San Francisco 49ers: Can Michael Crabtree Pull a Vernon Davis?

Owen ClarkCorrespondent IIIMay 25, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 14:  Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park on November 14, 2010 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree has been labeled a star, a steal, a diva and a disappointment. Yet it’s still unclear if he’s a fit for the most important label: No. 1 NFL wideout.  

After two turmoil-filled seasons, the former first-round pick remains a polarizing figure among the 49ers faithful. 

The con-Crabtree camp is quick to point to his sub-par stats last season as proof he’s a bust. The pro-Crabtree contingent believes the combination of awful QBs and terrible coaching is responsible for his lack of production. 

There’s no doubt that working with Jimmy Raye and the Smiths (which sounds like a 90s alternative band) is a bad break for a young receiver, but even the most ardent apologist has to admit that Crabtree has created a slew of his own problems.   

Despite a dominant college career at Texas Tech, concerns about his ego and his entourage caused Crabtree to slip in the draft to the 49ers at No. 10. 

Then, in a bizarre attempt to prove all the doubters right, he staged a 71-day holdout that forced him to miss his first five NFL games and end up with a contract that was, by most accounts, worse than the deal he was offered on Day 1. 

After largely redeeming himself with a surprisingly effective (48 catches, 625 yards, two touchdowns in 11 games) rookie campaign, Crabtree kicked off his sophomore season by milking a neck injury through training camp and fighting with teammate Vernon Davis. 

Now entering his third year, Crabtree sits squarely at the fork in road, and must choose whether to take the path of the petulant diva (a la Terrell Owens) or the reformed problem child (like his former sparring mate, Vernon Davis)    

You’ll remember Davis was even further into bust-dom than Crabtree, having struggled with his attitude and on-field performance for most of his first three years in the NFL. 

It was only after an embarrassing public benching by Singletary that Davis got his act together, exploding in his fourth year for 78 catches and 13 touchdowns.

Like Davis, Crabtree has attitude issues that feel more like youthful hubris than inherent narcissism. 

Crabtree hasn’t shown the destructive desire to cut down his teammates, like T.O., or the pathological addiction to the spotlight, like Chad Ochocinco

Instead, Crabtree seems like a young player whose talent has allowed him to dominate every stage of his athletic life, and he’s learning the hard way that hard work has to accompany sheer ability. 

This week, Matt Barrows reported that Crabtree will join Alex Smith and a host of other 49ers conducting informal practices in the South Bay. 

That’s a big step forward for a player who has never played in a preseason game and has suffered from a lack of familiarity with his quarterback and his offense. 

Davis’ breakthrough season could also be attributed to the transition to the system of since-fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, which sucks the life from most other offensive positions, but creates superstars of tight ends. 

Similarly, Crabtree should benefit tremendously from the move to the West Coast offense, which will allow him to run quick routes and operate underneath the defense. 

Crabtree has shown he doesn’t have the size and down-field athleticism of an Andre Johnson or a young T.O. (another reason the diva act is a bad idea), but he does excel at snatching the ball in traffic and breaking tackles for extra yards. 

An offensive set that sticks Crabtree in the slot and sends Davis or Delanie Walker split wide, has mismatches all over the field, and, if nothing else, takes guys out of the box to stop Frank Gore, would be ideal for San Francisco.

New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh might not have a fire and brimstone, pants-on-the-ground tirade in him, but finding a way to motivate Michael Crabtree like his predecessor did for Davis should be high on his to-do list. 

Right after he figures out who is going to throw him the ball.