Sports fans love a redemption story.
Richard Sherman yelling into the microphone about how sorry he is.
Injuries appeared to end his career.
A former perennial power reduced to silly controversy and perpetual failure.
Then, Michael Crabtree went to Oakland on a small deal many dismissed out of hand.
But the former Texas Tech superstar prevailed, posting 85 catches for 922 yards and nine touchdowns. Then, Crabtree followed that up with an 89-catch 1,003-yard season in 2016.
Derek Carr is the star in Oakland, at least on offense. Amari Cooper is the flashy name. But Crabtree is one of the most reliable players on the team, and has re-established himself as one of the most consistent receivers in football.
Crabtree was 18th in DYAR last year per Football Outsiders, a stat that reflects defense-adjusted yards above replacement. He finished ahead of receivers Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant, Larry Fitzgerland, Emmanuel Sanders and other, big names.
Once upon a time, Crabtree was a big-name receiver.
In 2012, he helped stir the Colin Kaepernick revolution, posting 85 catches for 1103 yards and nine touchdowns, still his finest season to date. He was a young receiver finally showing his potential, thanks to a quarterback who actually threw the ball down the field.
From the outside, it appeared to be — to steal a cliche — the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But after Crabtree tore his Achilles in May of 2013 and played just five games, it was easy to fear the worst. The following season, acrimony and disharmony marked the 49ers’ season. Head coach Jim Harbaugh left for Michigan, and Crabtree moved across the Bay to Oakland, where he joined a second-year quarterback attempting to shirk the stigma of his last name, and lead a storied franchise back to glory.
Why did this redemption story not catch Crabtree in its wake? Was it the rise of Cooper as a superstar receiver? Or have we moved to a point in our 24-7 sports culture that once you’re out, you’re out?
Is it possible that Crabtree still wears the stain of the Sherman insult like a scarlet letter with fans?
Former NFL scout and Bay Area radio host John Middlekauff suggests that shortcomings in San Francisco have followed Crabtree across town.
“I think because people almost looked at him like a bust in his time with SF, never lived up the hype, had a diva rep … He’s not fast or sexy. But, man, has he been good in Oakland. Much more consistent, and the QB clearly leans on him for big plays. They treat him like a big deal, and he produces for them.”
The proverbial change of scenery, albeit not much of a change in terms of literal scenery, may have been what Crabtree needed. Yet, perception hasn’t followed, despite the usually enticing redemption narrative.
Niners Nation writer Jamie Neal believes a single play could be the driving force behind the subversion of Crabtree’s value, and it’s not the Sherman play.
“I think that Super Bowl, where he and Kap couldn’t connect, solidified in a lot of people’s minds that he isn’t clutch and that he didn’t contribute on a high level,” Neal said. “In reality, I think Kap struggled to make that throw and Greg Roman asked Crabtree to make a play he wasn’t capable of making with Kap as his QB.”
Neal posits that the image is seared in the memory of fans, holding them back from embracing Crabtree’s current success.
“He has shown he could make that play with Derek Carr as his QB, but people already have their minds made up about him.”
Crabtree turns 30 in September, so a decline may be coming. But he’s played 15 or more games in three consecutive seasons following his recovering from that major injury. As someone who has always been an asset in the slot, Crabtree can seamlessly transition to playing there more full-time, the way the Green Bay Packers used Jordy Nelson last season or cross-division Arizona has used Fitzgerald for several years.
In short, there’s plenty of gas in the tank, and if Crabtree continues to produce, fans will have no choice but to take notice, particularly as the Raiders rise to prominence as an AFC contender.
Perhaps Crabtree will get a Super Bowl fade route do-over with Carr, or another, similar moment. A chance for redemption. Another battle with Sherman.
The book hasn’t been written, but the story thus far has been well worth the read, even if it doesn’t have critical acclaim or best-selling numbers.
If a single play can turn fans against him, why can’t a single play win them back?
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