Stick a microphone in Michael Crabtree’s face, and he transforms.
Gone is the easygoing locker-room presence who formed fast friendships with his new Ravens teammates. Gone is the assertive veteran who’s unafraid to go face-to-face with coach John Harbaugh on the sideline.
Crabtree speaks in a hushed tone, releasing each word carefully and displaying little interest in the narratives spinning his way.
No surprise then, that when he was asked about playing the Oakland Raiders, the team that gave up on him last spring, the 10th-year wide receiver refused to bite.
“Next game,” he said of the significance. “We’re on the end of a stretch, right here, where every game counts for us. So the next game is the Raiders.”
No special meaning?
“Oh no, playing football,” he said, putting the topic to bed.
Crabtree’s matchup with his former team comes at an uncertain time in his first season with the Ravens. He’s caught just 12 passes in his last four games as the team’s aerial attack has sputtered. And he was targeted just three times in Sunday’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals as the Ravens shifted to a run-heavy approach under rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Harbaugh pointed to Crabtree and fellow wide receiver Willie Snead as players who got in his face when the Ravens briefly fell behind the Bengals.
“We have some receivers that want the ball — I like that,” Harbaugh said in his post-game press conference.
For his part, Jackson said he needs to feed his wide receivers more regularly.
“I was ticked off,” he said. “Crabtree was telling me, ‘You good. You good.’ And I’m like, ‘No man, I’ve got to throw you the ball.’ I don’t want them thinking, ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to run the ball every time he gets a chance.’ My eyes are always up the field. I’ve got to get those guys the ball, because they’re helping me out. They’re not out there to block. That’s not their job. Their job is to catch the ball. So that’s my job, to get the ball to them. I was mad about that.”
Crabtree expressed nothing but affection for Jackson.
“That’s just the way it is on Sunday,” he said, when asked about his lack of touches in the Bengals game. “Especially this past Sunday, it was Lamar’s first start — 100 [yards] on the ground, 100 in the air. I guess he’s saying he basically wants to throw a little more, and he needs to get me involved. I hear him. That’s my guy, man. We won the game, so I told him not to put too much on giving targets and all that.”
Crabtree experienced a previous quarterback transition — from veteran Alex Smith to the younger, faster Colin Kaepernick — during his time with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I’m just going to work with Lamar,” he said. “I’m at his disposal. Whatever he needs from me, man, I’m going to do it.”
When he was asked about confronting Harbaugh on the sideline, he did not initially accept the premise of the question.
“I don’t go up to people saying, ‘Get me the ball!’” he said. “We don’t do that. But we want the ball. We play receiver, so we want to catch the ball. We want to catch touchdowns, we want to run, we want to block. We want to do all that. I guess that’s the frustration right there — it’s us wanting to do more.”
The 31-year-old Crabtree’s production diminished in 2017 as did his role in the Raiders’ offense. He caught 58 passes for 618 yards, down from 89 for 1,003 yards the previous season. He was targeted just 101 times, down from 145.
In late February, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said Crabtree was “in our plans” for the 2018 season. But he was released less than three weeks later as the Raiders opted to save almost $8 million on their salary cap.
“There were a lot of tough decisions we had to make,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said in his Wednesday conference call with Baltimore reporters. “We felt in the best interest of the Raiders and Michael Crabtree, it was probably better that both parties moved on. It’s good to see Crabtree playing well. I really wanted to coach him, but we chose to go in a different direction.”
If Crabtree expected an uninterrupted career renaissance in Baltimore, it hasn’t gone that way. He caught a touchdown pass in the season opener but has caught just one other in the nine games since. His catch rate of 53.2 percent is a career low.
His finest moment came after a potential game-winning pass ricocheted off his hands in a depressing loss in Cleveland.
Crabtree, so often a reluctant interview subject, stood at his locker after the game and took responsibility for the defeat. “Need to get into the lab and get back to the basics,” he said.
He responded with his best game of the season — six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown — in a dominant win over the Tennessee Titans.
For that day, he was every bit the No. 1 receiver the Ravens sought when they signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal.
It’s striking how much Crabtree’s teammates like him and respect his achievements — 621 catches and 53 touchdown receptions, both marks in the top 15 among active players.
They instantly deferred to him as the leader of a re-designed wide receiver corps. Many, including quarterback Joe Flacco, gushed about his work ethic after fans ripped him in the wake of the Cleveland loss. His bonds extend to all corners of the locker room.
So perhaps it’s fitting that a defensive player, linebacker C.J. Mosley, spoke about the significance of the Raiders matchup.
“It’ll definitely be a fun game for him,” Mosley said. “I hope we draw up a lot of plays and get him some big yards and some touchdowns. I’m sure in the back of his head, he wants to make a couple plays going against his former team.”
Just don’t expect Crabtree to say it.