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Michael Crabtree: A statistical analysis of his importance to the 49ers passing game

What started out as a stats nerd thing to do on a lazy Saturday morning morphed into a post. I wanted to figure out exactly how much of the 49ers passing game Michael Crabtree accounted for and if any other players in the league matched his share.

Thearon W. Henderson

Michael Crabtree. Is there anyone more important to our offense? I've been critical of him in the past, but at this point, after the monster regular season he's turned in, I'd say no. Frank Gore has been, and will continue to be, the heart of our offense, but his production has slowed as the season has worn on. Colin Kaepernick plays quarterback, the most important position in professional sports, but where would he be without the third down converting, yards after catch generating machine that wears No. 15? I'd say that Kaepernick would have turned half as many heads had it not been for Crabtree's stellar second half. With that in mind, I set out to see just how important Crabtree is to the 49ers' passing game and wanted to know if any other pass catcher in the league matched his output.

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The premise is simple. I took the player's receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and calculated the percentage of their team's total passing stats in those categories. Not rocket science. Not even fun to be honest, but once I started I couldn't stop. I began by using only players that finished ahead of Crabtree in any one of those key categories, coming up with a list of 20 of the top players in the league. After realizing that this would fail to include focal points of some really bad passing attacks, just the kind of player who might match Crabtree, I expanded it to include at least one player from each team, for a grand total of 46.

To rank them overall, I gave equal weight to each of the three categories percentages and added them up for a total score. This model tends to favor players who score a lot for teams that don't throw for very many touchdowns, but that in and of itself is worth something. Players on those teams face some serious handicaps to begin with. Besides, a touchdown pass thrown by Matt Cassell should be worth more than catching one from Drew Brees. It's not perfect, but it's what we've got to work with.

The Results

  1. Brandon Marshall CHI 143.8
  2. A.J. Green CIN 106.0
  3. Michael Crabtree SF 102.0
  4. Victor Cruz NYG 93.6
  5. Dez Bryant DAL 91.8
  6. Andre Johnson HOU 91.5
  7. Calvin Johnson DET 90.0
  8. Andre Roberts ARI 89.8
  9. Dwayne Bowe KC 88.6
  10. Vincent Jackson TB 87.5


Without a doubt, Michael Crabtree is critical to the 49ers success. That wasn't in question going into my foray into bootleg advanced statistics. I thought more players from poor passing teams would make the final cut, and indeed many of them litter the fringes of the top ten. I was shocked to see Dez Bryant so high up, as the Cowboys passing attack is vast, varied and includes other options. A.J. Green and Andre Johnson were two that instantly came to mind when I began. I failed to note how few scores Johnson tallied during the year, otherwise he would have been higher on the list.

While Michael Crabtree should be heaped with praise and adoration by 49ers fans, there was no single receiver more responsible for his teams success in the passing game than Brandon Marshall. I was iffy on the Bears acquisition of Marshall going into the season. That has more to do with his character than his skills. Whomever takes over the responsibilities of coaching the Bears will have to fix that offensive line of theirs (a viewpoint shared by every single observer over the past offseasons) but will have one of the most potent playmakers around in Marshall. My nerd hat goes off to you.

Points of Conversation

A look at the list and the teams that the top ten players play for shows that winning with a single target in the passing game is not a very viable option. The two teams featured that are still alive in the playoffs (SF, HOU) both feature potent, multi-faceted running games led by two of the top backs in the league in Frank Gore and Arian Foster. Having multiple weapons on offense, whether it be in the passing game or running game is paramount.

Where does that leave the 49ers? We definitely need to get Crabtree some help. I'd feel a lot more confident going into the playoffs with a complimentary option in the passing game. Vernon Davis is that option, even if his stats don't show it. He frequently draws double teams and the matchup issues he poses defenses has to be accounted for. While his production is down, overall offensive production is up. The team ranked 11th in total yards this season, the first time since 2003 and the Jeff Garcia era that the team finished in the top twenty in the league.

We all know how last season ended. Our wideouts caught one pass and we converted 1 of 13 third downs en route to a 20-17 loss at the hands of the New York Giants in a game I'd rather not recount here. To avoid that same fate we need more production in the passing game. Randy Moss and A.J Jenkins our No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts heading into this weekend's matchup with the Green Bay Packers and neither one will strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators. The difference between this year and last is that they don't need to. With the now-elite Crabtree, Vernon Davis and a bit of LaMichael James or Delanie Walker thrown into the mix, a fourth ranked ground attack, all backed by the third best defense, I like our chances going forward.

If anyone is interested, here are the top five in the three categories I looked at.

Receptions %

  1. Brandon Marshall CHI 41.1%
  2. Andre Johnson HOU 31.6%
  3. Reggie Wayne IND 31.3%
  4. Michael Crabtree SF 29.4%
  5. Wes Welker NE 29.4%
Yards %
  1. Brandon Marshall CHI 50.3%
  2. Andre Johnson HOU 41.7%
  3. Calvin Johnson DET 39.9%
  4. A.J. Green CIN 37.7%
  5. Vincent Jackson TB 34.7

Touchdown %

  1. Brandon Marshall CHI 52.4%
  2. Kyle Rudolph MIN 50%
  3. Andre Roberts ARI 45.5%
  4. Dez Bryant DAL 41.4%
  5. A.J. Green CIN 39.3%

Note: Michael Crabtree finished 7th in YDS% with 33.5% and 7th in TD% with 39.1