Crabtree moves the chains

Crabtree moves the chains
September 17, 2012, 5:30 am
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Michael Crabtree was too high a draft choice for a very long time. Now, it may turn out that he was taken too low. Its all in how you choose to define his job.

I would like to be thought of as a football player, the 49er wide receiver said after what might arguably be his best game as a pro, rather than just as one category.

That question came after the 49ers 27-19 win over Detroit on Sunday Night Football, when he asked yet again if he thought of himself as a possession receiver. He doesnt want to be considered a possession receiver, for the same reason that Alex Smith isnt crazy about game manager, but it isnt the terminology that matters. Its the definition.

Crabtree caught six of the seven balls thrown his way Sunday night, and though the 67 yards he gained doesnt ring any fantasy bells, he:

Helped set up the 49ers first touchdown drive with a 21-yard catch on a first-and-10 at the Lion 38.
Set up the first David Akers field goal with a short reception on a third-and-seven.
Set up the second field goal with a 13-yard catch on a second-and-four at the Detroit 33.
Set up the final touchdown with three third-down conversions, on third-and-seven, 14 and nine.

That wasnt possession receiving. That was receiving that extended or enhanced possessions. And if you think possession receiver is still a pejorative, well, youre just not going to get it ever.

Crabtree started his career in San Francisco slowly, losing two years to injury and offensive-challenged philosophies that never could figure out what his gifts were. He was drafted in the 10-spot in 2009, wasted two seasons in the Mike Singletary era, then bloomed in his way as Smith bloomed in his.

Now he is the teams second most important receiver behind Vernon Davis, and if he isnt Jerry Rice-esque, he does a pretty decent early career imitation of Fred Biletnikoff. Not so much stylistically, as Biletnikoff was stealthier, but as the solution to some bad down-and-distance predicaments.

In short, he moves chains five of his six catches went for first downs, and while he still fretted about the one he dropped on a third-and-five early in the second quarter, he more than made his bones on a cranky night with cranky opponents.

Crabtree had been scapegoated pretty well as either a bad pick (which he wasnt) or as a pick the 49ers didnt know what to do with (which he was). His toughness was questioned constantly, as injuries extended long past peoples frustration levels, and though he was never truly a bust, neither was he a home run.

But Harbaughs gift is that he knows how to size up talent and find what it can do, rather than curse it for what it cannot, and he found in Crabtree someone who could precise routes, catch balls in traffic and, well, move chains. He is not the home run hitter that makes your jaw drop, but he is the receiver every good team must have if it doesnt want to wear out its punters foot.

And there is no reason to think he cannot become something else in the years to come. He has already remade himself once, after all.

But for right now, he is a possession receiver in the best sense of the word. He more than merely fits an offense that works, even if it doesnt effervesce. He is becoming a pro at a job that should be considered sexier than it is, and if you must use the phrase, use it properly. Because possession is a team statistic, and frankly, someones got to do it.

For now, on this team and for the foreseeable future, that is Michael Crabtree. Maybe he can make it a phrase that can be used for good, the way Smith used game manager.

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