Fresh off of eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark for the sixth time in his career, 33-year old Anquan Boldin is turning in one of his most impressive seasons as a professional. The numbers have been bigger in a handful of other seasons but never has he made such a stand-alone impact on a team for an entire season. We saw this igniting in the postseason and, unfortunately, the Super Bowl last year. The venerable veteran receiver took over games and sparked a Lombardi Trophy run for the Ravens.
This season is different (and thankfully he's wearing red). Outside of Vernon Davis, Boldin has been called upon to almost singlehandedly carry the 49ers passing offense up until the return of Michael Crabtree, and he's done so tenfold. The circumstances that coincide with the numbers add even more significance to his accomplishments this year. With that said, please note that all statistics mentioned here were garnered on a largely a run-first team whom, up until a few weeks ago, was a sputtering mess in terms of passing the ball consistently. They still struggle to find rhythm at times and rank as the 31st unit in the NFL. Inexplicably, Boldin has responded to the adversity of the situation and refused to be a product of the offense's struggles.
Of Colin Kaepernick's 382 passing attempts, 119 of them were targeted at Anquan Boldin. That means just over 31% of the team's passing offense was intended for No. 81, a number that was likely a bit larger a few weeks ago before Crabtree came back. Of those 119 targets (40 more than even Vernon Davis has received), Boldin has hauled in 76 receptions for 1,030 yards and six touchdowns. Those totals rank him 18th, 17th, and tied for 28th in the NFL, respectively. Not bad at all for a guy who cost a sixth-round draft pick, eh?
In context of the team, Boldin's receptions and receiving yardage totals account for over one third of the 49ers passing offense. For comparison, currently league-leading WR Josh Gordon's receptions only account for 22% of his team's total number, while his receiving yardage, like Boldin, is good for over 33% of his team's total. San Francisco currently averages 179.1 passing yards per game and Boldin's 68.7 yard per game average means he owns almost 40% of the passing offense's production.
From a league pespective, his 56 first downs are ranked #14th in the league, a not-so-distant 13 behind league league leader Calvin Johnson. His ability to move the chains provided desperate life-support to the 49ers offense on so many drives this season. There's a lot that's said about the slower speed that Boldin plays at but it certainly doesn't seem to be holding back his big-play ability at all this season. He has 17 plays of 20+ yards, which is good for 13th in the league. He's garnered a respectable 13.6 YAC total, something I attribute to his route running and, more importantly, the little things he does, because that's where Boldin excels immensely...
...The intangibles category. See, the number of receptions doesn't illustrate the fashion in which they were obtained. So many of those were high-difficulty and, at times, seemingly-impossible grabs. The highlight reel he's compiled this year is off the charts, one we haven't seen the likes of since the days of Jerry Rice (Owens was more about physical specimen feats as opposed to the eye-popping determination and fundamentals exhibited by Rice and, now Boldin).
Whether it's one of his two or three one-handed grabs...
1. vs Tennessee
2. vs Seattle
3. (I distinctively recall a low, short yardage, behind-the back-leg, one-handed catch from a few games back (possibly vs Seattle or Tampa?). Bonus points to whoever can corroborate this and conjure up a clip or GIF.)
...His jump ball heroics, his instinctive tip-toe, tight-rope sideline act, or just muscling through would-be tacklers, Boldin always seems to deliver when his number is called. Once the ball is in No. 81's hands, he's got a great nose for the first-down marker as well as the end zone, refusing to be denied when approaching both. Part of that success can be attributed to the fact that the man clearly has no concept of the word "flinch." He's constantly making blunt-force impact with defenders, and springing back up looking for more. Let's just say, if we wanted to rank relentless toughness among NFL receivers, I don't think anyone would argue that Boldin takes the cake.
One shudders to think where the team would be without Anquan Boldin. When all is said and done, the 49ers' prized offseason acquisition may stand as the team's offensive MVP for 2013. Then again, Frank Gore makes an equally compelling case for co-MVP as the figurehead of the league's No. 3 rushing attack. The funny thing is, when breaking down what has made Gore great this year and throughout his career, it sounds an awful lot like how one would describe Anquan Boldin (with the exception of position-specific criteria, of course). Those two players were vehicles for victory throughout this entire season, especially when the chips were down. Boldin's output in 2013 shone like an improbable beacon of hope in a dreadful passing attack, keeping things afloat until No. 15 could get back in the lineup. He stands to be rewarded with increased effectiveness now that Crabtree must be accounted for again, and that's an exciting prospect for the team and its fans with the playoffs fast approaching.