When 49ers fans last watched their team play a meaningful game, against the Giants for the NFC Championship in January, the San Francisco wide receivers were ghosts.
They were on the field that day, but invisible and apparently too scary to throw to.
In that game, wide receiver Michael Crabtree’s one catch for 3 yards was the only contribution to the offense, and wideouts overall were targeted just nine times. The injury-depleted group of Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings proved to be little help in San Francisco’s overtime loss to New York.
Now, however, those ghosts have come to life.
In Sunday’s season-opening 30-22 victory over the Packers in Green Bay, 49ers’ wideouts had 15 catches, the most the team has had in a single game since 2010.
Crabtree had seven catches for 76 yards and newcomers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham had four each, with one of Moss’s receptions going for a touchdown.
Just the presence of Moss, at age 35, seems to have made a difference to the San Francisco passing game.
“He helps our team out a lot,” running back Frank Gore told reporters Monday.
Added head coach Jim Harbaugh: “Terrific performance by Randy and all the receivers. Randy was outstanding coming off the ball, good speed, et cetera.”
The ability of quarterback Alex Smith to connect with his wide receivers set up a balanced attack against the Packers and makes the 49ers a more dangerous team, says tight end Vernon Davis..
“As you can see, we ran the ball, we passed when we needed to and we made the plays,” he said. “Made it happen.”
As Mike Sando of ESPN.com noted, the 49ers’ efforts to retool their wide receiving group in the offseason – adding Moss and Manningham and drafting A.J. Jenkins with their first pick – have made the offense much more dangerous.
“The 152 yards from San Francisco wide receivers accounted for 72 percent of Smith’s total for the game,” wrote Sando. “He averaged 9.5 yards per attempt on those throws, completing 15 of 16. Smith’s passes to receivers accounted for 50.8 percent of his years over the previous two seasons. He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt on those throws.”
And, more numbers: Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that over the 49ers’ previous 29 games before Sunday (since wide receivers last caught 15 passes in a game), wideouts averaged just 7.9 catches per game and never had more than 12.
This week, the 49ers host the Detroit Lions Sunday night at Candlestick Park, and Harbaugh wants to make certain his team continues to put pressure offensively and defensively on its opponent.
“You always feel like you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,” he told the media Monday. “You never stay the same.”