I apologize in advance for bringing this up yet again …
Many have looked at Colin Kaepernick’s incomplete/intercepted passes to the corner of the end zone in Super Bowl 47 and the NFC Championship Game in Seattle as errors in judgment by Greg Roman or Jim Harbaugh. But — as Steve Young has said several times during radio appearances — once the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand, it’s his responsibility. Kaepernick forced the issue in both games while showing unwavering faith in his friend, Michael Crabtree, on the biggest stage.
That’s not to say Kaepernick and Crabtree view their bond as more important than winning, but they both have a fierce belief in each other.
Alex Smith threw the ball to Crabtree an average of 6.9 times per game in the first eight games of 2012. After Kaepernick took over the starting job in that famous Monday Night Football win over Chicago, Crabtree’s targets jumped to 9.3 per game in 10 games (including three playoff contests).
Crabtree and Kaepernick took a little while to get back to normal in 2013 after the former returned from his ruptured Achilles, but in three postseason games Kaepernick targeted Crabtree 28 times — 9.3 per game.
They’re tight, both on and off the field. But could business interests potentially interfere with their relationship this season? Will their bond show some cracks in a transition year for both players?
A potential contract extension for Kaepernick has been talked about by just about everybody who could possibly care about such a thing, and it sounds like the 49ers are willing to make him one of the league’s highest paid quarterbacks. Crabtree is a free agent after the 2014 season, but the 49ers’ plans on his end are far more ambiguous.
In fact, it was a Niners Nation poll question (“When will Michael Crabtree sign a contract extension?”) that got me thinking about the Kaepernick-Crabtree dynamic. Even tossing out Crabtree’s lengthy rookie season holdout, there are a lot of tough-to-predict factors at play here in regards to Crabtree.
More weapons than before
Anquan Boldin went for over 1,400 yards last season (including the playoffs). Unless age finally takes effect, Boldin’s 2013 production puts him on Crabtree’s level as far as being one of Kaepernick’s favored targets. Then the 49ers signed Brandon Lloyd, traded for Stevie Johnson and drafted Bruce Ellington. Lloyd is going to find it difficult to make the 53-man roster, since he holds no value on special teams and sat out the 2013 season. But in Johnson, the 49ers have their best No. 3 receiver in years. Decades, even. Unless Harbaugh was bluffing when he said the team would go with more three-receiver sets in 2014, Johnson’s going to be open a fair number of times, times when Kaepernick might usually look toward Crabtree and Crabtree alone.
How good will Crabtree be?
He showed flashes of what we saw in 2012 (two 100-yard games, including 125 yards in the Wild Card round game in Green Bay), but overall Crabtree appeared to be a step slower after the injury — which is totally understandable, of course. He has plenty of motivation to show up in excellent shape in June for OTAs and minicamp. But if he wants to get paid like a No. 1 receiver, he’s going to need to be at his best to take targets away from Boldin, Johnson and Vernon Davis.
What’s the max the 49ers will pay a receiver?
We don’t know the answer, because the 49ers haven’t had an opportunity to extend a top receiver in his prime since Terrell Owens was around. Depending on the answer to the previous question, we may find out.
Kaepernick’s job is to win games, but his friend will be in his ear all season. “C’mon man … I’m open, man … I can beat this dude, man.” (Crabtree says “man” a lot.) Whether or not the 49ers ink Kaepernick to a long-term deal before the season, a fun story line to follow will be if he keeps looking to Crabtree first and keeps forcing the ball his way when it matters most. Because from here on out, it’s not just about two young, like-minded players who like and respect each other, both looking to prove themselves and show they’re the top QB-WR tandem in the NFL. A lot of money is at stake, and Kaepernick may have to finesse this situation a little if he senses that he’s a part of the 49ers’ long-term plans and Crabtree is not.