SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Wednesday’s mourning period for Michael Crabtree’s right Achilles’ tendon featured many references to his “breakout year’’ in 2012. To listen to the fretting, one would think the 49ers had lost the kind of receiver who showcases excellence in a quarterback, as Isaac Bruce did for Kurt Warner in St. Louis, and Larry Fitzgerald did for Warner in Arizona and, in one brief, shining and aberrant season, Terrell Owens did for Donovan McNabb.
The very idea slights Colin Kaepernick. Yes, he relied heavily on Crabtree during the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl. According to the calculations of The San Francisco Chronicle, in Kaeperick’s 10 starts, he targeted Crabtree on 94 passes, 55 more than he directed at another receiver. But let’s remember that the rapport covered just 10 games, the entirety of Kaepernick’s career as a starter, and 10 games do not a well-established pattern make. They amount to a dotted line, drawn in chalk.
By no means do they suggest that Crabtree was essential to Kaepernick. In fact, the opposite appears closer to the truth. Over 3 1/2 seasons and 44 pre-Kaepernick games, Crabtree had just four 100-yard receiving games. In 10 games with Kaepernick, he had five. Did he really have a breakout season, or did he just draft off the 49ers’ revelation of a quarterback?
We know this: Crabtree didn’t break out so much as he broke away from Alex Smith, who was deposed by a concussion and Kaepernick’s mesmerizing talent. The two never had strong chemistry; Smith had found his comfort zone with tight end Vernon Davis, and Crabtree lost opportunities to join their clique when injuries and a long rookie holdout repeatedly idled him in training camps and exhibition seasons. But even when Troy Smith took over for six starts in 2010, toting a downfield mindset and fondness for Crabtree’s skills into the huddle, the receiver failed to flourish.
He may have benefited from Kaepernick’s trust last year, or he might just have benefited from Kaepernick. The 49ers’ quarterback may have the skills to turn a No. 2-caliber receiver into a No. 1, or at least a 1A to a 1. His arm has the power to make such an upgrades, and the constant, terrifying threat that he will take off running tends to soften up defenses a few yards downfield.
It’s entirely possible that even if Crabtree had remained healthy, newly arrived Anquan Boldin would have matched or surpassed him this season. In Baltimore last year, he caught 20 fewer passes in the regular season than Crabtree, but had two more that went for 20-plus yards (17 to 15) and he had as sterling a postseason as Crabtree (22 catches, 380 yards and 4TDs over four games vs. 20 catches, 285 yards and 3 TDs in three games for Crabtree.)
With a full round of offseason camps as the starter, Kaepernick should become more sophisticated in his approach to running the offense. He will have less trouble getting plays off in time, and he will develop a rapport with other receivers, and enhance whatever relationship he already has with Davis, who has long been a more reliable playmaker than Crabtree. Kaepernick already spent part of his off-season training with and living with young receivers A.J. Jenkins (the 2012 first-round draft pick who came into his rookie camp out of shape and made not a single catch all year) and Ricardo Lockette.
They are unlikely to match the depth that Crabtree would have provided alongside Boldin, but injuries always undermine depth in the NFL. The somber tones about Crabtree’s injury suggested that the 49ers had lost more than valuable depth, that they had lost an irreplaceable part, a receiver with Hall of Fame potential and Kaepernick’s security blanket. His college reputation and pre-draft hype linger, lending more perceived value to his accomplishments than they merit.
We may soon discover that Kaepernick generated a lot of that value, and that he can do the same for other receivers.