SANTA CLARA -- Maybe there’s value in being vague and opaque in your news conferences, after all.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has hinted, but hasn’t said for certain, that 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree will make his 2013 debut Sunday after coming back from Achilles' surgery. And that means upcoming opponent St. Louis must spend time this week preparing for Crabtree whether he gets on the field or not.
“Well, we’re expecting him to play,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said on a Wednesday conference call. “So obviously, you go back and look before the injury and what he did for them. And we’re familiar with that. We have respect for his ability.”
To be fair to Harbaugh, Crabtree’s availability for Sunday’s game rests on how he looks this week.
Though he was permitted to practice with the 49ers three weeks ago, Crabtree alternately has practiced with teammates and rehabilitated on his own during that span, including last week. He was a full practice participant Wednesday. He wasn't even listed on the team’s injury report.
Still, even if Crabtree gets into the game against the Rams, it could be for just a handful of plays.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, for example, played only 12 snaps Nov. 10 against Carolina, his first game since missing five games while in a treatment facility. Wide receiver Mario Manningham had his best game of the season Monday – four catches, 45 yards – partly because he needed the two previous games to get up to speed and regain his confidence after sitting out 11 months with a knee injury.
Crabtree suffered a complete tear to his left Achilles’ tendon on May 21. He declined to talk to reporters – as he often does – on Wednesday, but Harbaugh said he’s “optimistic” Crabtree will play Sunday.
“Hope for the best and we’ll have a plan if he’s not able to go,” Harbaugh said. “It’s pretty much that simple.”
When the 49ers traded for Anquan Boldin in March, they envisioned an offense with two tough-minded wide receivers who could outwrestle defensive backs on throws and who would instill confidence in quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Crabtree’s injury thwarted those plans, and it adversely affected the 49ers’ passing attack. It still ranks last in the NFL, even after a bounce-back effort Monday against the Redskins. The 49ers average only 173 passing yards a game, and Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis remain the only 49ers with receiving touchdowns this season.
Crabtree’s return, however, promises to give the 49ers two legitimate targets on the outside for the first time this season, and it will significantly affect how defenses line up against them.
That’s Fisher’s challenge this week. The former defensive back and secondary coach acknowledged that projecting how Crabtree’s return will change San Francisco’s offense will take up meeting and practice time this week.
“It’s hard for us to predict how the 49ers’ offense and their staff is going to utilize him this week,” Fisher said. “But we have to be prepared for everything.”
Fisher said he wouldn’t be surprised if Crabtree was back at full speed – and is a full go – on Sunday. He noted that a Rams receiver, undrafted rookie C.J. Akins, also tore his Achilles’ in May and that Akins recovered in full a month ago. St. Louis, however, cut Akins after he was medically cleared last month.
Still, the Rams’ coach had some advice for Crabtree: Take all the time you need.
“We hope that he maybe would wait another week,” Fisher said with a chuckle.
Read Matthew Barrows’ blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.