On the eve of the NFC Championship game that will pit the San Francisco 49ers against the Atlanta Falcons, it is the perfect time to extend an apology towards 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Two weeks into the season, I penned an article detailing how Crabtree was really never destined to be a star wide receiver based on the limited impact he had as a wide receiver in college.
Imagine my surprise then as Crabtree has played exactly like a star NFL wide receiver over the last eight games for the 49ers, which is the same span of time during which 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been the starting quarterback for the team. Based on the level of value Crabtree has produced since Kaepernick has taken over the reins as primary quarterback for the 49ers, it leads one to believe that Crabtree's lack of NFL production up to the point where he began receiving most of his passes from Kaepernick was not due to a lack of talent on his part, but being held back by his previous quarterbacks.
Crabtree's mutually beneficial relationship with Kaepernick started with the 49ers' Week 10 contest against the St. Louis Rams. Since that game, using pass target and receiving statistics provided by NFL.com, when Crabtree's receiving statistics are removed from Kaepernick's passing statistics, Kaepernick experiences a 3.6 percent decrease in completion percentage (from 61.4 percent to 59.2 percent), a 6.0 percent decrease in yards per pass attempt (from 8.4 to 7.9), a 16.1 percent decrease in adjusted yards per pass attempt (from 8.7 to 7.3), a 2.9 percent decrease in yards per completion (from 13.7 to 13.3), a 37.0 percent decrease in touchdown percentage (from 5.4 to 3.4 percent), and a 50.0 percent increase in interception percentage (from 1.8 percent to 2.7 percent).
Crabtree's performance over the past eight games is easily the most successful stretch he has had in his NFL career, in terms of value provided to his quarterbacks in their statistical categories. Throwing in Crabtree's direction has made Kaepernick even more efficient than Kaepernick has been usually.
There is always a clear increase in output over what Crabtree experienced this season when Alex Smith was still the primary quarterback for the 49ers. For the first nine games of the season, when Crabtree's receiving statistics are removed from Smith's passing statistics, Smith undergoes a 1.1 percent decrease in completion percentage (from 70.0 percent to 69.2 percent), a 2.5 percent decrease in yards per pass attempt (from 8.0 to 7.8), a 1.2 percent increase in adjusted yards per pass attempt (from 8.1 to 8.2), a .9 percent decrease in yards per completion (from 11.4 to 11.3), a 5.0 percent increase in touchdown percentage (from 6.0 percent to 6.3 percent), and a 17.4 percent increase in interception percentage (from 1.9 to 2.3 percent).
Even though Crabtree did provide a little value to Smith, having Smith as his quarterback left Crabtree unable to maximize his skills, at least compared to what Crabtree has done with Kaepernick throwing him passes.
Now Crabtree is running deeper routes and catching longer passes while not sacrificing too much of his catch rate; Crabtree has seen an increase in his yards per completion (from 11.7 to 14.3) and his yards per pass target (from 8.5 to 9.4) with Kaepernick as his quarterback.
If Crabtree and Kaepernick are able to sustain such a dangerous partnership and continue to use each other to be even better, we might be witnessing one of the more outstanding quarterback-wide receiver relationships in the NFL. At the very least, Crabtree has begun to prove that he actually does possess the ability to be a star NFL wide receiver, provided he has the right quarterback throwing to him.