SANTA CLARA Finally there's an explanation for why wide receivers are typically the crankiest players in the NFL: They're bored.
This according to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who wants to make sure his receivers don't have idle hands this season.
"I mean, it's become somewhat of an irrelevant position in terms of catching two or three balls a game and not running hard on the back side of routes, not getting in there and blocking," he said. "I'd like to see our group be relevant on 60 plays a game."
The 49ers haven't had a relevant receiver since Terrell Owens caught 80 passes for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns in 2003.
The most prolific year for a wide receiver since then came in 2008 when Isaac Bruce had 61 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns in Mike Martz's offense.
This season, the plan is to take advantage of what may be the most talented group of receivers since Owens was in town by using an array of pass patterns, including one made famous by Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Owens the slant.
Asked how many slant patterns he has run since joining the 49ers, three-year veteran Josh Morgan said "zero." In fact, that staple of the West Coast offense was seldom used under coaches Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.
"None of us have basically been running the slant route, and that's the first route you learn when you start playing football," Morgan said. "First thing they do is teach you to go out there on a slant route when you're 8 years old."
Harbaugh's version of the West Coast offense is heavy with slant patterns, and the thinking is that his receiving corps especially big-bodied wide receivers like Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree will be ideal for shielding smaller defensive backs and then taking off with the ball.
Despite a poor offensive performance overall in Friday's exhibition-opening loss to the Saints, there were glimmers of promise from two wide receivers, Edwards and Kyle Williams.
Quarterback Alex Smith threw behind Edwards on a slant early in the game but later connected on a 12-yard slant pattern that gave the 49ers their initial first down.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said that so far Edwards also has been a good addition to the locker room.
"He's got some competitiveness to him that you can feel on the field," Roman said. "I can hear him interacting with people, talking about the finer points of what they need to do. He's mentoring some people there as well, with his experience.
"That's what I was referring to there. He's been a really good pro and is really bringing something to the team."
Williams was sidelined by injuries as a rookie last season and ended up catching just one pass for eight yards. But the 5-foot-10, 186-pound wide receiver and kick returner, sometimes criticized for being too fragile, was the most rough-and-tumble player on the field last week, breaking tackles on a 25-yard pass play, making a tackle after an interception and knocking down two New Orleans defensive linemen with blocks on running plays.
"I think those plays were meant for one of the bigger guys," Williams said. "But I happened to be in the game, and I have to do my job. You never want to see a hit on your quarterback, so I got up there and hit the D-lineman."
Morgan said he and his fellow wide receivers feel more active in Harbaugh's offense than they did in Jimmy Raye's run-oriented system last season. And he said he can't wait to catch a slant pass in stride.
"Like heaven," he said when asked what that feels like. "You know you might take it 80 (yards) for the touchdown, just like they used to do back in the day."