There may be thaw in the iciest Cold War in sports.
Michael Crabtree and his agent, Eugene Parker, returned to the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday, according to several reports. Which means that the Crabtree holdout could be coming to an end.
The reasons behind this hint at détente are unclear.
Among the possibilities:
• Crabtree watched the 49ers on Sunday, saw the team improve to 3-1 and decided it wouldn't be such a bad place to be.
• The 49ers brass realized this could be a very special season, and that one more offensive weapon would be nice.
• Or Jim Brown has more sway than we think.
Brown was latest to pile on Crabtree, whose tactics have been almost universally reviled by the football world. In an interview with Sirius XM radio last week Brown said, "Mr. Crabtree, get your butt into camp."
Maybe that's all it took. A stern calling-out by a Hall of Famer who pointed out the obvious: legacies are not about how much you make but what you do on the field. Brown made $85,000 in the final year of his career.
Crabtree is seeking more than the $20 million over five years that the 49ers originally offered. His camp's stand was that he should have been drafted higher and is worth more than the slotting system allows.
In truth, Crabtree's apparent willingness to reopen talks has less to do with Brown's comments and more to do with a change in leverage. The 49ers reportedly filed tampering charges against the New York Jets involving Crabtree last month, which coach Rex Ryan firmly denied. (The NFL wouldn't comment on the allegations, only saying they'd announce disciplinary action if they found the Jets in violation.) Perhaps the Crabtree camp is learning that the options it thought it might have next year are not such sure things. Or perhaps the 49ers caved a little, in a desire to get the player they wanted and put this mess behind them.
The 49ers play Atlanta on Sunday, in an anticipated NFC showdown. Following that game, the 49ers have a bye, which means they could get Crabtree in and teach a few simple routes before their trip to Houston on Oct. 25.
The first hint that something was developing came Sunday when NFL Network's Deion Sanders -- who has a direct pipeline into the Crabtree camp -- hinted that something was "brewing" with Crabtree. Since Sanders was the one who originally said he knew two other teams were interested in Crabtree (and tampering charges quickly followed his comments) he's to be believed.
"I just hope he's right," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said on Monday. "That would be great."
The 49ers have never shut the door on Crabtree, even while the rest of the football world mocked his greed and deplored his tactics.
Singletary, who has pushed all the right buttons with his team thus far, has never said anything that would indicate frustration or anger with the young receiver. "Any guy that can play and that can help us play, I would never say, 'No we don't need him,'" Singletary said. "Why say no to someone who may be one heck of a kid? I met him. I talked to him. I had a good feel for him. I haven't been wrong too often.
"I think he is a great kid. But this is your rookie year, you're just coming into the NFL and all you know is what they are telling him."
What Crabtree was apparently being told seemed insane: that he could sit out a year, not play a down of competitive football, leave guaranteed millions and a valuable year of a notoriously short career on the table, and still expect to be drafted higher and for more money next year.
Maybe Eugene Parker's fantasy world of endless leverage dried up.
Maybe Crabtree finally told Parker that enough was enough and he wanted to get in camp.
Maybe the 49ers -- whose wide receivers have caught just 26 passes in four games and whose leading receiver is tight end Vernon Davis -- realized they need another weapon and upped their offer.
If and when a contract is signed, and we learn the numbers, we'll get a better idea of who blinked first. Who extended the olive branch.
And then the real issue will be on the table: can Crabtree do more in this league than engage in a historically stupid holdout?