Wideouts Making Strides to Return

Mario Manningham (Getty Images)

The 49ers are on the verge of getting two key offensive weapons back in Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree. Manningham is set to return Sunday against the Panthers while Crabtree returned to practice this week for the first time since tearing his Achilles in May.

At last, Mario Manningham is back in game-week mode.

And that has a far better ring to it than rehab mode given the countless hours he has spent for much of the last year nursing himself back to health following major knee surgery.

Manningham walked through the locker room Wednesday, binder in hand and headed for meetings with the expectation that he will play for the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) in Sunday's game against Carolina (5-3), even if coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to formally say so.

"Mario, he's a receiver who's easy to throw to, so it's not going to take much time for him to get back up to speed," quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.

Manningham is on the active roster again nearly 11 months after a knee injury derailed his season and forced him to the sidelines long before the Super Bowl run. Michael Crabtree is back on the practice field six months after he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon that also sent him to surgery.

Kaepernick credits both of his star wideouts for returning to their former explosive selves so soon. Such compliments go a long way.

"It's important when it comes from your teammates," Manningham said. "I know I can get better, everybody can always get better. I'm trying to take it step by step and do what I can do to make my team look better. I'm practicing like I'm playing, just trying to make plays and come out with a 'W.'"

At the start of practice, the first full session for Crabtree since he was medically cleared Tuesday, he planted hard with his healthy right foot to cut inside on a short route. Between drills, he shuffled his feet in a little jive as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." blared from the sound system.

Crabtree has been doing speed work for a few weeks.

"I really just want to get back out there. They really have to calm me down. I was the first person out there today stretching for no reason," he said. "When I come back I'll let you know if it's stronger. Right now I'm just trying to get going."

Harbaugh wandered over for a glimpse of the receivers doing their position work. He will be among those to keep Crabtree on task so he doesn't try to do too much too soon.

"Good to have him back, 15 reporting eligible," Harbaugh said earlier, referencing Crabtree's uniform number. "Everybody kind of watches out of the corner of their eyes doing their drills. It's neat to see any player who comes back from a serious injury, understanding the grueling rehab that's taken place, the mental toughness grinding through those rehab sessions. ... He'll be on a pitch count."

Just imagine what San Francisco's 32nd-ranked passing game might look like down the stretch with these two back in the offensive mix for Kaepernick to complement Anquan Boldin. Suddenly, San Francisco's players will allow themselves to think about the added big-play potential for a unit already on a nice roll and riding a five-game winning streak in which the team has scored at least 30 points in each victory.

"It'll be crazy," running back Frank Gore said. "Looking back the way guys were playing, especially with Kap and Crab on the field last year and how they were so used to breaking a lot of plays down the field, the running game will be getting easier. That's big for the team. A lot of teams are playing us with a lot of people in the box. With those guys back out there making plays, with the people who are already making plays — Vernon (Davis), Anquan Boldin, adding Crab, Mario, that's big."

Before his injury last December, Manningham had 42 receptions for 449 yards and one touchdown in 12 games and 10 starts. He injured his left knee in a loss at Seattle Dec. 23 then underwent reconstructive surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and posterior cruciate ligaments.

Crabtree, the team's 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Texas Tech, established career highs last season with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. Then Crabtree sustained the injury during 7-on-7 drills in an organized team activity May 21.

Manningham is likely to make his season debut for the 49ers in Sunday's home game against Carolina. Crabtree shouldn't be more than a couple of weeks behind him.

In Crabtree's case, the 49ers have slightly less than three weeks before they must activate him.

"I had the math since the surgery, five months, 27 days as of Sunday, so five months, 30 days, today," Harbaugh said. "Surprised? I don't know the surprise there, I guess because you watch them day to day. Successful surgery, on track at every point, doing everything he was asked to do by the doctors. All reports were really good."

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