When Aldon Smith returned from rehab, the feeling was a mixture of curiosity and awkward trepidation. Tomorrow’s 2013 debut for Michael Crabtree brings the same kind of anticipation for different reasons. The question with Smith was whether he could handle the mental responsibilities of coming back after the DUI, the automobile crash, the felony weapons charges, and substance abuse rehab with so many watching; with Crabtree it’s whether his Achilles will rupture yet again.
The snap count for Crabtree tomorrow will probably be somewhere close to what Smith saw against Carolina: around 20%. The 49ers aren’t going to build their game plan around Crabtree, who’ll probably be used more as a decoy than one of Colin Kaepernick’s primary targets.
Aldon Smith, a “freak” according to Justin Smith, wasn’t dealing with a surgically repaired tendon. It took him three games to look like himself at peak value.
Value is a word the 49ers have thrown around quite a bit in response to all the questions about Crabtree and other injured receivers during their respective healing processes. The team is incrementally better when “trusted agents” are back in uniform, but don’t expect an instant superstar from one of the injured lists.
Since Crabtree was finally able to practice in full for three straight days this week, it’s almost certainly in the category of “too much, too soon” to pencil him in for a 100-yard receiving day in his third game back. But their fifth game in December takes place in Arizona, home of the Cardinals and Crabtree’s favorite victim, Patrick Peterson.
Peterson is a top-10 cornerback this season, but in the past two years Crabtree has gone off for 27 receptions, 428 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona. A lot of that work was done against Peterson.
With Mario Manningham looking more spry than before in Washington, there’s no reason for the 49ers to push Crabtree and risk losing him until next year. Maybe 15 plays tomorrow, 20 against Seattle, 25 against Tampa Bay, 30 or perhaps even fewer against the lowly Falcons. These are all victories the 49ers desperately need, but the non-Seahawks opponents in that group have only combined for nine victories and Seattle isn’t nearly as scary on the road (BREAKING NEWS). With Aldon Smith’s reemergence propelling the defense back to a level probably not seen since the 2011 season, they should be able to keep pace with Arizona and Carolina without pushing last year’s No. 1 receiver before he’s ready.
Crabtree’s a fun story as the stretch run unfolds, and everyone is looking forward to seeing what exactly he can do against the Rams. However, San Francisco’s task is to keep him healthy while reaching the end zone via passes to Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis (and maybe even Manningham or Vance McDonald, heaven forbid) and runs by Frank Gore and Kaepernick. Healthy until they face the Cardinals, and hopefully for the 49ers, beyond.