6 Reasons Why Michael Crabtree's Time with San Francisco 49ers Is Running Out
When the San Francisco 49ers found Michael Crabtree still available at the 10th spot of the 2009 NFL draft, it seemed they had found a long-term solution for a big problem—how to stretch defenses from cramming the middle of the field against running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis.
The excitement was palpable in the Bay Area during the spring of ‘09. Apparently, that was one-sided. Crabtree held out, missing all of training camp and the first five games of 2009.
When he did return, he went in as a starter and had a nominal impact in his first game, Oct. 25, 2009, in a loss at Houston (five catches for 56 yards). Not great, but then Davis came away with three TDs in a seven-reception, 93-yard game.
The Niners seemed to have that rare combination of interior and exterior threats. Though it took Crabtree five games to score his first TD, the offense had more spark than the previous three years. Crabtree’s presence on an offense that had Davis and Gore to go along with a stout defense against the run constituted the optimism for the 2010 season, which many had picked the 49ers as the NFC West favorite.
Then came the meltdown season—five straight losses to start, quarterback controversy, players quitting or retiring, a secondary accused of aiding and abetting opponents’ pass schemes and, in the end, a fired coach. Overall grade: F, at least against expectations.
Now Crabtree is in a walking boot due to an injured left foot, the same foot that suffered a stress fracture that led Crabtree to miss the 2009 pre-draft workout slate. He’s expected to miss all of training camp, the first for new coach Jim Harbaugh. Not sure of what to expect, the Niners signed some insurance in the form of Braylon Edwards, who like Crabtree is a large (6’3”) receiver who has great potential.
Now, it is fair for 49er fans to wonder if Crabtree’s days are numbered. No one who has watched the team the last two years denies that the former Texas Tech wideout has the physical skills to play well in the NFL. But here are six reasons why Michael Crabtree’s days may be numbered in the Bay Area.
No matter how talented you are, if you can’t get on the field, your place on the team is limited. There are scores of former college stars who had immense potential but could not overcome injuries.
It’s one thing to miss training camp; the games aren’t all that meaningful for most teams. For the most part they serve as a testing ground for first-year players and free agents. However, this year, after a lockout that limited contact between teams and players, preseason games become much more important.
For a team installing a new offensive scheme under a new coaching staff, getting involved as early as possible can only help. Crabtree’s injury can only put him behind. Does he have the talent to catch up fast if he does return?
That’s the big "if." A stress fracture can be deadly to an athlete. Just ask Yao Ming. It remains to be seen if Crabtree will return, and if he does, at what level of play. Finally, there’s no guarantee that the injury will not become a recurring problem. The front office knows that and has to plan accordingly.
Missing the first two months of the 2009 season did little to engender fondness from fans. But that’s the cost of doing business in the NFL. Interestingly, Crabtree did live up to his billing and seemed destined to become a star.
But something else happened. His performance became spotty. His biggest game in 2009 was a five-catch, 67-yard game in Week 13 win over Arizona. His 35-yard TD put the Niners up 17-0 at halftime.
Then came games against Philadelphia, Detroit and St. Louis, and Crabtree totaled just 11 catches in those final three games for 152 yards. Those are stats that don’t jump through the screen, but there was hope for 2010.
Only Crabtree’s second year started with five straight losses in which he, again, provided little aid to a struggling offense. Granted, some of that may be due to former offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye’s play-calling; some of it might be due to a personality conflict with former coach Mike Singletary.
But pair those last games of ’09 with the start of 2010 with him not playing at all in last season’s preseason, and 49er fans get the impression that Crabtree is more concerned about himself than the team.
High draft picks in the NFL, at least those prior to 2011, received inordinate amounts of money, much of it guaranteed. For a team looking to manage its finances on the league’s salary cap rules, cutting a player early in his contract can shift much of that guaranteed money onto the player’s salary for that year.
In short, yes, a big contract can keep a player on a roster no matter how dismal his performance (example: JaMarcus Russell).
For most contracts, though, the third year is the cutoff date. Most of the bonus money is contractually spread over three years, and by the fourth the salary becomes a straight-up figure on the salary cap ledger. That’s when teams find that cutting a player doesn’t hurt as much.
Many high draft picks find they have to renegotiate their terms to find a place on the team. According to Profootballtalk.com, Crabtree’s original contract calls for $32 million over six years. But the incentives in the contract have to be fulfilled for that money to be paid in full, and Crabtree hasn’t come close.
In the end, $17 million of Crabtree’s contract is guaranteed. But Crabtree’s base salary this year is just under $3 million, a number that would not stop most teams from cutting a player in light of the cap hit.
In how many games has Crabtree’s performance propelled the 49ers to a win or to stay in the game? I count three: Dec. 14, ’09 over Arizona and last year’s loss at Philadelphia (nine catches, 105 yards, one TD) and the Week 15 loss in St. Louis (six catches, 122 yards).
Other than that, he’s played like a receiver who averages just over four catches a game. Moreover, he has only eight TDs in 27 games. Is part of that the fault of the offense? The quarterback? Probably all three, but there’s little there in the numbers to suggest that Crabtree is more valuable than, say, DeSean Jackson is to Philadelphia.
Who’s to say that those numbers are nothing more than a journeyman’s and thus found in a player who earns much less?
He’s a wideout, but what kind of wideout? Possession or deep threat? At Texas Tech, Mike Leach’s spread schemes allowed Crabtree much of the time to run free off the line. In the NFL, he constantly gets bumped and shoved, altering his routes while also altering the play’s timing.
He appeared to be a deep threat, but in the NFL most big plays come on a short to medium pass followed by the offensive player breaking a tackle or making defenders miss.
So it is unclear if Crabtree’s physical skills have adapted to the NFL game. It may not matter what role he’s meant to have—run downfield just to stretch the defense or be a possession receiver. The thing is, with an injured foot, now it will be more difficult for coach Jim Harbaugh to determine how Crabtree fits into the 49er offense.
Crabtree isn’t a disappointment. To some 49er fans, he hasn’t lived up to potential. But then, it may not be fair to Crabtree to expect him to be another explosive threat, a la Jerry Rice or even Terrell Owens.
What is clear is that the NFL demands different skill sets from receivers than what players find in college. For that matter, today’s game is much different than what Rice faced when he was turning those eight-yard slant passes into 62-yard TDs.
The Cover 2 schemes do much to limit those inside slant passes. But more than that are the different coverages that the best defenses bring into every game. Zone blitz packages, combination coverages, man-to-man with safety help—these are all schemes that have to be recognized on the fly by receiver and quarterback.
With Crabtree on the sidelines during the 2011 preseason, it remains unclear if he’ll ever develop that rapport with the new 49ers offense. And in a game where performance is everything—that is, performance that ends in a W—if Crabtree can’t help now, he may not be around too much longer.