As the Ravens’ charter flight cut a rapid arc from Cleveland to Baltimore on Sunday evening, wide receiver Michael Crabtree approached quarterback Joe Flacco.
He was sorry, he said, that with a potential victory over the Cleveland Browns hanging in the balance, he’d let Flacco’s pass carom off his hands in the back of the end zone. In an earlier postgame session with reporters, Crabtree had put the 12-9 loss on himself.
“Listen, I know it’s not always going to be this way,” Flacco assured him.
It was a message echoed by many of Crabtree’s coaches and teammates in the days that followed. They appreciated his accountability and expressed faith in his talent and work ethic.
“When you see him out here catching — he has one of the surest pair of hands I’ve ever seen,” Flacco said.
But those words have not stopped Crabtree’s lapses from becoming a significant story as the 3-2 Ravens try to put their season and offense back on track this Sunday in Nashville, Tenn. After all, they signed the veteran star so they wouldn’t have to worry about whom to target in crucial moments.
Talk to professional wide receivers about dropped passes and most will say they’re inevitable. Even Jerry Rice, the greatest of all time, endured periods when his hands betrayed him.
Try telling that, however, to a fan whose team has just lost a game because of a drop. So much of what happens on an NFL field is obscure to those who aren't playing. But even the most casual viewer can seize on a dropped pass.
Hence, some Ravens loyalists pinned the loss to the Browns on Crabtree and Crabtree alone.
He accepted the responsibility, but that leads to a more vexing question: What can Crabtree do to get past this spate of drops, a problem that also haunted him in 2016 when he led the league with 13?
He said he planned to “get back to basics,” a common answer for receivers confronting drops.
“I’ve got to get back in the lab and work on concentration. That’s just something football players got to do,” Crabtree said. “That’s all it is, concentration. It’s football. You’ve got to see the ball to catch the ball. I’ve got to see the ball to catch the ball and I need to see it all the way in. If it takes me going to catch 2,000 balls a week at practice, I’m going to have to do that.”
Former Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail said that’s essentially the advice he’d give. Ismail tweeted in frustration, right along with the fans, as he watched Crabtree in Cleveland. “When you’re the Alpha WR and your QB goes to you … you MUST make that catch!” he wrote.
But Ismail expressed empathy toward Crabtree during an interview Thursday about the vagaries of dropped passes.
“I think any receiver has gone through that,” he said.
The potential touchdown against Cleveland aside, Ismail has noticed Crabtree, 31, struggling early in games, often on routine short and intermediate throws. Given that, he said Crabtree would be smart to bring his approach back to its most basic elements.
“The guys that make it look easy, they’re able to quiet their minds, relax their eyes and snatch the ball out of the air,” he said. “You can’t doubt yourself. … It’s, ‘Now, I’m going to shoot my hands together and neurologically speaking, I know it’s going to put me in a position where, if I relax my eyes, it’s going to frame the ball in a correct manner and I’m going to snatch that ball out of the air. I’ve done it 1,000 times, 2,000 times, maybe 10,000 times. This is so routine.’
“You overwhelm your subconscious with powerful imagery and you stick to that routine, and that’s where all of a sudden, the game slows down and you’re back to doing what you do.”
This isn't Breshad Perriman. Crabtree has caught 603 passes in the NFL, 52 of them for touchdowns. Before that, at Texas Tech, he was one of the most productive college receivers in recent history.
He has always been what Ismail calls a “natural catcher of the football.”
But that might be part of the problem. Ismail said he painstakingly constructed routines to overcome his natural limitations, which included problems with depth perception because of astigmatism. Thus, when he dropped a few passes, he knew the rituals that would help him reset.
“I think guys who are natural catchers of the football, that’s when it surprises you,” Ismail said, referring back to Crabtree. “It’s like guys who are major winners in golf suddenly getting the yips. It’s a fine motor skill, and it’s wicked when it’s there right in front of you. ... For me, I knew how to overcome it because I had dealt with the embarrassment and frustrations early on in my career. But for guys who have superior vision, superior hand-eye coordination, and then it happens, that’s when it gets even tougher on your psyche.”
Most athletes who’ve reached the NFL have mastered the requisite techniques, so mental problem solving becomes more paramount, said Dr. Daniel Zimet, a Columbia-based sports psychologist.
Some of Zimet’s favorite techniques include breathing rituals, visualization and positive self-talk, but he tries to build his approach off an athlete’s particular experiences.
“Even rookie athletes are remarkably insightful about their game and process, so I always start by listening,” he said. “I’ve come to realize that people create ‘stories’ about the events that happen to us, and those stories can have powerful meaning. When listening to an athlete’s story about a slump or specific failure there is usually an ‘origin story’ that explains how it started, as well as themes that are exacerbating or perpetuating the problem. It’s particularly important to ask for sources of strength and opportunities for growth and development.”
Zimet said experienced athletes who’ve overcome difficulties in the past have a leg up. But he added that the pains of public scrutiny — as magnified for NFL players as any athletes in the country — cannot be dismissed.
“It takes remarkable fortitude to work through a slump or prolonged underperformance since fans are often merciless, teams are highly invested in your performance, and it’s not unusual for coaches to suffer job insecurity when teams fail to meet expectations,” he said. “That’s a lot of pressure — it can suck all the joy of playing right out of you, and make it impossible to ‘just relax out there.’ ”
Flacco would be more worried if Crabtree approached his troubles with a lax attitude.
“I’ve always said [that] eventually drops and all that stuff, it hurts you,” he said. “We’re a very prideful group, and he’s a very prideful person, works really hard at what he does. So that’s not the issue. If that was the issue, then it might need to be addressed, but that’s not it. It’s just something that we have to overcome together, really.”
Crabtree’s fellow starting receivers, Willie Snead IV and John Brown, deferred to him as a leader from the moment they all reached Baltimore in the spring. He was easily the most experienced and accomplished player in the position group.
None of that has changed because of a few missed plays.
“You’ve got to forget about it quickly. As a receiver, sometimes you drop the ball,” Snead said. “Sometimes, it’s in crucial situations and sometimes it’s easy ones. I know the guys in the receiving room trust this guy with any opportunity. I would always throw to him again, because he’s made so many plays. He has confidence in himself, and I know he’s motivated to get better from it.”
Snead is another believer in “getting back to your old ways, your routines, everything you did when you were getting on your roll.” But he said he’s given Crabtree space to work through his problems.
One response no one should expect is for the Ravens to stop targeting the guy they signed to be their chief touchdown threat.
“I would rather have nobody else on the field in those situations as we continue than Mike Crabtree — done,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “And, he knows that. He understands that. I think all the players and the coaches feel the same way.”