This season is critical. Crabtree has shown flashes of excellence on the field. He led the team's wide receivers in touchdown receptions last season. Like quite a few young and supremely talented players, Crabtree needs strong guidance in becoming a professional. This team lacks a top veteran wideout for Crabtree to pattern himself after. The team's decision to hire recently retired receiver Bobby Engram as a quality control coach could come into play in that regard. Also, new receivers coach John Morton must reach Crabtree in ways his grizzled predecessor, Jerry Sullivan, did not.
Structure has been lacking. Crabtree went from relative unknown to superstar quickly during his college career at Texas Tech. He was wise beyond his years in football instincts, but also young and immature. Crabtree also lacked solid support structure. Remember his adviser, the controversial bail bondsman? Who else has had Crabtree's ear? Deion Sanders, one of the all-time greats on the field and someone so talented that the normal rules did not apply to him. Once the 49ers drafted Crabtree, the longest rookie contract dispute in 49ers history ensued. Now, a lockout is keeping the 49ers' new coaching staff from providing the structure and guidance Crabtree obviously needs.
The fast start hurt him. When Crabtree finally did report to the 49ers as a rookie, he succeeded right away despite having no training camp or minicamps. Veteran teammates were impressed. Crabtree appeared to be on his way to great things. Did the success go to his head? When Crabtree encountered the difficulties that await all NFL players -- recall his rough outing against Seattle in the 2010 opener, when passes intended for him resulted in interceptions -- he did not take ownership. By then, Crabtree had already rankled teammates, notably tight end Vernon Davis.
The Troy Smith factor. Crabtree's production picked up last season when an injury forced Alex Smith out of the lineup. Backup Troy Smith immediately developed a rapport with Crabtree, on the field and in the locker room. They meshed well. During one stretch, Troy Smith found Crabtree for gains of 12, 13, 28 (touchdown), 9, 15, 21 and 16 (TD) yards with only one incomplete pass along the way. Something to keep in mind when Crabtree tempers his support for Alex Smith.
Alex Smith has tried to reach out. The quarterback told reporters he had been in touch with Crabtree this offseason and unable to get the receiver to show up for practices. Why wasn't Crabtree there? "Good question," Smith said. "Asking the wrong guy." The implication was clear. When Crabtree finally did show up this week, he wouldn't even acknowledge that Smith was the likely starter heading into the season. These guys obviously aren't on the same page.
The subplot thickens. Meanwhile, Davis has continued to praise Smith's leadership and overall goodness. You'll recall that Davis and Crabtree had to be separated during practice last year when Davis took issue with the young receiver's overall approach. Said Davis at the time: "I hope he got the message. I think he did, I strongly believe, but if anything I see that I feel is wrong or that needs to be addressed, then I'm going to say something. I don't really have any frustrations with Michael. He just did some things during that time that I didn't like. That's all. ... It was basically taking ownership."
There's a pattern here. By his actions, Crabtree risks coming off like a player who has been catered to, and expects it to continue. He appears unwilling to meet people halfway. The 49ers' contract offers were not enough. The 2010 exhibition season wasn't important enough for Crabtree to play through lingering neck soreness. Alex Smith isn't good enough to command public acknowledgement from him. Player-organized workouts aren't worth his time even though he had been working out in the Bay Area for weeks. These are the perceptions. Is Crabtree going to change them?
The latest developments on the Crabtree front bear monitoring as the 49ers head toward what remains an uncertain 2011 season. When the lockout finally does end, coach Jim Harbaugh needs to move quickly and decisively in seeing if there's a way to help Crabtree take the next step.