The next Jerry Rice? On the current 49ers roster, Michael Crabtree is the logical candidate.
It’s always a challenge to replace a superstar. The Giants tried for years to find the “next Willie Mays” and, nearly 40 years after Mays played his last game as a Giant, they’re still looking.
The 49ers had better luck in replacing Joe Montana. Steve Young wasn’t quite the equal of Montana, but the 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl with Young at quarterback and stayed in contention until he went down with a career-ending concussion in 1999.
Diehard Montana fans have written me insisting the Niners would have won three more Super Bowls if they’d kept Montana. They must be using a mathematical formula known only to them, because Montana played only two years after leaving the 49ers — by, not incidentally, his own choice.
Crabtree is reminiscent of Rice in two respects: His ability to get open and his ability to run after the catch. Rice was not a “burner” but his running ability turned relatively short passes into long gains. Crabtree should be able to do the same.
Also like Rice, Crabtree is a hard worker on the practice field, which enabled him to overcome the handicap of his late start because of a prolonged holdout last fall. In his first game, he caught five passes and went on to catch 48 in 11 games.
Crabtree should be a much more effective receiver this season, after working with quarterback Alex Smith in spring workouts and training camp.
That familiarity cannot be overemphasized. In days past, quarterbacks waited for receivers to get open before they released a pass. Now, it’s all timing, and quarterbacks throw the ball before a receiver makes his break.
In this case, Smith has to have the confidence that Crabtree will be where he’s supposed to be. After working with him extensively in spring and summer, he should have that confidence.
The other bit of good news for the 49ers is that, because of his contract dispute last fall, Crabtree should be a 49er for at least the next five seasons. As part of the settlement, a sixth year was added to his contract.
NFL contracts are basically for one year with club options after that. Unless Crabtree suffers a career-ending injury, it’s hard to conceive of a circumstance in which the 49ers will not keep him as long as possible. My guess is that they won’t let him leave as a free agent when this contract expires, either.
The one area where Crabtree — or any other receiver — will not match Rice is in the numerous NFL records he established. No other receiver will play as long as Rice did.
Jerry never wanted to quit. Bill Walsh let him go after the 2000 season with the 49ers because he knew Rice would never be satisfied being a possession receiver after being the go-to guy with the 49ers for so long. He didn’t bring that baggage with him to the Raiders, so he had three productive seasons with them.
So, no, there will never be another Jerry Rice. But for the 49ers, Crabtree is a very good substitute.