Can Crabtree’s return elevate the entire 49ers offense? 

click to enlarge Michael Crabtree
  • Kirby Lee/2012 USA TODAY Sports file photo
  • The return of receiver Michael Crabtree is expected to give the 49ers a boost, but if it’s enough to totally remedy the league’s worst passing offense remains to be seen.
The heart grows fonder with distance in love and in sports, too.

For a while there, Michael Crabtree seemed like he could be dumped by the 49ers ala A.J. Jenkins at any minute. Then, he broke out with an 1,100-yard season last year and started to look like marriage material. Now, after missing the first 11 games of the season with an Achilles tendon tear, he’s Helen of Troy.

The 49ers activated Crabtree from the physically unable to perform list earlier this week, which means he could make his season debut against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. The fifth-year wide receiver’s return will certainly give the 49ers’ offense a boost, but will it solve all the problems with the passing game?

Despite a solid performance from Colin Kaepernick on Monday, the 49ers (7-4) are still ranked dead last in passing offense (173.5 yards per game) and even Randy Moss is starting to look pretty good from afar.

Crabtree’s return will add an explosive dimension to the 49ers’ offense, which should open up space for Anquan Boldin while giving Vernon Davis more opportunities to make big plays in single coverage.

The tandem of Crabtree, Boldin and Davis should also keep defenses honest for the running game, giving the Jim Harbaugh-Greg Roman brain trust a wider range of plays to call.

This is assuming that Crabtree’s health is close to 100 percent and he can just pick up where he left off last season. At this point, no one outside of the 49ers’ facilities in Santa Clara knows exactly what to expect from Crabtree when he finally steps on the field.

Historically, Achilles tears are challenging injuries to bounce back from. In March 2010, a group of orthopedic doctors from Duke published a study revealing that only two-thirds of the NFL players who suffered a ruptured Achilles between 1997 and 2002 returned to the playing field ever again.

Sports medicine is evolving quickly, though, and last year Terrell Suggs returned from a ruptured Achilles just five months after surgery. In the NBA, Kobe Bryant is expected to make his comeback from a similar injury in the next few weeks.

Crabtree could be a freak, like Adrian Peterson, who returned from an ACL tear in nine months, more explosive than ever, or his recovery could be a process where he regains his speed over a period of time.

He might also need a few games to shake off the rust. Is it fair to expect him to compete at midseason form after 12 weeks on the sideline?

We also need to remember that Crabtree’s only put together one Pro Bowl-caliber season in his NFL career.

He exploded last year, but can he produce at that level consistently, like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald?

Crabtree’s performance last year might have also been a product of Kaepernick’s breakout at quarterback. If Kaepernick is being pulled back down to Earth, will Crabtree descend with him?

Either way, the 49ers should have enough offense to get past the runts left on the schedule. We will know if Crabtree’s going to be as good as the heart remembers when he lines up against Richard Sherman and the first-place Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 8.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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