The NFL and its media affiliates have been starved for news for some time now, which explains the hysteria around Michael Crabtree’s torn achilles tendon. There has been a slow trickle of reports from OTA’s, but NFL news outlets are running on fumes as the least exciting part of the offseason wears on. An injury to a major player on a high profile team is a juicy tidbit. The news that the 49ers number one receiver would be out for the season dropped like a bomb, with some pundits going as far as to claim that this injury meant the 49ers were no longer contenders, and were unlikely to even play reasonably well in 2013.
This isn’t surprising. Michael Crabtree is very talented, and it is a legitimate loss. But there are plenty of reasons why 49ers fans shouldn’t freak out. Crabtree was a great receiver late last season who showed an uncanny ability to move the ball after catches. He was hard-nosed and difficult to tackle, turning short receptions into huge gains. He was also Kaepernick’s favorite target, something which has been discussed at length. While their chemistry was great, and it will be exciting to see them back together after Crabtree recovers, it should be viewed as something that sprung up in the context of the 2012 season.
© Brian Bahr/Getty Images North America
When Kaepernick was shunted into the quarterback role in November, the 49ers had considerable depth at wide receiver. Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham were not stars by any means, but both were productive parts of a functioning offense that had led the 49ers to a 6-2 record. Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears was the game that cemented him as a viable candidate for the job of starter. He targeted almost every receiver on the roster in that game, finding Vernon Davis more than anyone else in the 32-7 blowout. The next game against New Orleans was the same; Manningham and Delanie Walker had big days, but Kaepernick used most receivers in a big road win. Unfortunately, both Kyle Williams and running back Kendall Hunter would get injured at the Superdome, shrinking the depth chart. At this point, Crabtree and Kaepernick began to connect more, as the budding quarterback learned the value of putting the ball in the number one receiver’s hands. Mario Manningham was injured two weeks later in Seattle, leaving the depth chart depleted of receivers save for Crabtree and an unreliable Randy Moss. Crabtree began to break out, but he was also given the lion’s share of opportunities to do so. The often-discussed chemistry between Kaep and Crabtree was not just something that developed randomly; it became a necessity. This is a good thing; the chemistry was developed under injury-related duress that shook up the depth chart, much like what the 49ers are facing now. It would not be surprising if Kaepernick showed a similar connection to one or several of the 49ers wideouts next season.
© US Presswire
The second glaringly obvious reason we should not worry too much is Jim Harbaugh. Endless praise has been heaped upon Harbaugh and his coaching staff for turning the 49ers from a perennial bummer into one of the league’s elite. Harbaugh came in and constructed an offense that played to Alex Smith’s strengths as a conservative, accurate passer and led the 49ers to a 13-3 season. He is a master at recognizing and harnessing the abilities of his players, and, given his track record, should be able to further evolve the 49ers’ offense to compensate for the loss of Crabtree. Much of the apocalyptic wailing about Crabtree’s injury has overplayed his role in the offense, the whiner in question making the assumption that the 49ers’ offense will (and should) look the same as the one we saw last year.
© Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America
The fact that Kaepernick targeted Crabtree as much as he did led to some great plays, but it was also a tendency that could be exploited by opposing defenses. Alex Smith showed some remarkable late-season chemistry with star tight end Vernon Davis in 2011, but this meant Davis was facing double and triple coverage in 2012 and saw a remarkable decrease in his receiving numbers even before Kaepernick emerged as the starter. Crabtree’s injury opens up space for some of the 49ers’ other receivers to play a role. Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette have already been discussed as candidates for number two receiver behind Anquan Boldin, but Manningham, Williams and even A. J. Jenkins will be approaching practices with even more drive knowing that they have an opportunity to move up the depth chart.
Let’s take it easy, people. We’re in good hands.