SANTA CLARA Michael Crabtree joined the NFL in 2009 wearing a scarlet letter "D" for diva, and he did nothing to erase that perception during his first two seasons in San Francisco.
Coach Jim Harbaugh, however, offered a very different narrative about the 49ers wide receiver Monday, describing him as a gritty blocker in the running game and a fearless receiver when it comes to catching passes in the dangerous middle of the defense.
"He just keeps getting better and more comfortable, and his abilities are shining through," Harbaugh said. "And he's the consummate team type of guy the way he's blocked."
Describing Crabtree as the ultimate team player would have been difficult when he engaged in a lengthy contract holdout that cost him the first five games of his rookie season. He also missed training camp and the preseason that year.
In 2010, he again sat out all four preseason games, this time because of a lingering neck injury, and he was the focus of a practice field tirade by tight end Vernon Davis before the season.
This year, Crabtree missed training camp and the preseason because of a broken foot suffered during a player-run practice at San Jose State.
The 49ers and Crabtree himself have worked hard at repairing his image this season.
Crabtree has been described as aloof and introverted. His training camp roommate this year arranged by Harbaugh was left tackle Joe Staley, the most gregarious veteran on the team.
Crabtree usually speaks with reporters once a week, and those sessions have been friendlier and funnier than in the past. Last week, for example, Crabtree talked about his devotion to the Texas Rangers, who were tied with the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series at the time, then punctuated those remarks by producing both a red and a blue Rangers cap from his locker.
After Sunday's win over Cleveland, Staley and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga received the most buzz for their unlikely receptions in the game, but Crabtree led the 49ers with five receptions for 54 yards.
Crabtree capped that statistical line with his first touchdown of the season on a two-yard toss from Alex Smith in the second quarter.
After the score, Crabtree went to the sideline and got a hug from Harbaugh, who noted the wide receiver thought he had already scored twice this season in Cincinnati and in Detroit but that the officials ruled differently.
Harbaugh said Sunday's touchdown was Crabtree's just reward for the work he has put in this season. He highlighted Crabtree's Week 6 effort against Detroit, where he caught nine passes for 77 yards, both season highs, including several receptions in which he had to stretch and expose his body.
"And his comment was, 'Yeah, but I haven't scored a touchdown.' " Harbaugh said. "So, that was important to him, and it was great to see him get the satisfaction of that touchdown pass because he does so much more for the team that doesn't get talked about outside of our meeting room in terms of the way he blocks and (his) willingness to do what needs to be done."
Harbaugh also noted Crabtree switched positions last week in preparing for the Browns. He moved from split end to flanker to accommodate Braylon Edwards, who was returning from a knee injury.
" 'Whatever I can do for the team' was his approach," Harbaugh said. "That was his answer when we asked him to do that."