INDIANAPOLIS -- Those pushing for the San Francisco 49ers to upgrade at wide receiver can point to the NFC Championship Game for supporting evidence.
Michael Crabtree's 3-yard reception stood as the lone catch for a 49ers wideout during a 20-17 overtime defeat to the New York Giants. The team's wide receivers caught eight passes for 51 yards on 29 targets in two playoff games.
Sure, the quarterback play could have been better at times. But with second-year receiver Kyle Williams muffing one punt against the Giants and fumbling while returning another, there's room for improvement at the position.
Should the 49ers stick it out with Crabtree, a player with obvious talent, or should they consider moving on?
Elsewhere in the NFC West, should the St. Louis Rams re-sign Brandon Lloyd even as they install an offense that might not fit him as well? Will Andre Roberts justify his role as a starter for Arizona? What does it say when Seattle gets more from an undrafted free agent (Doug Baldwin) than from an $8 million-a-year acquisition (Sidney Rice)?
The Giants' and New England Patriots' Super Bowl media sessions Monday provided an opportunity to seek answers for questions about what makes a receiver and quarterback click. Eli Manning, Bill Belichick and Deion Branch racked up yards after the questions.
Alex Smith has started 35 games with Crabtree as one of his receivers. Crabtree has hardly participated in offseason practices or training camps for reasons ranging from his rookie contract dispute to injuries to the 2011 lockout.
Manning wasn't going to discuss specifics relating to the 49ers' situation, but the insight he offered on quarterback-receiver relationships in general suggests Smith and Crabtree need more time together. Timing itself isn't a big problem, Manning said, because a quarterback and receiver can work that out in practice. He pointed instead to game situations as the most valuable factor in developing chemistry.
"What happens in a game when things that you prepared for, all of a sudden you get a different technique or something that maybe that hasn't happened before occurs?" Manning said. "Can you tell by their body language, by the stem of their route, exactly what they are going to do? You have to scramble or move in the pocket and the timing is a little off, how are they going to react to those situations?"
Smith has built up that kind of rapport with tight end Vernon Davis. The two have played together since 2006. Smith has thrown 26 of his 68 regular-season touchdown passes to Davis, the NFL's highest percentage to one player for any quarterback with as many or more total touchdown passes.
Smith tossed more scoring passes to Davis during the playoffs (four) than he threw to Crabtree all season (three). The 41-yard strike he threw to Crabtree at Seattle in Week 16 was memorable, but when plays broke down in that game, Smith scrambled and found Davis along the sideline to extend drives, notably on a critical fourth-and-2.
"That is only something can really happen in games," Manning said of improvisational plays in general. "Talking to receivers on the sideline during games, after games. Talk about those plays where the timing was off or you got a different coverage. You have to talk about those things so you can learn from those experiences and make sure the next time you're ready for it."
Belichick and Branch
Acquiring a veteran receiver from another team -- another system, more specifically -- carries risks.
"There are so many different systems in the league and teams draft for their schemes to a certain degree," Belichick said. "If you are going to ask a player to do something, you want a player in there that can do it and not somebody that is a good player but cannot really fit what you want him to do. That's the trick."
Branch's experience in going from Super Bowl MVP in New England to highly paid disappointment in Seattle comes to mind. Branch has bounced back upon returning to the Patriots.
Injuries slowed Branch in Seattle. Front-office infighting brought into question whether or not the coaching staff was as committed as the front office to maximizing Branch's value. Fluctuations in quarterback play also affected things.
"Everything is based on opportunity, situations" Branch said.
Crabtree emerged from the NFC title game lamenting what he considered a lack of opportunities. He had a point. Some passes Smith threw to him appeared to be throwaways or simply off target.
Another time, Smith failed to throw the ball when Crabtree appeared to be running open. A week earlier, Crabtree failed to make plays on contested passes.
Keeping it simple
Assuming the 49ers re-sign Smith, which seems likely, how the team proceeds at wide receiver will stand as one of the more closely followed offseason storylines.
"One thing I've always felt about that position is let's not get too overanalytical," Belichick said. "He might be big, he might be fast, he might run great routes, he might have great hands, he might have great experience. But whatever his skill set is, whatever combination of attributes he has, if he can get open and catch the ball, that is good for the passing game. If he can't do those two things, then what value does he have?"