Now that the initial shock and disappointment have worn off (for some, that still may not be the case), it's time to look at what the Michael Crabtree injury means from a coaching perspective. Several pundits and fans have analyzed how the wide receiver depth chart will fill out now that Crabtree will be out for at least a few months of the season; but what will the Niners do outside of the receiver position to make up for it?
The 49ers are already a run-heavy squad, standing as one of the league leaders in that category during 2012. That trend was going to continue and is now likely to increase in 2012 considering Crabtree's injury. Frank Gore is, of course, numero uno in the back field; but remember, LaMichael James was not incorporated into the offense until Kendall Hunter went down in November. With Hunter expected to participate in a full offseason and James a seasoned second-year vet, the Niners will look to use all three running backs. Packaging Hunter and James in two-back sets would give the team some great speed in the backfield, making defenses stay honest and aiding in getting receivers open downfield.
Speaking of speed...
In mitigating the loss of Crabtree, Harbaugh and Roman are likely to adapt the tone and scheme of the offense to get even more creative with their formations and personnel packages. Tying into this, they may go for an approach that is rooted more in speed (using Davis, Hunter, James, Jenkins and Kaepernick for big-chunk yardage) while Boldin can take the vacated role of the possession guy. Even with Kaepernick at the helm last year, the Niners were not always so keen on hurling the deep ball outside the numbers. That may change if Jenkins can step up to the plate. The real question is: How will they deter teams from stacking the box and doubling Davis when he is their only proven vertical threat? They'll have to find ways to make teams pay for doing so, which again goes back to Jenkins. It could also lie in how they use Vance McDonald, as well as how they approach those aforementioned two-back sets.
On the opposite side of the pigskin, expect Vic Fangio to get the defense back to its stingy ways in 2013. As if the paltry performance to end last year's season wasn't enough motivation, you have to think Fangio and the defensive unit have even more to prove now that Crabtree is out. The offensive outburst ushered in by the Kaepernick era midway through 2012 detracted from the Niners' 2011 identity as a defense-first team. Furthermore, the defense did themselves no favors by floundering when it counted late in the season, granted the injuries to Justin and Aldon Smith played a significant role in that downfall. 2013 provides a fresh start for this unit, and a chance for them to regain the throne as one of the league's elite. If they can bounce back to form, it will be a welcome safety net for the offense. It will also ease the burden hurled upon Kaepernick's shoulders to put up 30 points a game. It's great to be able to put up that many points, but it shouldn't be a necessity to victory.
If you're still struggling to find solace in this unfortunate scenario, look on the bright side: If any coaching staff can overcome a crushing blow such as this, it's Harbaugh and his knights of the round table.
This staff has a proven track record of ingenuity, while getting the most out of its players and their abilities. They converted Bruce Miller, a seventh-round rookie defensive end, to starting fullback in a lockout-shortened offseason. They transformed the reviled Alex Smith into a winner, and a darn good quarterback. They took Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers (afterthoughts in Buffalo and Washington, respectively) and turned them into pro bowlers. Last but not least, in a feat of true greatness, they decided to go with Kaepernick midseason last year, and tailored the offense to fit his skill set in an almost seamless transition. Once you take all of that into consideration, adequately compensating for the loss of a number one wide receiver (although still daunting) is at least in capable hands.
As you can see, the ripple effect that this injury spurs goes well beyond the wide receiver position. It's going to be a team-wide effort in making sure the 49ers can fill the void. Although it's a storyline fans would rather not have to follow, it makes for an interesting one heading into the season nonetheless. This isn't the first time the coaching staff and its team have had to overcome major obstacles, and I'm sure it won't be the last.