Jim Harbaugh

What to do about Michael Crabtree

In an effort to superstitiously boost Michael Crabtree’s performance on Sunday after a quiet game against the Saints, my wife and I had dungeness crab and sourdough for dinner on Saturday night. Not a tough choice, since we both love crab and the season’s not going to last much longer around here. I’m referring to crab season, although I guess that last sentence holds true for football as well (sigh).

While the dinner was delicious, Crabtree (AKA #yungcrab) was a shell of himself during these playoffs, capped by a 1-catch, 3-yard outing in the NFC Championship that made his first playoff game (4 catches, 25 yards and a score … along with 2 drops) look fantastic by comparison.

Things look extremely good for the 49ers’ future, with strength and relative stability at most positions. Most, but not all:

The 49ers have just two receivers, Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams, signed for next season. They started the game but only had one catch between them – Crabtree’s for a modest three yards. Crabtree was targeted five times; Williams four times. That’s the second straight quiet game for Crabtree, and afterward he expressed frustration at not being given chances to make plays.

“Sometimes, you’ve just got to move the ball,” Crabtree said, his frustration palpable. “You’ve got to make plays. You’ve got to give people chances to make plays. You’ve got to make plays.”

In Jim Harbaugh’s day-after press conference he expressed his own frustration. He was upset that Ahmad Bradshaw’s fumble (sure looked like one to everyone in our section, including the Giants fans wearing Eli Manning and Tiki Barber jerseys) was given back to the Giants after it was ruled that Bradshaw’s forward progress had been stopped (Harbaugh compared the play to the “tuck rule”). He didn’t like the 15-yard personal foul penalty called on Vernon Davis for standing on the camera structure after his first touchdown (a penalty that was confusing from our vantage point, the opposite end zone).

Even with meager wide receiver depth, Harbaugh cut Braylon Edwards late in the regular season. Edwards was dinged up all year, not very productive and committed two questionable penalties in his last game with the 49ers, but he also clued reporters in on a shoulder injury that was unknown to the general public. It was something I called out early on as a Harbaugh no-no. Harbaugh’s extremely secretive about injuries to his players; the last thing he wants are players volunteering injury information for no good reason other than to provide possible excuses.

Reporting an injury is one thing. Is showing frustration with the offense worse, or understandable in the heat of the moment? It’s not like Alex Smith was throwing a lot of great balls out there besides those two touchdown passes to Vernon Davis.

Here’s an exchange that took place during Harbaugh’s presser:

-Q: Michael Crabtree said after the game that he didn’t feel he was put in a position to make plays–didn’t get balls thrown his way. Do you agree with that? You ended the game with four three-and-out, should Alex maybe have tried to force the issue at some point?

-HARBAUGH: You guys talk to these guys right after the game, right after the bitter type of a loss. And then you talk to them the next day.

You go to every guy to get some raw emotional feelings, what they’re saying, what they… You come back to me for the comment.

I have no comment about that.

Crabtree made strides this season both as a possession receiver and as a blocker. He was very productive during the last seven weeks of the regular season, and may have been the team’s best player in their win in Seattle.

However, Crabtree was drafted (10th overall) to be a No. 1 receiver, and he’s a No. 2 at best. He isn’t bigger than the average NFL wideout, and he certainly isn’t faster. He has the ability to make some great catches, but he also dropped 9 passes during the 2011 regular season (tying him for 7th-most in the league).

Overall he had a solid year, but since he began his 49ers career with a long holdout that stretched into the season, Crabtree has pretty much been a ghost during the team’s last three training camps. The foot injury that set off red flags leading into the 2009 NFL Draft was the cause in 2011, but one almost has to wonder what problems he’ll have going into the end of this coming summer.

The 49ers aren’t in a position to cut any viable receivers, so the logical answer isn’t to cut ties with Crabtree, but to get a receiver (or two, if possible) that can be at least as productive as Yung Crab. Is that possible? Crabtree’s hardly an elite receiver, but his yardage (625-741-874) and receptions (48-55-72) have steadily climbed each season. It’s also exceedingly difficult to trade for receivers in the NFL who aren’t either damaged goods or known to have character concerns.

Perhaps the 49ers draft a WR in one of the early rounds. Mel Kiper had the Niners taking South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffrey in the first round. Walter Football has Jeffrey going five picks earlier to the Texans, with the 49ers taking WR Mohamed Sanu from Rutgers.

The 2012 free agent class is loaded with wide receivers beyond 2011 Niners like Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn (both of whom I would imagine the 49ers will want to bring back). While San Francisco will surely look to maintain/improve their depth at positions like CB, S and OL, one of the team’s main goals will undoubtedly be finding a way to make sure Crabtree isn’t the team’s No. 1 receiver any longer. And with Crabtree’s propensity to miss training camp and sound off when he’s unhappy about the direction of the offense or who’s throwing him the ball, it wouldn’t be out of the realm to picture a 49ers roster in 2012 that’s Crab-free.

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