Football Outsiders rated Sidney Rice of the Vikings the best receiver in 2009. The four-year player out of South Carolina is a free agent in 2011.
That is, Michael Crabtree’s feet—blistered and sore from a new pair of shoes. It is the sort of niggling information that makes the avid 49er fan ask, "What’s up with this guy?"
He was the 10th player taken in the 2010 draft and promptly held out for five games, but as soon as he stepped on the field, he made a difference.
Yet questions remain.
One of them is commitment. From the holdout to a somewhat petulant attitude last year—which in retrospect of all things Mike Singletary might be completely understandable—questions linger about Crabtree more than just about any player on the team this side of Alex Smith.
For most of us, it would be normal for someone of Crabtree’s standing to take the approach of working extra hard to impress the new boss, in this case coach Jim Harbaugh. Of course, that means making the extra time to participate with teammates and at least give the impression of trying to take the steps to get ready for training camp.
In the meantime, negotiations between NFLPA representatives and NFL owners continue. When an agreement in principle can be reached is unknown; it could be tomorrow, could be Sept. 1. In any case, once an agreement is reached, teams are going to do everything they can to improve, and they are going to do it fast.
When it comes to signing free agents, it will be a compressed period. Drawn-out negotiations will likely be a thing of the past. Teams will make their best offer, and players will accept.
It’s that environment that Crabtree has be to aware of, for there is nothing that guarantees his position.
With that, who is to say the 49ers' front office and coaching staff might not want to pursue a top free agent receiver like Sidney Rice. I can think of five reasons why the 49ers should consider a strong effort to sign Rice.
Coaches at all levels of competition agree on one thing: The better the number of good players available, the better coaches they become. In other words, with more talent you get more options, and with more options, you get more chances to win.
Former coach Bill Walsh said he always had a back-up plan in case something went wrong. In many cases when the Niners were struggling against an opponent—no matter how well The Genius had planned his offensive attack—he could always fall back on throwing the slant to Jerry Rice.
In that aspect, having Josh Morgan, Crabtree and Sidney Rice in three-receiver sets to go along with tight end Vernon Davis would give defenses plenty to worry about. And that might be enough to give Alex Smith that boost of confidence to produce better play in 2011.
One thing about the NFL is meritocracy wins out most of the time.
More than a few first-round draft picks with their guaranteed money in their pockets find themselves out of the league in short order due to the fact that they cannot produce on the field—stand up and take a bow, JaMarcus Russell.
Just because Crabtree was a high draft choice and just because he has done (reasonably) well, he’s not guaranteed anything. Moreover, it is indeed unfair for 49ers fans to expect more out of him than he’s produced, even though there’s no doubt that the offensive schemes engineered by Singletary and co. did not play to Crabtree’s strengths.
Nonetheless, he has to shut up, stop pouting and try hard.
One way to get that point through is to bring in someone who is not only just as talented, but also willing to work just as hard, if not harder. That’s the way it goes in the NFL, and Baalke and co. might want to make clear that it’s a new day in Niner Land.
One other note: Three years are the vital length of a contract for players taken high in the first round. After that, the guarantees fall off, as do a guaranteed roster spot.
Note that the Raiders fired Russell after his third year. This is Crabtree’s third year. Time to produce.
Based on production, Football Outsiders ranked Sidney Rice the best receiver in 2009. He was injured in 2010 and played only five games, totaling 17 catches. The year before he had 83 receptions and was a major reason why the Vikings played in the NFC Championship game—not bad for a second-year player out of South Carolina.
What stands out in 2009 was Rice’s catch percentage of 69 percent (of the 121 passes, he caught 83). Compare that to Crabtree’s two years—55.5 percent. Rice's 2009 yards per catch was 15.8, whereas in his first two years, Crabtree is just more than 13.
Of course those stats are full of ambiguity. For starters, Rice had Brett Favre throwing to him; Crabtree has had three quarterbacks. It has to be said that both Rice and Crabtree have excellent hands; their drops are rare.
But with Rice coming off a rather unproductive 2010—40 percent catch rate at 16.5 yards per reception—he may be as cheap as he ever will be.
It’s a cliché but there is some truth to it: The best defense is a good offense. When the 49ers have the ball, it’s more difficult for the other team to score.
In today’s NFL, the most successful teams are pass-oriented (standout examples include the Patriots, Colts and Packers). Having as many weapons on the field at one time is another step toward taking control over the defense.
More to the point is that Rice fits into the strengths of Jim Harbaugh’s offense. More than 50 percent of his catches come in short-to-mid-range passes, which are the mainstay of a West Coast offense. Having another receiver for the quarterback in close range gives more chances for successful plays, which means more first downs and more rest for your defense.
Those who know the 49ers' organization wonder if John York and his wife Denise DeBartolo would have continued their ownership of the team if son Jed wasn’t in the picture.
Compared to the success and stability of all things 49ers from the early 1980's through the mid-1990's, the last 10 years have produced a series of ownership gaffes that rival the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. (Example: John York not making the announcement of the firing of coach Steve Marriucci.)
In retrospect, the promotion of Mike Singletary to head coach in 2008 seemed like a positive step, but it turned sour due to Singletary’s lack of personal and communication skills. Yet there have been glimmers of hope, including the hiring of Trent Baalke as scout, then the promotion to general manager in 2010. Hiring Harbaugh last January also seems that Jed York is trying.
Avid 49ers fans are still taking a wait-and-see attitude though—rightfully so. Alex Smith appears willing to return as the starting quarterback, and more than a few fans feel that is a mistake.
With such reluctance within core fans, it might do 49ers leadership well to make a statement by trying to get the best players available, even if that means spending extra money on a player like Sidney Rice. It might be money well spent to restore the franchise to its premier standing.