveness and ability to extend the play with his legs, Crabtree’s tenacious effort and brilliant basketball moves, and their underlying chemistry, it’s a nearly indefensible hookup.
They always find each other, and, because of this, defenses can’t get off the field.
It's been evident each week. As a QB-WR tandem, these two wear defenses down, demoralize them, set the tempo, win time of possession and ultimately provide this unit with more opportunities to score points than it had earlier in the season when it was being handed a lot of 3-and-outs.
In the 2012 season, there were a total of 32 plays 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 situations, which really demonstrates his clutch factor here.
He is a YAC machine.
In his past two seasons, Crabtree forced 27 missed tackles—unheard of at wideout, which is mostly known as a finesse position. But he strays from the norm. He was also fourth in the NFL in 2012 in yards after the catch (543). In what was his first 1,000-yard crusade, that figure accounted for nearly 50 percent of his total production.
That type of productivity has returned already, even in a smaller sample size. This year, Crabtree has a 7.4 YAC-per-reception average, which would rank him No. 5 among all NFL wide receivers if he qualified, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. It continues to be a noteworthy part of his game.
Overall, third-down heroics by these two will be this team's ace in the hole.
Michael Crabtree Will Make the Tough Catches
No matter what, Michael Crabtree will catch the football.
“Yes he can, course he can, He’s the Twistable Turnable Man.”
With his retractable, bendy arms that seem to stretch for days, his elongated fingers and his tunnel vision at the point of the catch, he is one of the elite hands catchers in all the National Football League. When he attacks the football, his body control is unparalleled, as he completely gives himself to the ball.
At 6’1", 214 pounds, there’s a weightlessness about Crabtree, as all of his bodily energy appears to be channeled through his arms, leading him to the football like wings carrying a bird off the ground. Truly, he is one of the more graceful and natural-looking pass-catchers of this decade.
His innate receiving ability is so extraordinary that it even makes up for his lack of elite speed.
Coach Harbaugh once compared the wide receiver to a frog picking flies out of the air with its tongue, via CSN Bay Area:
The one he plucked on the third and long to get the first down in the fourth quarter. He just, I don't know how else to describe it, it's like a frog, tongue squirts out and catches the ball. It was frog-like. Tongue-like, the way he uses his hands. Nobody I'd rather have catching the ball than him.
Eliminating throwaways in his vicinity as well as spikes or batted balls in his direction, Crabtree has an above-average catch rate in the low 60s in 2013 (27 grabs on 43 targets, including the postseason). In that time, he has reeled in almost everything within arm's reach, tallying 409 yards of offense.
Outside his dependability during the game, Crab proved he could make his most trying grabs in high-pressure moments.
On the final drive of the Wild Card Game, with four minutes left and the game tied at 20, a miraculous 3rd-and-10 pass from Kap to Crabtree went down, keeping the offense on the field and basically sealing the deal for the 49ers.
The 17-yard connection was a back-breaker for Green Bay and a huge throw-and-catch exemplifying the relationship. Kap escaped the rush, threw a tough ball across his body up high for covered Crabtree, who snatched it out of the air.
The Packers did three things to try to stop this play: (1) They forced a 3rd-and-long; (2) They pressured the quarterback; and (3) They played tight coverage on the receiver. It didn’t matter, though. Crabtree becomes red hot when the team has to have a play.
He possess a clutch gene, and, with those hands, he's unstoppable if the target is in his catch radius.
Restoring the Bounce to the Passing Game
Most of the 49ers’ offensive limitations in the beginning half of the season are no longer weaknesses, and that is largely because of Crabtree. Before, teams could load the box, dial up a fierce pass rush, hit Kap and kill the play as easily as turning off a light switch. That is not the case anymore.
They’re flexible now, even when plays break down.
And it’s even more dangerous for defenses that don’t respect the evolution. You can’t just send the house at the quarterback anymore, which is the only way the 49ers were beaten this season.
When Kap was pressured in Weeks 1-12 (without Crabtree), the quarterback had a 36.8 percent completion rate, 5.5 yards per attempt and a lousy 50.9 QB rating. With Crab back in the lineup (Weeks 13-17), Kap’s numbers shot up to 54.8 percent completion rate, 7.6 yards per attempt and a 95.4 QB rating.
That’s night and day, and it’s had an overall impact on the offense.
As NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland points out, “Prior to Week 13, the 49ers were averaging 308 yards of total offense, 173 yards passing and 135 yards rushing. Since Crabtree’s return (playoffs included), they are averaging 361 yards of total offense, 214 yards passing and 147 yards rushing.”
They're more productive and harder to stop. And with this one piece back in the puzzle, all of their offensive dimensions are now fully functional again.
Michael Crabtree Empowers Colin Kaepernick
The tranquil yet reactive Colin Kaepernick is the version this team needs to win a Super Bowl—it always has been—and Michael Crabtree enables him to be that. Kap, the all-purpose weapon, is the single most dangerous offensive threat in the NFL playoffs, which is what makes this team a very real candidate to go the distance.
But only Michael Crabtree makes him play that way.
When they’re both out there operating on the field, it looks a lot like they’re playing their schoolyard brand of football, just as if Crabtree’s back at Texas Tech and Kaepernick’s back at Nevada-Reno, where they each set NCAA records and new standards for playmaking.
Individually, they’re dangerous, but they're even more dangerous together.
In the regular season, Colin Kaepernick’s passer rating was nearly 15 points higher with Crabtree than it was without him (87.0 to 101.5).
It is impossible to deny how much better Kaepernick has been at seeing the field and getting the ball out with Crabtree in the lineup. But on top of that, he’s been having more fun as a runner again, really tearing defenses to shreds. When the receivers are blanketed and the rush lanes are open, he’ll tuck it and bail out.
This is the part of Kap’s game that always keeps this offense in forward motion, simply because he takes what the defense gives him.
It’s hard to encapsulate the dynamic between Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree, but it’s safe to say that it’s prolific.
Their bond was instant, as was their productivity on the field. As soon as Kap entered the starting lineup, Crabtree evolved into a top-10 receiver, according to the metrics at Pro Football Focus. In 2012, his production on a route-per-run basis was tied for fifth in the NFL, neck and neck with Detroit Lions megastar Calvin Johnson.
That's the level of aerial productivity they'll have in the postseason.
And on top of the fact that they are both top players at their respective positions, Kaepernick and Crabtree are intuitively on the same page. This isn’t your everyday quarterback-wideout tandem; these two are connected.
You can plainly see on game day that they’re just wired that way.
Nobody was targeted as much as Crabtree was in Kaepernick’s 10 starts in 2012, as his 94 looks were 55 more than anyone else during that span (producing 61 catches, 880 yards and eight touchdowns). The 49ers star quarterback also had a team-high 130.4 rating when targeting Crabtree, and they've picked up right where they left off.
It might even be better.
Since Michael Crabtree's return in 2013, he’s put together two 100-yard performances in his past three games and had a touchdown the week before that, which proves No. 15 is really beginning to heat up. This is an offensive wrinkle the 49ers can ride to Super Bowl XLVIII while their defense continues to stun and hold opposing teams to 20 points or less.
And with multi-tooled spark plug Colin Kaepernick behind center, the 49ers can outscore any of the remaining 2013-14 playoff teams.