SAN FRANCISCO The conversation these days is about his hands and his route running, not his attitude or his rookie contract dispute or his assorted injuries and absences. And that's a change.
For Michael Crabtree and the newly crowned NFC West-champion 49ers, that's a welcome change.
But what's that saying about some players maturing later than others? About top prospects who leave college early needing additional time to adjust to the pro game and the pro life? Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
It took Crabtree a while OK, three-plus seasons, to be exact but the fourth-year wideout has emerged as that prolific, game-changing playmaker the 49ers envisioned when they selected him 10th in the 2009 NFL draft. He runs precise, classic routes, utilizes his speed and athleticism to separate from his defenders, and very quickly is developing into Colin Kaepernick's favorite target.
On Sunday, against an Arizona Cardinals team known for its lousy record but stingy pass defense and with the 49ers' receiving corps depleted by injuries Crabtree enjoyed the best afternoon of his career. He caught eight passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns, and became the first 49ers receiver to record 1,000 yards in a season since Terrell Owens in 2003.
Crabtree tormented defensive backs on slants, on crossing patterns, on one sideline route after another. Repeatedly, he would gather a pass and hesitate just long enough to freeze his defender, then spin and accelerate.
He turned the left sideline into his personal playground, or as he joked afterward, his backyard basketball court.
"I just try to juke the other guy out," Crabtree said as he walked alone out of the stadium. "That's something I learned when I was little, trying to fake guys out when I was playing basketball. Now it's just instinct."
During the 80-yard drive that kick-started the 49ers' offense, Crabtree grabbed one pass for 31 yards, hauled in another perfect strike from the scrambling Kaepernick at the 20, then sprinted the remainder of the 49-yard scoring strike for the first of his two touchdowns.
But about those immense and impressive soft hands. The right hand, the left hand. The hands, together. Jim Harbaugh has gushed about Crabtree's pass-catching ability since the day he took the job. Often unsolicited and this is how you know the coach loves the guy he deflected criticism about Crabtree's disappointing early seasons, the surprising drops, the questions about his durability and about his sullen attitude.
Insisting there was much more to come, Harbaugh increasingly has featured the former Texas Tech standout, at times, at the expense of tight end Vernon Davis.
Not so long ago, remember, Davis was the quarterback's favorite target, the receiver perceived as an emerging star. But the hierarchy and the dynamics have changed.
Almost from the moment Alex Smith was supplanted by the stronger-armed, athletically superior Kaepernick, the connection between Kaepernick and Crabtree has been apparent; these two just click.
"My dude (Kaepernick) made it happen," said Crabtree, referring to his individual accomplishments. "I'm just going out there, running routes, catching the ball until I make a play. With how bad I did last year, in my opinion I feel like I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I feel like I get another chance. It feels good."
While the second-quarter touchdown stood out, one sequence just before halftime perhaps best illustrates the 6-foot-1, 214-pound wideout's pass-catching ability: With Kaepernick in the shotgun and staring at third and long, Crabtree broke down the right sideline. While on the dead run, a few yards beyond any defenders, he extended his right arm and snagged the ball, then cradled it ever so gently in his gloved right hand.
Asked about the grab, Crabtree laughed and shook his head.
"That's just football," he insisted. "Nothing special. I have been doing that my whole life."