Being part of the 49ers' offense these days is a little like the Johnsons trying to keep up with the wealthier Joneses. Everyone wants a bigger house, a larger flat-screen television, a second or third family car. For Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and especially Michael Crabtree, one of the more coveted items is an intangible one: collective star status.
Love, affection, props. Everything the defense enjoys. The offense just wants a cut of those $2 steaks Jim Harbaugh was talking about the other night.
"I talked to the whole team this week, and I was like, 'We've just got to match that (defense) on offense,' " Crabtree revealed after Sunday's 27-19 victory over the Detroit Lions. " 'Get those first downs, get the chains moving and really try to keep our defense on the sideline.' I just told them what I had on my mind."
Crabtree must want it really badly, because throughout his brief but inconsistent and injury-plagued NFL career, he has been the 49ers' mostly silent star. He avoids attention the way he works at eluding safeties, linebackers and cornerbacks, which is to say, with great energy and enthusiasm.
But that, too, may be changing. Harbaugh's high-decibel in-your-face demeanor and we-are-family approach is as contagious as a toddler's sniffles. It's only two weeks into the 2012 season, but the offense is playing a very effective game of catch-up. It's becoming as nasty, united and attention-deserving as the punishing, nationally recognized defense.
Sunday evening alone: Davis was poked in the eye but returned to score his second touchdown. The 5-foot-9 Gore threw a bruising block that sprung Crabtree on a crucial third down. Smith took a hit to the face mask as he slid to escape contact, wiped off the blood streaming down his cheeks and orchestrated one of the most impressive fourth-quarter drives of his career.
And Crabtree. The enigmatic wideout didn't just talk a good game; he grabbed six passes for 67 yards, including three during the clinching drive and five for first downs. After muffing one early catch a bobble he later chided himself for he became Smith's favorite possession receiver, more of a sure, physical presence than an electrifying open-field threat.
"It's like a frog," Harbaugh described. "Tongue squirts out and catches the ball. It was frog-like, tongue-like the way he uses his hands. Nobody I'd rather have catching the ball than him."
Again, in his unique, edgy way, Harbaugh has a knack for knowing whom to cuddle and when to challenge. He has Smith believing he's a star. He frequently mentions the often-overlooked Gore. He smiles knowingly when asked about the ebullient Davis. He gives the defense constant props. And given an opportunity Monday to reinforce the oft-criticized Crabtree's development via the media, to praise the veteran's work habits and his improved conditioning, he wasted no time.
"He's a kind of guy who fixes things behind the scenes," Harbaugh added. "He's not for public consumption. And the way he plays You can tell he's about us, not one of those 'about himself' kind of guys.' "
If this continues, the diva's reputation will take a real dive. Contract holdouts, injuries, missed voluntary workouts. All suddenly are hidden away in the 49ers' family clips. Now, that doesn't mean Crabtree is prepared to grab the microphone, rally his troops and become a frequent team spokesman. While volunteering details late Sunday about his address to the team two days earlier, his eyes were shielded by dark, oversize shades, and he seemed eager to leave.
Yet as he walked outside Candlestick Park a few minutes later, he paused long enough to reiterate his lofty plans for the offense and his ongoing desire to become a better player.
And is he? Becoming a better player?
"I don't know, man," he replied with a grin. "What do you think?"