Michael Crabtree is one of two high-profile Raiders who would rather do anything than conduct interviews with members of the media. Eat glass. Swim with sharks. Sit through a tax seminar. Undergo root canal.
But in his own quiet, understated way, the veteran wideout, whose six seasons with the 49ers were injury-plagued and uneven at best, is in the midst of a booming career revival with the NFL franchise on the east side of the bay.
Now in his third season with the Raiders, and only days removed from his 30th birthday, Crabtree continues to defy convention – and scouting reports. Second-year wideout Amari Cooper, who is younger, faster and regarded as a superb route-runner, was supposed to have emerged as Derek Carr’s favorite target by now. And that hasn’t happened. If anything, the Carr-to-Crabtree connection appears stronger by the week.
Crabtree, who is coming off his second 1,000-yard season, exploited the New York Jets last Sunday for his second career three-touchdown game, scoring from one, 26 and two yards out. On the 26-yard score, coming on a pass that was slightly underthrown, the nine-year pro set Juston Burris up perfectly, disguising the play and turning back for the leaping grab while the cornerback was looking the other way.
He caught all six passes thrown his direction and finished with 80 yards.
Later, after he had collected his belongings and vacated the premises, several of his teammates sat at their lockers, praising Crabtree for his performance.
“Baller, baller, shot caller,” defensive end Khalil Mack said. “He’s a hell of a player. He comes out, keeps his head down, works hard and does what it takes to win on his routes and win ballgames. Fade balls, out routes, he does it all.”
Wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, in his first season with the Raiders, recalled a particularly difficult catch Crabtree made in a recent practice. As Crabtree elevated and secured the ball, a defensive back tried unsuccessfully to punch it out of his hands.
“I said, ‘Bro, how do you catch like that?’ ” Patterson said. “He said it’s really about your focus and concentration. Don’t get lazy. Sometimes we get lazy when we catch the ball. We think we’re going to catch everything and then we drop the pass.”
Crabtree, who routinely declines interviews with a soft smile and a brief but polite response, had his own issues with drops earlier in his career. Yet he seems to have become more sure-handed with the Raiders. One theory suggests that, like most receivers, he benefits from the familiarity of playing with the same quarterback. During his six seasons with the 49ers, he caught most of his passes from Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, forced to adjust to the different types of throws and feel of the ball, along with the varying degrees of velocity.
Carr, who has improved significantly each season, is extremely accurate, particularly on the short throws favored by Crabtree. His preseason goal of incorporating more deep passes into his repertoire – with Cooper the presumed preferred target – has yet to materialize, largely because the short game has been so effective.
“He (Carr) has great command of the offense,” said Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden, whose club hosts the Raiders on Sunday. “He really has a great knack for giving receivers catchable balls. It looks like they’re covered and he can drop the ball in buckets that not many people would throw, let alone complete. His receivers do a great job of tracking it for him.”
Carr also trusts Crabtree implicitly. On one of several quick-strike plays against the Jets, he threw into the flat before Crabtree even made his move, confident his wideout would run the proper route and anticipate the pass.
“Their timing is there,” Raiders great George Atkinson said while appearing on the 95.7 radio show. “Carr was putting the ball where the defensive back was not, and Crabtree makes spectacular plays. He’s a veteran receiver who knows how to run routes and knows how to set up defensive backs, and Carr reads him perfectly.”
Whatever the reason – good health, Carr’s presence, the offensive schemes – Crabtree has been remarkably consistent. He led the Raiders in receptions and receiving touchdowns in each of the past two seasons and is on pace to make it three in a row. All-Pro left tackle Donald Penn is among several Raiders who believe their veteran teammate, though never blessed with blazing speed or explosiveness, is improving with age and experience.
“Crab has been elevating his game ever since he became a Raider,” Penn said. “Every year he’s getting better and better, and I love it.”
Penn gets no argument from Carr, who offers no apologies and leaves no doubt about the identity of his favorite receiver. “The thing that young kids need to know about him is that every day, Crab catches a ball in practice, he finishes to the end zone. So he’s used to scoring. When you get a guy with talent like that – catching fades, doing everything – obviously, it’s easy if he goes up and gets it. Every route that he runs, every day he catches, he finishes. He does it in the offseason, he does it in training camp, he does it in practice. There’s no secret when he has a day like (Sunday).”
No secret, but maybe a bit of a mystery. Most NFL players trend downward once they hit 30. Crabtree acts as if he is just getting started. Interesting, to say the least.