Despite losing to the Texans on the road 24--21 on Sunday, the 49ers came away with more reason to feel optimistic about their offense than at any other point this season. For the first time since Terrell Owens left in March 2004, San Francisco may have the makings of a bona fide downfield passing game—thanks to the belated arrival of rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree and the surprising return of quarterback Alex Smith.
Crabtree, the former Texas Tech star, two-time Biletnikoff Award winner and No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft, made his NFL debut after ending a 71-day contract holdout on Oct. 7. He started at split end, participated in 48 of 54 offensive snaps and led Niners wide receivers in receptions with five, for 56 yards. Smith, a former No. 1 pick plagued by shoulder injuries who hadn't seen action since November 2007, replaced ineffective starter Shaun Hill at halftime and looked far more comfortable and confident than he had in 32 games beginning with his rookie year in 2005. Smith completed 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
Smith's stronger arm is a better fit for the downfield aerial game that 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye prefers. And the playmaking ability of Crabtree, who had 231 receptions for 3,127 yards and 41 touchdowns in two college seasons, is equally critical to the success of that strategy.
In the first half against Houston, when Hill was the passer, Crabtree ran mostly short routes and made two catches for 22 yards. But he worked deeper into the defense after intermission, and Smith found him for a 17-yard gain on the second play of the third quarter. A 22-yard completion was erased by an illegal-motion penalty, but the reception hinted at the weapon Crabtree could become: He caught the ball in stride, hit the brakes so hard that cornerback Jacques Reeves stumbled and fell, then was one step from breaking into the clear before he was pulled down.
"He reminds me of my days with Eric Dickerson," Raye says of the Hall of Fame running back with whom he worked in 1983 and '84 with the Rams. "Eric ran so smoothly that you never heard his cleats hit the ground. It's the same with this guy. His hands are so soft that you don't hear the ball hit them."
Crabtree laid low during his holdout, and since signing his contract, he has yet to display any of the diva qualities that supposedly caused some teams above the 49ers to pass on him in the draft. (He was projected as a top five pick.) His early sessions with the media have been bland and short on insight. Asked after the game how he approached his debut, he said, "I kind of practiced on being calm."
Coach Mike Singletary's decision to start Crabtree on Sunday surprised some; a foot injury had kept him out of off-season workouts, and he missed all of camp and the first five games because of the contract impasse. During the Niners' bye week he worked with Smith on his pass catching. The layoff didn't appear to affect Crabtree physically—the 22-year-old turned up in excellent condition—and he won over the staff with his eagerness to learn. "The most important message is that we want to win," Singletary said of the decision to start Crabtree.
During the week, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan cautioned Crabtree that he would make mistakes and told him not to dwell on them. The rookie was put to that test on the first play from scrimmage: He jogged to the open side of the formation, glanced at the coverage, then blew an audible that resulted in Hill's being sacked for a six-yard loss. On some other plays he lined up wrong or ran imprecise routes. Still, Crabtree worked through the hiccups and finished with the most catches in a game by a San Francisco wideout this season.
And while he might have been reserved in the company of the media, Crabtree was unafraid to speak up in the huddle. After one unsuccessful series Crabtree said, "Come on, guys—we can't have another three-and-out," causing veteran running back Frank Gore to chuckle at the youngster's willingness to be heard as well as seen.
"I wasn't surprised," second-year wideout Josh Morgan said of Crabtree's confidence and desire for the ball. "He's a playmaker. After you catch that rock the first time, you're like, 'Let's go. It's just another game. This is what God put me on this earth to do.' He's for real. Just keep watching."