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49ers need to take long view on Crabtree's return

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By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Michael Crabtree emerged from Achilles tendon purgatory Tuesday. The 49ers removed the wide receiver from their "Physically Unable To Perform" list. This means that Crabtree is on the active roster and could play in Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams.
Or not.
Or not much.
Considering all the ramifications, "not much" might be the most sensible option.
There is unanimous agreement that Crabtree will be an energy drink for the 49ers' offense. The unit looked improved in Monday's victory over Washington but still is not firing on all gears to stay in tune for an Oscar-worthy takeoff and landing. Just to mix a few metaphors.
After the game, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was asked if Crabtree might see action in the upcoming Rams game. Harbaugh said twice, with a chuckle in between the sentences: "I anticipate that he's going to come back this week."
The statement could be interpreted many different ways. "Coming back" does not necessarily translate to "starting" or even to being in uniform. Above all, keep this fact in mind:
Crabtree is not being activated to make a difference Sunday against the Rams. He is being activated to make a difference in January -- if the 49ers make the playoffs (which they should) and if he can indeed return to his superior form of last season (which is still in question).
The 49ers cannot afford to have Crabtree take the field, try too hard to show that his right heel tendon is capable of making cuts that can dominate defensive backs ... but re-injure the Achilles and keep him out of action until 2014. More likely, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will draw up specific plays that allow Crabtree to break back in gradually and not ask him to set off fireworks right away.
Frankly, it still seems soon to have him on the field at all. Those of us who do not have medical degrees are well aware that we engage in way too much speculation. But some of us have covered injured athletes for almost 40 years. One trend stands out: Achilles injuries are a total bear.
When a player rips up the tendon in his heel -- as Crabtree did while planting his foot on a pass pattern during an "organized team activity" session back in May -- recovery takes a long while. Six months is the minimum recuperation window. Usually, it's nine months to a year before an athlete can do all the things he did before the injury.
Comparing one man's recovery path to another man's timetable is also risky. But let's consider the most famous Achilles tendon tear of 2013: The one sustained by Kobe Bryant last spring during a Lakers playoff series. It is interesting to match up his rehab journey with Crabtree's similar road.
Bryant tore his Achilles on April 12. Crabtree tore his on May 21. Both had surgery on their tendons the day following their injuries. Both have diligently rehabbed and are intent on strong comebacks. At last report, Bryant has been practicing with the Lakers in a limited fashion but has set no firm date for returning to game action. And yet Crabtree, who has had one less month of rehab, could be playing Sunday.
Does that make any sense? It could. No two injuries are the same. Bryant is 35 years old. Crabtree is 26 years old. Basketball probably puts more stress on an Achilles tendon. Bryant has said his biggest concern is trying to compensate for the weak heel by putting too much strain on other parts of his body.
"You don't want to create a string of injuries that, then, it's just one after the other," Bryant told reporters in Los Angeles earlier this month.
Crabtree, too, is smart. In his only real meeting with the media this month, he refused to name any date for his complete recovery and simply offered this forecast: "The doctors say I'm going in the right direction." At the same time, he admitted, it's been difficult to hold himself back.
No one has ever called Crabtree a fireburner. He's even joked about how low his speed rating is in the Madden video game. He succeeds by (A) finding open space with precise route-running, then (B) using his exceptional hands to gather in the football before (C) gaining healthy yards after the catch. Two of those three qualities require high-functioning Achilles tendons.
As we all know, Crabtree developed noticeable chemistry with quarterback Colin Kaepernick late in the 2012 season. It would be cool to rekindle that formula Sunday, perhaps with a couple of Crabtree catches on patterns that allow the repaired tendon to get loose without exceeding a strain limit. But forcing a seven-catch or eight-catch game? That wouldn't be wise. The idea would be to up his workload the following week against Seattle, then keep doing so until the postseason begins.
Make no mistake. Adding the Crabtree option to a wide-receiving mix with reliable Anquan Boldin and veteran Mario Manningham should jack up the 49ers' passing game. Crabtree should take it to another level. But don't expect him to take the express elevator there. It'll be more of an escalator ride. A prudently slow one.
Story tags » NFL

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