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Original Issue

The First Step

Michael Crabtree finally got on the field, and he did well enough to bring hope to the 49ers' passing game

Despite losing tothe Texans on the road 24--21 on Sunday, the 49ers came away with more reasonto feel optimistic about their offense than at any other point this season. Forthe first time since Terrell Owens left in March 2004, San Francisco may havethe makings of a bona fide downfield passing game—thanks to the belated arrivalof rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree and the surprising return ofquarterback Alex Smith.

Crabtree, theformer Texas Tech star, two-time Biletnikoff Award winner and No. 10 pick inthe 2009 draft, made his NFL debut after ending a 71-day contract holdout onOct. 7. He started at split end, participated in 48 of 54 offensive snaps andled Niners wide receivers in receptions with five, for 56 yards. Smith, aformer No. 1 pick plagued by shoulder injuries who hadn't seen action sinceNovember 2007, replaced ineffective starter Shaun Hill at halftime and lookedfar more comfortable and confident than he had in 32 games beginning with hisrookie year in 2005. Smith completed 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards and threetouchdowns in the second half.

Smith's strongerarm is a better fit for the downfield aerial game that 49ers offensivecoordinator Jimmy Raye prefers. And the playmaking ability of Crabtree, who had231 receptions for 3,127 yards and 41 touchdowns in two college seasons, isequally critical to the success of that strategy.

In the first halfagainst Houston, when Hill was the passer, Crabtree ran mostly short routes andmade two catches for 22 yards. But he worked deeper into the defense afterintermission, and Smith found him for a 17-yard gain on the second play of thethird quarter. A 22-yard completion was erased by an illegal-motion penalty,but the reception hinted at the weapon Crabtree could become: He caught theball in stride, hit the brakes so hard that cornerback Jacques Reeves stumbledand fell, then was one step from breaking into the clear before he was pulleddown.

"He reminds meof my days with Eric Dickerson," Raye says of the Hall of Fame running backwith whom he worked in 1983 and '84 with the Rams. "Eric ran so smoothlythat you never heard his cleats hit the ground. It's the same with this guy.His hands are so soft that you don't hear the ball hit them."

Crabtree laid lowduring his holdout, and since signing his contract, he has yet to display anyof the diva qualities that supposedly caused some teams above the 49ers to passon him in the draft. (He was projected as a top five pick.) His early sessionswith the media have been bland and short on insight. Asked after the game howhe approached his debut, he said, "I kind of practiced on beingcalm."

Coach MikeSingletary's decision to start Crabtree on Sunday surprised some; a foot injuryhad kept him out of off-season workouts, and he missed all of camp and thefirst five games because of the contract impasse. During the Niners' bye weekhe worked with Smith on his pass catching. The layoff didn't appear to affectCrabtree physically—the 22-year-old turned up in excellent condition—and he wonover the staff with his eagerness to learn. "The most important message isthat we want to win," Singletary said of the decision to startCrabtree.

During the week,receivers coach Jerry Sullivan cautioned Crabtree that he would make mistakesand told him not to dwell on them. The rookie was put to that test on the firstplay from scrimmage: He jogged to the open side of the formation, glanced atthe coverage, then blew an audible that resulted in Hill's being sacked for asix-yard loss. On some other plays he lined up wrong or ran imprecise routes.Still, Crabtree worked through the hiccups and finished with the most catchesin a game by a San Francisco wideout this season.

And while he mighthave been reserved in the company of the media, Crabtree was unafraid to speakup in the huddle. After one unsuccessful series Crabtree said, "Come on,guys—we can't have another three-and-out," causing veteran running backFrank Gore to chuckle at the youngster's willingness to be heard as well asseen.

"I wasn'tsurprised," second-year wideout Josh Morgan said of Crabtree's confidenceand desire for the ball. "He's a playmaker. After you catch that rock thefirst time, you're like, 'Let's go. It's just another game. This is what Godput me on this earth to do.' He's for real. Just keep watching."

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Photograph by GREG NELSON

ROOKIE INITIATION Crabtree fought through early mistakes—and Houston's Reeves—to have the most productive day of the year for a Niners wideout.