Here was an ovation 49ers fans had been waiting three months to deliver. On a spectacular day at Candlestick Park last Sunday, on the fourth play of San Francisco's second possession against the Rams, a trio of receivers bunched on the right side of the formation. The point man in that cluster, tight end Vernon Davis, ran a seven-yard stop. The inside guy, Anquan Boldin, sprinted toward the right flat and was open for an easy five yards. Instead, Colin Kaepernick targeted the outside receiver, who drove four steps downfield, cut hard to the inside -- planting off his right foot, significantly -- gathering in Kap's bullet before Alec Ogletree slowed him and James Laurinaitis brought him down.
It was garden-variety eight-yard gain, but for the fact that it was Michael Crabtree's first catch of the season. It came six months and eight days after the fifth-year man out of Texas Tech had surgery to repair his right Achilles tendon, torn during OTAs last May. It came in the nick of time for the Niners.
Yes, they are now 8-4 and looking good for an NFC wild-card slot. But they've struggled to move the ball against elite defenses -- such as the one they'll be facing this Sunday, when the Seahawks come calling at Candlestick.
Kaepernick's quarterback rating this season is 88.9. His rating in those four defeats: 46.2. Yes, he's made some bad decisions in those games. But the Niners' offensive stagnation in those losses -- to Seattle, Indy, Carolina and New Orleans -- was as much GM Trent Baalke's fault as it was his quarterback's. "They don't have a single receiver that can get off press coverage," one ex-49er defensive player told me recently. "Well, Boldin can, but they didn't bring him in to be the number one guy. He's a slot guy."
While Crabtree "probably wasn't a hundred percent," he admitted after the Rams game, a 23-13 Niners win, his presence on the field had a profound effect. Check out the play after his first grab of the season. Kaepernick appeared to overthrow Boldin, but flags flew: Rams corner Janoris Jenkins, finding himself singled up against his fellow Pahokee (Fla.) High grad, had grabbed a fistful of Boldin's jersey to avoid getting burned. First down.
It was not a coincidence that, on the day of Crabtree's return, Davis and Boldin had big games. Davises' four grabs were good for 82 yards, one touchdown and two highlight-reel feats in which he channeled ex-Niner (and fellow Maryland alum) Renaldo Nehemiah by hurdling would-be tacklers. After catching nine balls for 98 yards, Boldin wisecracked, "You know, it's about time he gets double-teamed now." Crabtree's presence, he went on, "relieves pressure ... frees you up."
"It's good to have him back."
The long-awaited Return of Crab got off to an inauspicious start. He committed a pair of penalties -- a block in the back, followed by offensive interference -- on the team's first drive of the game. "I had to get those jitters out," he explained. "So, I was just all over the place today."
He settled down after that first catch. Then, with a minute left in the third quarter, No. 15 gave the Niners, and the delirious partisans of Candlestick, a taste of what they'd been missing. Lining up to the right on third-and-seven, Crabtree burst off the line but throttled down before the stick. Up flew Trumaine Johnson, who looked on with dismay as Crabtree proceeded to accelerate past him before making a sweet hands catch of Kap's perfectly lofted ball. In full stride, Crabtree schooled Johnson a second time on the same snap, stiff-arming him to the turf en route to a 60-yard catch-and-run, tied for the Niners longest play of the year.
From what I've seen of him, Crabtree is something of a stoic; buttoned down, emotions in check. But he popped off the turf after that play and commenced ... skipping, his smile radiating a happiness shared by many -- but perhaps none so completely as 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Addressing Crabtree's absence in the preseason, Roman told me, "We're going to have to make the soup without that ingredient."
Who better than Roman -- a wizard of scheme, the big brain behind the Niners multiple shifts and dizzying array of personnel groups -- to find ways to disguise a missing ingredient? Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.
Even in a week that saw the Broncos and Seahawks stake their claim as the class of their respective conferences, Crabtree's return -- he played 38 snaps, and felt great afterward, he said -- stood out as one of the most significant developments of Week 13.
The Niners will need him, rather desperately, in five days. In their past two games, both in Seattle, the Seahawks have outscored them 71-16. This time, the game is in Candlestick. This time, the soup will be more interesting.