By LOWELL COHN
PRESS DEMOCRAT COLUMNIST
SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ offense is all about wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
It used to be Frank Gore’s offense. Now, with the obvious exception of Colin Kaepernick, it is Crabtree’s offense. The Niners often start the game with a pass to him, establishing him, showing the opponent their primary weapon. And Crabtree responds. He has great hands and is relentless about gaining yards after the catch — a churning yard-making machine.
But not long ago, he had a stigma. It’s hard to remember that now, the stigma. He missed training camps for one reason or another. People called him a “diva.” He seemed soft, maybe a little slow.
Before we heap on the praise — standard in an article like this — it’s important, even educational, to know how Crabtree developed and finally flourished in this, his fourth season.
The 49ers took him 10th in the 2009 draft. He was a big-time selection, a big-time star coming out of Texas Tech, and people expected instant domination. Things weren’t that simple for him and it had nothing to do with a bad attitude or being a diva.
It had to do with learning. At Texas Tech he did not face the same talent in secondary he saw in the NFL. Fact of life. Some receivers don’t need a period of adjustment. Crabtree did. In the NFL, the game speeded up for him and he faced corners with talent he never dreamed of. And the defensive schemes were way more sophisticated. It was like going from simple arithmetic to calculus.
Texas Tech’s offense was radically different from what the Niners used when he was a rookie. Texas Tech ran a spread package and relied heavily on crossing routes. The system helped him and his teammates to get open. The standard passing attack in the NFL is not as system friendly, especially for a young guy like Crabtree. He had a period of adjustment.
Part of the adjustment was getting off the line of scrimmage. Something as simple as that. Guys would jam him at the line, hit him hard, and this was new to him. He took too long to release upfield and that limited where he could be and what he could do.
He’s learned what he needed to learn, is a whiz at the calculus of football. But let’s be clear about what he does. He runs great routes. He is ferocious at gaining yards after the catch. He does not often go upfield vertically on routes. He doesn’t have that kind of speed, lacks that gear. Most of his routes are slants, shallow crosses, stops on the perimeter.
He is like Anquan Boldin who just happens to play for the Baltimore Ravens. Boldin is strong, has great hands and will fight for a ball. The deep threat on the Ravens is Torrey Smith.
Here is Jim Harbaugh on Crabtree: “We long documented his ability to catch the football. He just keeps catching and catching and catching the ball. And next his ability to get open, his route-running ability. And none of these are in order. Great receivers have these qualities. They’re like a carpenter that has a lot of tools. Can’t say the hammer or the saw is more important than the other. And his ability to run after the catch. Runs very much like a running back. And his ability to block. And his mind. He does a great job understanding his assignments and those around him. He’s very much a complete player.”
That’s the highest praise, and Crabtree deserves every bit of it. His teammates gush about him, even though Crabtree himself is not much of a gusher. There are no quotes from him in this piece. He avoids the media, not out of arrogance — my theory — but out of shyness and a need for privacy.
Here is Delanie Walker on what makes Crabtree special: “His ability to run routes and get open and make the tough catches. He got a nice grab. When he grabs the ball he kind of snatches it from defenders.”
Finally, here is quarterback Scott Tolzien. Tolzien is a “watcher.” He observes what goes on and he speaks in concepts and is analytical. He is the go-to Niner for comment on any other Niner.
Tolzien on Crabtree: “He’s a vital piece of the puzzle. We’re fortunate we have a lot of weapons on our team, and he’s one of them. What stands out to me about him is the way he competes on Sundays, his consistency with catching footballs. But, also, his yards after catch have been incredible this year. He’s been one of the best in the league.”
Does Tolzien see Crabtree as “ferocious” going after balls?
“Totally, he’s one of those guys who we’re comfortable throwing to … because he’s going to attack the football. With that being said, nothing bad is going to happen. It’s his ball or nobody’s ball.”
What does Tolzien mean by “attack?”
“Some guys let the ball come to them. He physically goes towards the football to try to create separation from the defender and the football. He’s proactive about getting to the football.”
Does Tolzien consider Crabtree one of the best wide receivers in the NFL?
“Why not? That’s the way I look at it.”
(For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.)