Now that the high-stakes game of chicken between Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers is over, the focus turns to the bottom line that doesn’t involve money — what can he do on the field?
One quarter of the Niners’ season is complete. Can Crabtree do anything to help the NFC West-leading team after he missed training camp, the preseason and four games? At a position where it’s difficult for rookies who come in on day one to make major contributions, what can be expected of Crabtree, who is more than two months late? More important, what impact — if any — will the extended game of “who will blink first” have on his career?
Agent Eugene Parker had a long contract impasse in 2005 with the Chicago Bears involving running back Cedric Benson. It lasted 36 days, and Benson’s career in Chicago never got rolling. Some claim he was injured as a rookie, a sign of a bad start, but Benson’s knee was gruesomely twisted underneath massive 49ers defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga in a game at Soldier Field that season, nothing all the conditioning and time missed during training camp and preseason could have prevented.
But it was an awkward beginning for Benson with coaches, teammates and fans alike. Parker said at the time that none of it would matter. Benson would ultimately be judged on how he performed for the Bears, not on whether he missed five weeks while a contract was sorted out.
“When you look at holdouts, the byproduct of the holdout for the player is bad,” Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. “Everybody says it’s bad for the game and it’s bad for the team. It’s first bad for the player, then it’s bad for the team, then it’s bad for the game. I feel so strongly about it because in every situation that I have been involved (in) with a holdout, we had a bad result.’’
Angelo doesn’t have to look too far into his past. Running back Errict Rhett had a protracted holdout when Angelo was in Tampa Bay. It wasn’t during his rookie season, but Rhett’s career quickly plummeted after a 93-day holdout. Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell didn’t sign until Week 1 of his rookie season.
“People will say, ‘Well maybe it was just poor evaluation,’’’ Angelo said. “Maybe it was poor evaluation, but it got the whole thing started off on the wrong foot. Instead of the cart going down the hill in terms of getting to what the player can do and accentuating on the strengths, it went up a hill. That’s what it does. Instead of taking the path of least resistance, you’re a first-round pick, you’re now going uphill and you’re carrying a lot of excess baggage. Missing camp, the karma with the players, the coaches, the media, the fans, all of that now has become your baggage that only you can deal with it. I can’t deal with it.”
Minnesota Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie had an extended holdout in 2002, but he’s much better known for his role on a team cruise than missing the first 98 days of his rookie season. He signed before the team’s ninth game and was a starter the next week. He’s turned into a fine player and it has not marred his career.
“You can find one of anything,” Angelo quipped.
It will be interesting to see how much Crabtree accomplishes as a rookie. Some have suggested he was the No. 1 player on the 49ers’ draft board, and they lucked into him when he fell to No. 10. They’re winning right now and doing it with defense, a sound running game and a conservative approach with coordinator Jimmy Raye. Typically, wideouts don’t put up big numbers in Raye’s offense. Never have.
What will be defined as success for Crabtree? His business has finally been taken care of and is out of the way. Now, it’s time for him to perform. For some, a long rookie holdout has been a roadblock to more than just a rookie season.
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