The NFC Championship Game clearly defined the 49ers’ big need for next season: Wide receivers, wide receivers and, yes, wide receivers. Whether it’s through the draft or free agency, or both, they simply must upgrade at that position.
Theoretically, it’s one of the easiest positions to fill, but not for the 49ers in recent years. In Alex Smith’s seven years with the 49ers, he’s had 25 different wide receivers, and they still don’t have even one reliable one, though Josh Morgan was coming along nicely before he suffered a season-ending injury.
Michael Crabtree was supposed to be a blue-chipper when he came out of college, but his career has been a series of starts and stops, starting with his rookie season when he held out for more money, which he didn’t get.
In the last half dozen regular-season games, Crabtree finally seemed to be living up to his promise, and he’d become Smith’s main target. But in the postseason, Crabtree was MIA. He dropped three passes in the win against the New Orleans Saints. In Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, five passes were aimed in his direction. He caught one, for three yards.
The Giants’ Eli Manning completed passes to eight different receivers, 10 of them for 142 yards to Victor Cruz.
By the second half, Smith was down to one reliable receiver, tight end Vernon Davis, who scored the two 49ers touchdowns on plays of 73 and 28 yards. After the second one, the Giants’ defense caught on and half the unit seemed to surround Davis the rest of the way. When Smith looked for other targets, he basically had Frank Gore on checkdowns. Kyle Williams, the other wide receiver in the game, made no catches on four passes thrown his way.
Earlier, Smith’s critics had said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t want to put the game in Alex’s hands. That theory was shattered when Smith led the Niners on touchdown drives of 80 and 85 yards in the final four minutes to beat the Saints. But again, Davis was his only reliable receiver, and he made a dramatic catch to win the game.
Once the Giants’ defense figured out how to neutralize Davis, the 49ers’ offense went in the toilet.
All season long, Harbaugh had been using a two tight end alignment, with Delanie Walker, which gave the Niners more blocking at the point of attack and also two good receivers. Walker suffered a broken jaw against the St. Louis Rams in December and courageously came back on Sunday and caught a couple of passes for 36 yards late in the game.
But with Crabtree apparently paralyzed by postseason pressure, the only other wide receiver option was Williams, who seemed to have a breakout game against the Rams at Candlestick. But that was an illusion. Many receivers had big games against the Rams.
Otherwise, the 49ers are set. The defense is solid; the Giants scored after halftime on Sunday only when they had very short fields. Both Scot McCloughan and Trent Baalke have emphasized drafting offensive linemen high, so the Niners have a good, young group.
But to get to the Super Bowl, they must have better wide receivers.
Not catching on
3: Yards gained by 49ers receivers in NFC Championship Game
48: Yards gained by 49ers receivers in NFC divisional playoff win
72: Catches by 49ers’ Michael Crabtree in regular season
874: Yards by Crabtree in regular season