SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Colin Kaepernick praised 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree this week for the way he delivers at the game’s biggest moments. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman raved over Crabtree for his work ethic, noting how he arrives to practice early to race around cones and sharpen his route running.
Tight end Delanie Walker simply said: “Michael has become a leader this year.”
And Mike Leach? Well, let’s just say his prediction turned out better than the Mayans’.
Leach was Crabtree’s coach at Texas Tech and the man who, on draft day 2009, railed against anyone who questioned the receiver’s character. There was plenty of railing to be done that day: Crabtree slid to No. 10, partly over fear that he was a malingerer-in-waiting.
The word that really ticked Leach off back then was “diva.”
It still does.
“I told people they were stupid for saying that. It was absurd,” Leach said in a phone interview, his voice rising. “This is a guy whose job is football, whose hobby is football and whose passion is football.
“Michael really believes, like John Wooden used to say, that you should ‘Make each day your masterpiece.’ His masterpiece is on the football field.”
As the 49ers (10-3-1) head for Seattle (9-5) in a game that could settle the NFC West, Crabtree has emerged as the go-to guy on a go-go team. Boosted by the switch at quarterback from Alex Smith to Kaepernick, Crabtree has totaled 23 receptions for 301 yards in his past three games.
In his last prime-time game, against the Patriots a week ago, Crabtree responded with seven catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns. His 38-yard TD in the fourth-quarter gave the 49ers the lead for good in a seesaw game.
Crabtree has 868 yards entering play today, putting him in position to become the 49ers’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003.
With that as the backdrop, it was time to circle back in with Leach, now the head coach at Washington State. In a wide-ranging, free-styling interview, he said the 49ers are seeing now what he saw during Crabtree’s two prolific seasons at Texas Tech.
History is repeating itself.
Then: Leach recalled how he was working late in the office one night when he heard a disturbance outside his window. “I thought it was a prowler,” he said. Leach ventured out into the darkness, where he stumbled across Crabtree running around cones in an empty stadium.
“Michael, how did you even get in here?” Leach asked.
“I hopped the fence,” Crabtree replied.
Crabtree promptly demonstrated what he was doing with the cones, showing his coach how if he stuck his toes here and turned his hips like so he could deke an opposing cornerback. “I’d be open by another step,” he explained.
Now: Crabtree is making his mark this year by piling up big yards after the catch. Roman, when asked to about the breakthrough, pointed to the receiver’s continued trips to cone island.
“He works cone drills with his feet, and I think we’ve seen those come to life on some quick throws to him,” Roman said. “He’s making guys miss, and he’s playing tough and getting extra yards after the catch. He works diligently at that every day.”
Then: Leach said his Texas Tech coaching staff would frequently ask receivers during games if they were open on a given play. The key was to get an honest answer, because if a player ‘fessed up to double coverage, the Red Raiders would know that another receiver must be breaking free.
Crabtree, though, was a complicated case. “He’d say, ‘No, I’m not open. But if you throw it to me, I’ll catch it anyway,’”?” Leach said. “And he was right. If there were three sets of hands in that area, it would be Crabtree’s set of hands that would come down with the ball.
“I know it’s a strange comparison, but he was a bit like Charles Barkley used to be in the key. He’d use that big (backside) to clear some space, and then use that athleticism and great hands to grab the ball.”
Now: Kaepernick, in trying to explain why Crabtree is his favorite target, shrugged, “He’s open.” Asked to elaborate, the quarterback thought it over for a moment or two and added: “He’s the type of receiver where if you throw it close to him, he’ll catch it.”
Their trust level has been particularly important when the 49ers need it most. Crabtree’s 26 receptions on third down this season are tied for fourth in the NFL. He also ranks tied for second with four touchdowns on third down.
Walker said: “When he’s in the huddle, he’ll say, ‘Look for me, I can make a play.’ He’s saying that every time he comes to the sideline, telling the coaches. We need somebody to speak up — and he’s been doing it.”
Then: Leach blames Crabtree’s reputation as a difficult personality on the receiver’s shyness with the media. He said Crabtree is an intensely private person who can be hilarious and engaging — but only around those he trusts. Reporters? Forget it. Leach recalled with a laugh how outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated used to descend upon Texas Tech when Crabtree was putting up headline-making numbers.
“And Michael would disappear,” Leach said. “He’d be right there, and if you turned your head just for a second he’d be gone. He just wasn’t into that stuff.”
Now: After his second touchdown catch of the night against the Patriots, Crabtree could have done some chest-thumping. The 49ers had pulled ahead in a big game in harsh conditions against the Patriots, the NFL’s measuring stick.
Instead, Crabtree, as he is known to do off the field, kept looking for a way to escape tight press coverage. Crabtree kept shouting for his quarterback to steal the spotlight. “Come on, Kap!” he shouted repeatedly. “Where are you?”
Then: Leach said nothing brought out the best in Crabtree like being feeling slighted. He recalled how a Texas A&M cornerback, in advance of a game, called the receiver “soft” and “overrated.”
And how did Crabtree respond?
“Oh, shoot. It was like a highlight reel,” Leach said. “He caught a bunch of balls. But even on running plays to the other side of the field, Crabtree just blocked this guy into the ground. I mean, he was escorting him off the field.”
Now: No one on the Seahawks has questioned Crabtree’s ability or toughness. But much talk this week has centered on a Seattle secondary hailed as the most physical in the league.
Leach expects Crabtree to rise to the challenge.
“This is one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around,” he said. “You know what he hated most? He hated when the game was over.
“Whoever called him a ‘diva’ never said more than two words to him, I guarantee you that.”