CHARLOTTE -- Anquan Boldin cost the 49ers a sixth-round draft pick, and a $6 million dollar salary. But perhaps the best assessment of his worth?
Eight catches for 136 yards in an NFC divisional round win against the Panthers.
San Francisco became the third stop of Boldin's career last March, when his unwillingness to take a pay cut led to his trade from John Harbaugh's Ravens to Jim Harbaugh's 49ers. Baltimore has a reputation of impeccable talent evaluation and knowing when to make the difficult choice of cutting ties with veterans -- but in this case, Boldin, and the 49ers, won.
There are many ways to describe Boldin's game, some of them lukewarm. He lacks great size or speed, but he's strong and a good route-runner. Within the past 53 weeks, though, he's demonstrated the best attribute a player can have: the ability to be a difference-maker in the postseason. In his last six playoff games, two with the 49ers and four with the Ravens, Boldin has amassed 33 catches for 554 yards and four touchdowns.
Boldin's best play in Sunday's 23-10 victory was his 45-yard catch on a slant-and-go early in the third quarter, dialed up in response to the Panthers defense playing the shorter routes aggressively. Boldin blew past Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on a double move, taking the ball to Carolina's 2-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Colin Kaepernick's 4-yard touchdown run gave the 49ers a 20-10 lead, and the momentum stayed on their side the rest of the game.
"Their eyes were in the backfield, and we were able to make the big play," Harbaugh said. "Great throw by Kap, and great catch by Anquan."
Boldin also made another huge play off the field: stepping in when Harbaugh exploded at the officials near the end of the first half. Harbaugh had a reason -- valuable seconds were winding off the clock despite a signaled incompletion -- but this was the rare example of the player restraining his coach.
"He said, 'Coach, we can't have that. Get off the field,'" Harbaugh said. "He was right."
Boldin's own emotions, of course, weren't always in check. Earlier that same drive, he'd head-butted Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, contributing to the chippiness of the afternoon. Munnerlyn had been flagged for the very same extracurricular activity earlier in the game, but Boldin, much to the displeasure of Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, wasn't penalized.
But on a team that credited its ability to respond to this big stage because it had been on even bigger ones, no one exemplified that more than Boldin. He scored the opening touchdown of Super Bowl XLVII, and this January, picked up right where he left off with the Ravens.
Boldin teased with his quarterback after the game, asking the first question of Kaepernick's postgame press conference: "Why didn't you throw to Anquan Boldin earlier?" But Boldin was in truth modest about his own performance, citing double-teams on receiver Michael Crabtree as the reason he was able to be so open.
"Crab had a good game last week in Green Bay, so I guess they thought they were going to try to take him out of the game," Boldin said. "That's the good part about our offense, we have weapons all around. You try to take one guy out, we still have two, three guys left that can make big plays."
That's what the 49ers wanted when they traded for Boldin last spring, someone to help take the burden off Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Boldin's value spiked when Crabtree tore his Achilles in late May and was sidelined for six months.
The 49ers offense has a full complement of weapons now, just at the right time. And while the Ravens being left out of the postseason this year was due to multiple factors, missing Boldin was at least one.