Crabtree making strides on and off field for 49ers
Michael Crabtree realizes the moment he starts thinking about just how much zip is coming on each pass from Colin Kaepernick, that's when he might wind up missing the ball.
And he hasn't been doing much missing lately.
This playmaking, go-to tandem is on quite a roll for the San Francisco 49ers, and they are determined to keep it that way right into February.
These two sure have been making things look easy ever since Kaepernick took over as starting quarterback for San Francisco midseason in place of Alex Smith. Coach Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the offense are counting on more of the same for the No. 2 seed Niners (11-4-1) in Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park.
''We've been here before,'' Crabtree said. ''Last year we came up a little short. I feel like I've got a little chip on my shoulder right now and I can't wait to go back out there for the playoffs. Big stage, big game for us as an offense and defense and special teams.''
Crabtree has left his forgettable playoffs of last season in the past, producing a career year that showed everybody why the 49ers selected him 10th overall in the 2009 draft with the belief he would quickly emerge as an elite NFL wide receiver.
Not that Crabtree cares to discuss any of that. He is counting down the minutes until kickoff Saturday.
He finished with career highs of nine touchdowns, 85 catches and 1,105 yards this season. Crabtree also had five TDs and 30 catches on third-down plays - both stats among the top five in the NFL.
''That's Texas Tech Crabtree,'' running back Frank Gore said. ''It's not surprising. Just a healthy Crabtree.''
He has grown up a bit since his college days, when he couldn't shed the ''diva'' tag wherever he went. He has learned by watching Randy Moss, on the field and off. From running routes to working out.
It seems so long ago that Crabtree was angrily confronted by tight end Vernon Davis during an early September practice two years ago, and then-coach Mike Singletary had to step between them. There have been no such known issues since, and Davis has supported him.
''If we can continue to get Crabtree involved and he can help us the way he did last week, then I'm all for it,'' said Davis, whose role has diminished.
Crabtree led the team in catches (72) and yards receiving last season (874). While he had four catches for 25 yards and a 4-yard touchdown reception in a 36-32 victory against Drew Brees and the favored Saints in last season's NFC divisional playoffs, it was the NFC championship game Crabtree remembers as a most disappointing day.
San Francisco's receivers had just one catch for 3 yards - yes, it was by him - and Crabtree was targeted four times in a 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
He's not one to reflect on why San Francisco fell short.
''Just feel like that was last year. I don't really know what happened,'' Crabtree said. ''We were just talking about opportunity and I said something about that after the game last year and I meant it, you know? Because I'm a football player, this is what I do for a living, and I love it.''
He has been targeted no fewer than nine times in each of the last five games, including 10 each against St. Louis and Miami, 12 at New England, nine in a loss at Seattle and 11 in the regular-season finale against Arizona.
''This isn't a new or recent thing in my mind. He's got a lot of skill. He's very productive and he loves to compete,'' Harbaugh said. ''It's not the first time balls have gone to him, or he's caught balls or made big plays. This is something he's done for the better part of his career.''
When at full strength, that is.
After a 71-day contract stalemate as a rookie, Crabtree was sidelined during the 2010 preseason with a neck injury and again a year later because of a broken foot that he sustained while working out in Smith-organized practices during the NFL lockout.
Having him back on the field has meant so much to the franchise turning things around. The 49ers ended an eight-year playoff absence last season and have another chance at returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.
Ask anybody around the Niners, and Crabtree has emerged as a leader. One example of his talent: He finally signed his contract in early October 2009, then cracked the starting lineup by the end of the month.
When Crabtree celebrated his 25th birthday back in September, Harbaugh asked him to say a few words on the field after practice. Crabtree challenged the offense to keep up with the defense before a 27-19 win against the Lions - a game in which Crabtree delivered three third-down conversion catches.
If he can do more of the same Saturday, all the better for the 49ers' chances. Last season's finish has weighed on the players' minds ever since.
''It has driven us a lot,'' said the media-shy Crabtree, who owns more than 1,000 pairs of shoes and displays his fancy sneakers on game day. ''I feel like we need to win. I want to go to the Super Bowl, you know? I want to do all those things.''
Crabtree scored his first career touchdown at Green Bay on Nov. 22, 2009, on a 38-yard pass from Smith.
''He's playing well,'' Smith said Thursday. ''I feel like he's the player he's been for a while. It's just a matter of everybody's seeing it.''
Notes: Harbaugh is sticking with David Akers as kicker over newcomer Billy Cundiff, who will remain on the roster. ... When asked Thursday if he's ever sported a mullet hairdo, Harbaugh said: ''I've had the same haircut since I was 10 years old. Business in the front, party in the back, I've never had that.'' ... Toll takers at the Golden Gate Bridge will be sporting 49ers hats and T-shirts on Friday and Saturday, courtesy of the team. In addition, the downtown San Francisco buildings expected to be lit in 49ers red and gold over the weekend are the Ferry Building clock tower, Coit Tower and City Hall.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL