With a little more than six minutes left in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, facing a third-and-5 on the Giants’ 13-yard line, Alex Smith fired a short pass to Michael Crabtree for 3 yards.
And that was it – the entire contribution of the 49ers’ wide receiving corps in the biggest game of the season. Just one catch for 3 yards in a 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants.
A great deal went right with the 49ers this season, but the team’s lack of contribution from an injury-depleted group of wide receivers stood out time and again.
San Francisco lost starting wideout Joshua Morgan for the season in Week 5 when he suffered a broken leg. Free-agent pickup Braylon Edwards was heraled as an experienced, big-target receiver when he was signed in August, but injuries made him ineffective and he was waived before the playoffs. Kyle Williams contributed just 20 catches. And Ted Ginn Jr., who can be a game-breaker as a kick returner, hasn’t made a consistent impact as a pass-catcher with just 31 grabs over two seasons.
Only Crabtree was a significant contributor, and he was an invisible man against the Giants. In the regular season, Crabtree had 72 catches for 874 yards, the highest totals for a 49ers receiver since 2003, notes Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet the lack of wide receiver production is a longtime problem in San Francisco. As Branch also notes, the 49ers and Bears are the only NFL teams without a 1,000-yard season from a wideout since 2003.
Though quarterback Alex Smith made big strides this season and looked for the first time like a solid NFL quarterback, he needs some receiving help. His favorite target is tight end Vernon Davis, but having some help on the outside, in the red zone and on third downs will give him more options.
As Monte Poole, Bay Area News Group columnist, wrote this week: “Can Alex and the 49ers reach their offensive potential with a second-rate group of wide receivers? A thousand times no. A million times no.”
There are some options on the free-agent market, and there will be receivers available in April’s draft, too (though San Francisco will select 30th). Among the free-agent receivers available, notes Branch, will be the Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe, the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, the Chargers’ Vincent Jackson, the Bills’ Steve Johnson and the Saints’ Marques Colston. Jackson, the little 5-foot-10 speedster who starred at Cal, also is a terrific kick returner.
On Monday, the day after his 49ers lost to the Giants, coach Jim Harbaugh was asked about his wide receivers’ lack of production and whether it’s an area that needs to be improved in the offseason.
“I’m not going to turn this press conference into a personnel meeting,” Harbaugh said.
But you can bet that subject will be high on the agenda when those meetings are held.