They’ve seen it all before.
The subtle route adjustments. The vise-like hands. The rugged runs after the catch. The torrent of touchdowns.
To the men who once coached San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, none if this is new or the least bit surprising. More like inevitable.
“He’s doing what we knew he could do all along,” said Dennis Simmons, who recruited and coached Crabtree at Texas Tech.
“I’m just glad,” said Lincoln Riley, another member of that Tech staff, “that the rest of the world is seeing it and he’s doing it on the biggest stage there is.”
Crabtree and the 49ers are about to play on the grandest stage of all — Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans — and the fourth-year pro is playing a starring role.
Crabtree set career highs in 2012 with 85 catches, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. He dominated December, catching 35 passes for 538 yards and four scores in five games and becoming breakout quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s favorite target.
“He’s very much a complete player,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of Crabtree.
But not a perfect one. Or a perfect person. Who is?
BEFORE AND AFTER
The on-field moment Crabtree is best known for is one of the most iconic plays in college football history: his 28-yard touchdown catch with one second remaining to beat No. 1 Texas on Nov. 1, 2008.
To understand what Crabtree is about as a football player, it’s instructive to examine the before and after of that reception.
The previous year, as a redshirt freshman, Crabtree had one of the greatest seasons of all time: 134 catches, 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s premier wide receiver.
Unsatisfied with those accomplishments, Crabtree sought to become a better all-around player. He worked on his blocking. He also spent countless hours running routes and catching passes from quarterback Graham Harrell.
“They had gotten a little workout that Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison used to do,” said Riley, who coached receivers at Texas Tech and is now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Carolina.
“They would go out and practice two routes a day, work from different hashes. Where most kids would get bored, they would go up and down the field for hours. I’ve never seen guys that hungry.”
Is it any wonder Harrell and Crabtree were in perfect sync when it mattered most?
And now the after: That play was Crabtree’s Big Man On Campus moment. No one would have blamed him if he partied deep into the night. So how did he celebrate? By watching TV at home with his roommates and family members, doing pushups and sit-ups during the commercials and contemplating Texas Tech’s next opponent.
“That was just typical Mike,” said Simmons, who coached Crabtree in 2008 and is now the outside receivers coach at Washington State. “He would do that after all of the games.”
Given that description of Crabtree’s M.O., which Riley corroborated, it was surprising to hear the news that surfaced on the Friday before the NFC Championship Game.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that police were investigating Crabtree for an alleged sexual assault. The incident reportedly occurred at a party at a San Francisco hotel after the 49ers’ 45-31 divisional-round victory over Green Bay in which Crabtree scored a pair of touchdowns.
Crabtree played in the NFC title game — catching six passes for 53 yards but also losing a fumble at the goal line — amid subsequent reports that the assault allegation lacked merit. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced Friday that no charges would be filed.
Still, the episode did not do Crabtree’s reputation any favors — a rep he has worked to repair since his rookie year.
Crabtree’s NFL career got off on the wrong foot, in more ways than one.
After leaving Texas Tech — he won the Biletnikoff again as a third-year sophomore — Crabtree suffered a stress fracture in his left foot that prevented him from working out before the 2009 draft.
San Francisco selected him with the 10th pick, three spots lower than most expected. Crabtree then held out for 71 days. According to reports, some members of his camp wanted top-seven money — and even threatened to keep him out the entire season, in which case Crabtree would have re-entered the draft in 2010.
You can imagine the impression that created. Regardless of whether he deserved it, Crabtree became the latest diva receiver in the court of public opinion.
His former coaches say nothing could be further from the truth.
“He’s really a blue-collar type of player,” Riley said. “He’s a grinder. People are sometimes skeptical when you say that.”
But the coaches also understand where that skepticism comes from.
“He’s a very quiet guy when you first meet him,” Simmons said. “A lot of people take that as he’s arrogant or anti-social.”
So Crabtree had to rehabilitate not only his foot but his image. The latter is an ongoing project. But the better Crabtree plays, the more that first impression fades.
“In my 14-year career, he was the most electric guy I’ve ever worked out with, outside of the Pro Bowl,” said former 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN. “I knew it was just a matter of time.”