When the news hit the wires that the 49ers are going to start Michael Crabtree — fresh off one of the longest rookie holdouts in recent memory — I was surprised given the hard coaching ways of Mike Singletary. Players compete for playing time on his team in the summer and keep their jobs by producing in the fall. So why throw an unproven rookie into the fire?
Because the Niners suddenly need him.
Even after the last-second loss to the Vikings, San Fran was looked at as a team that could find ways to compete. The 49ers run the ball, they play an attacking style of defense and their quarterback, Shaun Hill — well, he makes a play only when he needs to make one down the field.
But after they suffered one of the worst home losses in team history when Atlanta ran through them 45-10, we all were down on this franchise. Suddenly, that old game plan that had taken them to a 3-0 start looked average. They aren’t the kind of team that can generate points quickly in the passing game, and when they fall behind, how much confidence do we have in them to find a big play outside the numbers?
Their starting wide receivers? Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan, two guys who can run routes, but two guys opponents don’t have to specifically game plan for during the week. And two guys who aren’t lighting up the stat column on Sundays. So far in ’09, Bruce has 13 receptions for 167 yards and Morgan has 13 for 202 yards.
Enter Crabtree. A literal unknown in terms of what his production can be. No preseason action and no training camp. Bottom line — no competition. Because these in-season practices he’s going through right now are designed to prepare the team for Sunday at Houston, not to condition players or let them compete for jobs.
So why was he just handed the job?
The quick learning curve
Maybe I’m teetering a little on calling this a desperate move by the Niners, but playing down in Houston on Sunday against an offense that can put up points quickly, you need playmakers to keep pace, and to get back in the game if you fall behind early.
Yes, RB Frank Gore will be back, but running the stretch play or the Power O off tackle play won’t get you back in the game if Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson start hooking up for the Texans. I like how Vernon Davis has become a target for Hill in San Fran, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t think they need more.
Having that guy outside the numbers is a positive for this team. But how do you get a player like Crabtree involved in the game plan when he has never taken a snap?
One rookie who has been a perfect example of this is Johnny Knox in Chicago. He’s quickly becoming a target for Jay Cutler, and he’s also producing when they call his number in the huddle. But it didn’t start that way. We didn’t see the deeper inside routes early in the season. Instead, the Bears got Knox the ball in simple ways: the bubble screen, the slant, the hitch and, when faced with press coverage, the go route. Routes that Crabtree should know and that don’t requite a ton of thinking. You see press, you run the slant or the go. You see off-man coverage, you run the hitch, the comeback, the quick out.
After that, athletic ability takes over. A missed tackle and suddenly Crabtree looks like a guy who went through training camp.
But it still remains to be seen how this works. Most likely, he’ll see the Texans’ Dunta Robinson at times on Sunday. Isaac Bruce isn’t a threat to run past anyone at this stage of his career, so a great way to introduce this young rookie to an NFL Sunday is to put Robinson on him in press coverage. Nothing better than seeing a veteran show a rookie how things work.
Add in the fact that Houston has to blitz to create pressure (only seven sacks as a team), and Crabtree will see his share of man-free and zero-man coverage (no safety help). There will be opportunities for him to make a play early in the game.
I don’t expect Crabtree to be able to see a pre-snap look on the Texans defense and understand what they’re running, and that should lead to plenty of mental mistakes. But that isn’t going to stop the Niners from putting him in the lineup.
It’s a long way from Lubbock in this league, but that won’t prevent the Niners from sending him out there, where he’ll have to learn the NFL game by doing it on the field.
The veteran reaction
Most of us would think that the veterans in the Niners’ locker room would shake their heads when Singletary announced that Crabtree is going to start. A rookie holdout? That’s the reaction I probably would’ve had — especially if I was the veteran who was taking a seat because of it.
But if you are a veteran, you know how important these games are — and losing another one after that Atlanta debacle will not sit well in the locker room, or in the NFC West standings. The Arizona Cardinals just went to Seattle and won convincingly, and as Niners player, you know you have to keep pace with them.
But those veterans still have to see it on the field. If Crabtree can produce, he’ll be accepted. It’s as simple as that in any NFL locker room. Whether it’s an off-the-field issue or a contract issue, guys may talk a bit, but once you set foot on the field, the only thing anyone cares about is who can make plays to help you win and who can’t.
Remember, everyone on the team, from the top-paid guy to the 53rd guy on the roster who covers kicks and works with the scout team at practice, gets a playoff check if you make it to the postseason. That’s “free” money on top of your contract, and the Niners think they’re good enough to do it.
And these guys will come around quickly if the rookie can catch a few balls and move the chains in Houston.
What happened to the drama?
The crazy thing about Singletary’s announcement this week is that nothing has been mentioned about the past. Singletary isn’t going to punish Crabtree because of the holdout, nor is he going to make him earn his playing time.
Nope, he’s going right into the lineup as top-10 picks usually do. But what about the contract standoff, the constant back and forth during the negotiations, even the threat by Crabtree and his camp that he was prepared to sit out the season if he didn’t get the deal he thought he deserved?
Nothing to talk about there, really. Just like Brandon Marshall in Denver or Anquan Boldin in Arizona, those threats and off-the-field drama fade when actual football is played. It’s no different with Crabtree. There’s no time to waste on drama in a game week, and most of these players are programmed to think football and football only in the regular season.
Yes, Crabtree will be in the lineup for a certain number of plays down Houston, and his career will start in the oddest of ways — in the middle of a season. Now we get to sit back and see what he really has to offer, because no one knows just what that is — yet.
My only advice: Watch your pad level, Michael. Those vets will be coming for you.
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