Crabtree may start against Texans

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers ran interference for Michael Crabtree on Wednesday.

Crabtree grabbed the playbook from his locker and took off to get to work before San Francisco's afternoon practice. The team wants its rookie wide receiver and top draft pick to get all his football studying done before doing any interviews about his highly anticipated NFL debut Sunday at Houston in his home state.

Crabtree, who is set to address the media Thursday, will play a lot against the Texans -- and perhaps even start. It sure sounds like coach Mike Singletary is leaning that way. Singletary said it tells a lot that Crabtree is even being considered to be among the top 11 in his first game.

"It shows he hasn't been sitting around on the couch looking at television. He's been working," Singletary said. "When you have a guy like that, you don't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to figure it out. If the guy can play, if he can make plays, put him on the field, give him a chance, let's see what he can do. Or I could be stubborn, I could be a knucklehead and say, 'You know what, he wasn't here, Josh [Morgan] is going to start or this guy's going to start and that's the way it's going to be.' I want to be fair to the team. The team comes first and the team wants to win."

Singletary has long been a Crabtree supporter, even through the 10th overall pick's prolonged contract impasse.

Singletary and everybody else is eager to see what kind of impact the former Texas Tech star can make after missing all of spring work and training camp. He finally signed a six-year deal with $17 million guaranteed on Oct. 7.

The 22-year-old Crabtree spent last week during the Niners' bye working out on the field and watching film while many of his teammates went home for a quick break.

He also has been taking his share of razzing from teammates. He had to sing "Happy Birthday" to Singletary on Oct. 9. That's all part of it for a rookie, especially someone who's missed so much time with the team. Typically, such pranks involving rookies happen during the bonding of training camp.

"Ribbing and love. It was all in good fashion, all in good taste," Singletary said. "Doing the things that normal rookies do. You come in and you've got to sing your song. When you don't know your fight song, then think of a song. If you can't sing, well, let's dance."

Singletary has no problem elevating Crabtree right into the starting lineup if that's what he ends up doing come Sunday. The 49ers (3-2), coming off a 45-10 home loss to Atlanta on Oct. 11 before their bye week, lead the NFC West with wins already over the reigning NFC champion Arizona Cardinals and Seattle.

When it comes down to it, Singletary is going to make decisions based on what puts his team in the best position to keep winning and, he hopes, end a string of six straight losing seasons and make the playoffs for the first time since winning the division in 2002.

If that's unpopular in the locker room, so be it.

"There are a number of different messages I can send but I think the most important message is that we want to win," Singletary said. "When you see the young man run the routes, when you see his presence on the field, what he does for the offense, it's not like I'm the only one. I'm not having to fight anybody to say, 'Hey, you know what, what do you think? Do you think maybe he's a starter? Maybe not?' He's certainly going to play a lot."

Morgan has been a good sport through it all, helping Crabtree get a better grasp on the offense and maybe even grooming him to take the second-year pro's starting spot. Nobody wants to see Crabtree fall on his face, Morgan said -- not that it's a concern at all.

"I'll be helping him out in the huddle, just remind him of little things," Morgan said. "No matter how many plays I get or anybody gets, I just want to win."

That's just as though Singletary had said it himself.

Crabtree's playmaking at the college level has everybody confident he can be the same top-tier receiver in the NFL. Yet how quickly he catches up after missing 71 days is still a question mark.

"It's one thing to practice, it's another thing to get in the game and play the game full speed," Singletary said. "It's very important for us to find out as soon as we can how much of a playmaker he can be."

Quarterback Shaun Hill's time throwing to Crabtree has been limited, so that will be another factor. Hill said he hasn't heard any rumblings in the locker room by players unhappy Crabtree has worked his way up the depth chart so fast.

"I've been impressed with the things I've seen, so I'm excited to see what he can do," Hill said. "I can see that he has special talent, without a doubt. He brings a lot of playmaking ability, he brings a big target, and I've been pretty impressed with the way he's been able to pick up everything."