ALAMEDA – Raiders quarterback Derek Carr set up an off-the-books passing camp in Bakersfield late in the 2015 offseason. He missed most of the offseason program with a nerve issue in his elbow/throwing hand, and lost key moments with a new receiver corps operating a new scheme.
The extra time, Carr thought, would be beneficial for all involved. He set it up during the Bakersfield summer, not exactly an attraction when NFL players prefer white sand and Mai Tais.
Several young players made the trek. Michael Crabtree also showed up. From outside the country.
Derek’s brother David Carr played with Crabtree as a 49er. He knew about Crabtree’s ability and work ethic, and still couldn’t believe it when Crabtree walked through the door.
“I thought it was great that he came all the way out there,” David Carr said in August 2015, shortly after that passing camp. “I was impressed that he came walking into my house before those practices. Once he got on the field, he was vintage Crabtree. The guy can flat out make plays.”
That was never in doubt. Crabtree has always been a smooth route runner with great hands. He seemed unhappy at the end of six seasons in Santa Clara, and was ready for a new challenge, with a new quarterback, in Oakland.
Last year’s Bakersfield trip was a sign of things to come.
“He was so committed to running the routes how I wanted it done, he was so committed to our relationship being right,” Derek Carr said Wednesday afternoon. “He was so committed to making sure he made so many plays for me that I would always look his way, that’s what he wants and so far he’s done that, man. You have to give him credit.”
While Carr and Crabtree knew each other through David, last summer marked the beginning of a powerful working relationship that has entered its most productive period. Through four games this season, Crabtree has 26 catches for 308 yards and four touchdowns, three of which came in Sunday’s comeback victory over Baltimore.
He has been targeted 35 times, and is as reliable as it gets. He hauled in 75 percent of his targets. All but five of his catches have gone for first downs. He has those opportunities after becoming Carr’s safety net.
Crabtree declined comment on Wednesday, but others praise his work habits and commitment to the craft. Quarterback/receiver rapport is built through repetitions. Carr and Crabtree banked plenty of those.
“The guy has worked his tail off and he’s super competitive to get to where he’s at to where if it’s one-on-one, he’s a great matchup,” Carr said. “That’s all you want to know in the back of your head, like, ‘Hey I got one-on-one, is that a great matchup? Yes.’ No matter who’s guarding him.”
Trust comes from being available, open and reliable. Crabtree seems to catch everything in practice, but he’s not invincible. He drops passes in practices, though some are when he’s making it purposefully hard on himself. That doesn’t diminish disappointment when a pass finds turf.
Before the Ravens game, Crabtree got upset after dropping a few in a row.
“(Last week), he was saying he never drops three in a row in practice,” Khalil Mack said. “We told him to relax, but that’s just him. He’s a great player and works to be great.”
Sometimes Carr likes to push Crabtree’s limits in practice. He’ll put extra zip on his fastball, or throw it just high, wide or low. Most of the time, Crabtree finds a way to haul it in. Fixing mistakes seems to push Crabtree forward.
“That’s what drives him. When he does, it’s not just like, ‘Oh well, we’ll get it the next time,’” Carr said. “He wants to run the route again. I’m already thinking, ‘Let’s throw it again.’ He practices the way he plays. That is what I think sets him apart.
“When he practices, there are certain routes where he’s the clear out guy. He knows he’s not getting the ball. He runs that route 100 percent, just in case. Especially with me, you never know. He’ll just take off and run. That’s what sets him apart from a lot of people. He has all that talent, but he practices like that.”
That’s why maybe that Bakersfield trip wasn’t out of character.
The work might not seem so hard because Crabtree is happy in Oakland, working with Carr. He backed that up by continuing to work hard after signing a long-term extension here, and said as much after his big night in Baltimore.
“This is a great situation, with different coordinators and a different quarterback,” Crabtree said. “It’s no comparison. I’m just thankful to be in this position.”