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Posted: Monday October 12, 2009 3:40AM; Updated: Monday October 12, 2009 2:07PM
Peter King Peter King >
MONDAY MORNING QB

MMQB (cont.)

michael-crabtree.jpg
Michael Crabtree was a spectator on the sidelines of the 49ers' 45-10 loss to the Falcons.
AP
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Michael Crabtree signs: Well, throw a parade. I'll have a few thoughts on the uselessness of the holdout below in 10 Things, but let's use this space for something useful -- like what Crabtree's role will be.

The 49ers have the bye this week, but they'll use the time to expedite the learning process for Crabtree. Barring injury, he'll be on the field Oct. 25 at Houston, likely as a slot receiver. The Niners could play an interesting four-receiver set with Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan outside, and tight end Vernon Davis and Crabtree inside.

Let's assume -- as I've been told reliably -- that the 49ers do put Crabtree in the slot and give him a spot in three or four personnel groups of three- or four-receiver sets. Rather than immerse Crabtree in the offense and throw the phone book of a playbook at him, it's smarter to feed him piecemeal if you want to get something out of him this year. Crabtree's holdout destroyed his chance to be a big player this year, but he still can be a helpful one.

After his third practice with Crabtree, quarterback Shaun Hill told me he thought Crabtree could be a useful piece this year. "He's got strong hands, late hands,'' Hill said. "Late hands -- that's when the ball's over your shoulder and you either see it late or find it late, and you can get your hands up in time to catch it. He's not extremely tall, but he plays big. Long arms. He attacks the football when he catches it.''

I asked Hill about how the 49er skill players are now fairly competitive with the rest of the league. "When you've gone through what we've gone through as an organization, nobody in the outside world expects anything from you, but I can tell you we have some playmakers here,'' he said.

If Crabtree can be a two-catch-a-game guy in the slot, he should draw some attention away from Bruce and Morgan and help the Niners become more diverse on offense.

I don't know Crabtree, and I have questioned his judgment over this senseless holdout. But I like one thing I heard about him late in the week, after he and GM Scot McCloughan had a lengthy discussion. In the course of it, Crabtree asked: "Why was Rossum inactive last week?'' Allen Rossum, the returner/cornerback, is the player Crabtree wondered about. And to ask that showed the Niners he was watching and thinking about his team. I think he was so miserable not playing that he had to get back, regardless of the advice he was getting.

----

The birth of the UFL: There was no buzz in Las Vegas or Orlando for the opening weekend of the United Football League. With crowds announced at 14,000 in Las Vegas and 11,000 in Orlando, some of which were comps (I saw the fourth quarter of Orlando Tuskers-New York Sentinels, and there couldn't have been 11,000 there), the first weekend of the odd, four-team, six-games-per-team league was inauspicious.

Convinced that the fall is when people watch football, the league chose to play opposite the NFL and high school and college football, which is almost like planting a garden in a blizzard. The only way the league can work is to be content being a Triple-A league with some borderline NFL players; to have the long view; to play on Thursday nights; and to not have the sort of visions of grandeur that the XFL and USFL had. All of which commissioner Michael Huyghue, who helped build the Jacksonville Jaguars from the ground up 15 years ago, does have.

"This season's an appetizer,'' he told me Saturday night from Orlando, after Jim Haslett's Tuskers beat Ted Cottrell's Sentinels 35-13, behind four touchdown passes from Brooks Bollinger. "We're at the start of a three- to five-year project. It's easy to get caught up in the attendance, and some people thought we shouldn't start this year, or play with a four-team league. But we wanted to grow this league steadily. The four-team league is a preview. We're putting our money into the football, not the promotion, like the XFL did. A person who's knowledgeable about football will see the product we had out there.''

Bollinger handed to Tatum Bell, who rushed for 1,000 yards for the Broncos, and Michael Pittman, who gained 124 yards in the Super Bowl six years ago, and Bollinger was sacked by Simeon Rice, who has 122 NFL sacks. Out west, J.P. Losman tried to resuscitate his career, throwing two touchdowns, and late Bengals cut DeDe Dorsey scored two touchdowns. "The quality is like an NFL preseason game,'' Dorsey said. "What I like is the people running the league care about the football. We've got a bunch of players trying to re-prove themselves and show they can play at a high level.''

The UFL will play a title game Nov. 27 between the two teams with the best regular-season records. The goal is to experiment in several stadiums and markets (Tropicana Field in Tampa, Rentschler Field in Hartford, CitiField in Queens), then to add two teams for 2010. "We may never play more than 10 games,'' Huyghue said. "We may never have more than eight teams. We're going to do what's practical.''

I'll tell you what's practical: not playing a Florida team's opener directly opposite Florida-LSU, which the league should have seen months ago, and finding some way to put bodies in the stands, no matter how papered the houses are. The wide swaths of empty seats at both games was embarrassing.

"Good football, bad marketing, nothing for kids, probably 3k there,'' one attendee at the Citrus Bowl on Saturday Tweeted me Sunday morning.

The only way a fall minor league can make it is if the league's serious about not having visions of grandeur and can settle into a niche of Thursday night football in underserved pro football markets (Las Vegas, Orlando, Hartford, Sacramento, etc.) for the long term. And I don't mind the lack of hype as the season kicked off. The XFL had hype out the wazoo and lasted five months. This is a startup company, and startups needs to come in quietly, have money, and have a good football plan. I have my doubts about the UFL making it, but it does have money, a plan and good football people in place. I'll be watching.

----

Roughing-the-passer: Say what you want about the most despised call in football -- and there's no question some officials, particularly the younger, more-unsure refs like Alberto Riveron and rookie Don Carey, are calling roughing inconsistently -- but here are a couple of truths.

The NFL absolutely, positively isn't going to cut down on its vigilance of quarterback hits, no matter how many Ray Lewises and Rodney Harrisons ridicule the protectionist attitude toward passers. I'm told reliably that the league is not going to let up, and that officiating czar Mike Pereira did not issue any sort of edict to his 17 referees last week after a controversial spate of calls in Week 4.

Here's what I have a problem with: players like Patriots defensive tackle Mike Wright getting fined $5,000 for contacting quarterback Joe Flacco's helmet while rushing. Clearly, if the league's going to fine a player, there should actually be some intent there. I've watched the Wright play twice, and he clearly did not intend to hit Flacco. Penalizing is one thing. Fining should be reserved for flagrant fouls.

One other thing: Players are getting the message about going easier on the quarterback, judging by roughing numbers over the past five seasons and four games this year.

Season Average roughing-the-passer calls per week
2004 7.94
2005 7.47
2006 6.24
2007 3.65
2008 3.53
2009 5.25

I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the 2009 numbers -- yet. As I said earlier, they're through four weeks, and a couple of light weeks would put the average back down to the levels of the past two years. I wondered why the numbers plummeted between 2006 and 2007, but other than the usual points of emphasis about protecting the quarterback, there was no big rule change that year.

----

Happy birthday, Brett Favre: Favre turned 40 Saturday -- doubt he got many birthday cards from Green Bay zip codes -- and celebrated by leading the Vikings to their fifth straight win, in St. Louis on Sunday. But that's not the milestone date I was thinking about this weekend.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the hit from Cincinnati linebacker Rashad Jeanty that led to Favre's right biceps injury, and led to the arm and shoulder pain that made his late 2008 season so miserable. In his first first games a year ago -- the injury happened during Game 5 -- Favre completed 71.3 percent of his throws for the Jets, with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He was 63.3 percent after that, with nine touchdowns and 16 picks. So my question to him last week was the same as my question to him in the summer: Can you last?

"I don't know,'' he said when I spoke to him in the tunnel at the Metrodome, an hour or so after the emotional win over the Packers. He looked like he'd been through a 15-round fight, emotionally and physically. "No one knows. You never know what'll happen. I know how hard I'm working for it.''

He said he hasn't had anything to drink but water, has sworn off sweets, hasn't been hunting, and said he's throwing totally pain-free. I asked him about the gigantic welcome-to-Minnesota billboards Wrangler, one of his employers, has put up around town. "Haven't seem 'em,'' he said. "All I see is the road between my house and the training facility.'' Tunnel vision.

That probably gives him the best chance to make it. But we won't know how this story turns out until we see if Favre can make it and play competently through December, and he knows that.

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