Smith, Crabtree brighten 49ers' outlook

October, 25, 2009
10/25/09
7:18
PM ET
Bob Levey/Getty Images
San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree ignited the 49ers offense Sunday in his first NFL start.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

HOUSTON -- The frustration of the moment prevented Mike Singletary from appreciating the bigger picture Sunday.

The 49ers' head coach, disconsolate after a 24-21 loss to the Houston Texans left his team with a 3-3 record, needed longer than the customary 10-minute cooling-off period before holding his postgame media session.
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Singletary needed so long, in fact, that the 49ers pushed back his mandatory interview session until after players were finished with their media obligations.

"Very frustrating to come down here and get 21 points behind in the first half," Singletary said. "There is no reason for that."

There are plenty of reasons, including a few on defense and special teams, but those weren't the story for the 49ers.

While Singletary is entitled to his misery and apparently bound by it, the rest of us are free to embrace greater meaning when Alex Smith repeatedly hits Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan in the numbers with it.

Two shockingly strong quarters from Smith at quarterback could not reverse four years of disappointment, but even Singletary had to acknowledge what Crabtree brought to his offense in the rookie's first NFL game following the longest contract dispute in 49ers' history.

"Do I think he did a great job today?" Singletary asked. "Absolutely."

The rookie receiver is a star in the making and everyone associated with the 49ers can see it.

Crabtree played all but six offensive snaps.

The 49ers converted four times on third down and Crabtree caught passes on three of them (for 35 yards). A penalty for illegal procedure against Morgan wiped out a 17-yard reception for Crabtree on a first-down play. Crabtree finished with five receptions for 56 yards, catching more passes than any wide receiver in the game, including the Texans' Andre Johnson, who suffered a chest injury late and did not return.

"I saw a guy that's going to be a good football player," Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "He ran good routes and you know he's fearless. ... I think he's going to be a very good pro in this league."

You can forget the diva talk about Crabtree, too. He's the real deal.

Offensive linemen do not walk across locker rooms following defeats to initiate handshakes with divas. It's against the lineman's code. Left tackle Joe Staley made a special trip to commend Crabtree after this one, all the evidence anyone should need that Crabtree has already earned his place in the starting lineup.

Crabtree conducts himself with the poise of a five-year veteran. The receiver's competitiveness and diligence also distinguish him.

And when perhaps 15 reporters crowded around Crabtree's locker, the receiver handled their queries effortlessly. The moment was not too big for him.

"I was kind of calm," Crabtree said. "I practiced on being calm and coming into the game and executing my plays. I did a good job and I have more work to do."

Did the time he spent catching passes from Smith during the bye week help their timing?

"I guess both have the same timing, both quarterbacks are good," Crabtree said. "My place is running routes and whoever is throwing the ball, it's my job to catch it. I like Alex, I like them both."

Right answer. Promoting Smith at Hill's expense would have become a story. Crabtree didn't bite.

Singletary declined to name Smith his starter for Week 8 even though the decision should be an easy one.

Smith completed 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns. His lone interception came on a desperation fourth-down play in the final seconds. Smith took no sacks despite occasional pressure and he scrambled twice for 16 yards. The 49ers were dramatically better with him in the lineup.

Smith led a five-play, 63-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. He led a 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive spanning the third and fourth quarters. And when the 49ers' defense could not stop the Texans from driving to a field goal for a 24-14 lead with 7:21 remaining, Smith led a seven-play, 73-yard touchdown drive to give the 49ers a chance.

"Everyone was getting excited," said Davis, who caught touchdown passes covering 29, 14 and 23 yards. "They started to believe. that's what it's about."

Starter Shaun Hill wasn't solely to blame for the 49ers' early troubles, of course, but he was a limiting factor Sunday. Hill checked down to Frank Gore on one play when Crabtree might have been open. Smith was much more aggressive pressing the ball down the field and the line seemed to block better for him.

The 49ers will find out next week whether the quarterback change produced only a temporary spark. The team's problems at both guard spots and right tackle aren't going away.

"Starting the second half down three scores, you're seeing some stagnant looks from the defense and they're not throwing as much at you," Smith said.

Smith hadn't played in a regular-season game since 2007 and there was little reason to expect instant success once Singletary made the change. But the 2005 No. 1 overall draft choice threw three touchdown passes in two quarters after Hill tossed five in 22.

The 49ers know where their offense was heading with Hill at quarterback.

With Hill under siege and struggling, Crabtree proved as functional as an aftermarket spoiler on an old Buick. He was a $10,000 set of rims on a $5,000 beater.

The 49ers entered Week 7 with a roster featuring 33 of their own draft choices, tied with the Colts for second-most in the league (the Packers had 35).

It's about time they started getting more in return for their investments.

The second half Sunday was a start.

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