Crabtree ready for ribbing, high expectations

Crabtree (left) with Singletary during the Week 5 game against Atlanta

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Michael Crabtree(notes) took it all with a smile.

Not the 10 minutes or so of questions he dutifully took from around the 20 reporters who surrounded him in the locker room Thursday. It was the little comments and jokes from his teammates as he spoke that Crabtree handled with aplomb.

If there is a diva living inside Crabtree, he's not letting it show. His teammates threw some catcalls at him, jumped up and down behind the reporters to distract, pretended to have cameras rolling on him and generally rode him for all the attention he was getting despite never having done a thing in the NFL. Crabtree, the San Francisco 49ers' first-round draft pick who held out over a contract dispute until Oct. 7, handled it just fine.

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Now, none of this speaks to how Crabtree will perform when he makes his debut against the Houston Texans on Sunday. However, it does show that Crabtree knows how to fit in. The private claims before the NFL draft from teams such as the Cleveland Browns that Crabtree was cocky seem like a bit of a stretch at this point.

On Thursday, Crabtree kept things benign as he took questions and ribbing simultaneously.

"Preparation is a big part of this," he said at one point. When asked the last time he took a hit, he flashed a wide grin, almost as if he missed contact, and said, "Probably not since I last played."

In short, Crabtree was fine and will be … as long as he's a player. Fact is, that's all that matters. People inside and outside the 49ers locker room can debate the merits of whether Crabtree should be starting or even playing this Sunday, but the reality is the 49ers need him. Specifically, they need him to be good. Check that, they need greatness.


Crabtree is a potential threat; a weapon in the passing game and something the 49ers haven't had since Jerry Rice(notes) and Terrell Owens(notes) patrolled the field for them.

And no one understands that more than 49ers coach Mike Singletary, a guy who endeared himself to fans with his take-no-prisoners mentality. Last year, Singletary made headlines when he tore into tight end Vernon Davis(notes), a gifted-yet-underachieving former first-round pick. Fans loved it and the media ate it up. It was Singletary's way of taking control of the team.

But control only goes so far, and Singletary knows it. In the NFL, particularly now in such a strong time for quarterbacks, you better have great players. You better have guys who can change games in a hurry, who can come up with 40-yard gains that change momentum.

Singletary explained that very clearly Wednesday when asked if he was concerned about the message it sent to the team that Crabtree was starting after being with the franchise for less than three weeks and after missing all of training camp.


"I think there are a number of different messages that I can send, but I think the most important message is that we want to win," Singletary said. "When you see the young man run the routes, when you see his presence on the field, what he does for the offense, it's not like I'm the only one. I'm not having to fight anybody to say, 'Hey, you know what? What do you think? Do you think maybe he's a starter? Maybe not?' He's certainly going to play a lot, and that's really the bottom line. It shows that he hasn't been sitting around on the couch looking at television. He's been working.

"When you have a guy like that … you don't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to figure it out. If the guy can play, if he can make plays, put him on the field. Give him a chance. Let's see what he can do. I can be stubborn. I could be a knucklehead and say, 'You know what? He wasn't here. Josh [Morgan] is going to start, or this guy's going to start and that's the way it's going to be.' Well, you know what? I think I want to be fair to the team. The team comes first, and the team wants to win. And we're going to do all that we can to make sure that we have the best 11 people on the field at all times that give us a chance to win."

Again, those are strong words and Singletary certainly isn't alone in his opinion about Crabtree. The New York Giants had Crabtree rated as one of the two best players in the past draft and executives from three other teams said Crabtree would have been a top-five pick if they'd been in position to take him.

Even Isaac Bruce(notes), a 16-year veteran, seconded the notion that Crabtree can play.


"You know what, he has flexibility and route-running ability," Bruce said. "He really doesn't have to be taught how to run a route in this league and that's a big advantage. … That's really important because you're not always going to get man-to-man coverage."

The downside of this is that Crabtree better show that ability fast or he risks alienating a locker room full of guys who busted their bodies in July and August during training camp and then played the first quarter of the season, going 3-1 before Crabtree signed.

Subtly, that at least contributed to the catcalls and other mild forms of abuse Crabtree – who was forced to sing Happy Birthday to Singletary last week, among other things – has suffered. Instead of impressing teammates with his ability, he has to first impress them with his ability to take some ribbing.

So far, so good, but Sunday will be the real test.