Say, kids, what time is it?
It’s time to celebrate the fact that the 49ers have finally, blessedly, turned the corner and are looking like a football team again. It’s time to savor the presence of a quarterback who shows flashes of Montana and Young, and who looks like the field general we have needed for years. It’s time to take pride in a head coach who has an idea of what to do (with apologies to his two predecessors) and a general manager who has several brain cells holding hands (that was a deliberate swipe at Trent Baalke, but no apology).
It may or may not be Celek Time. But it is certainly time to take a look at the 6’5”, 252 lb tight end from Cincinnati and see what he has done for us in this season, The Year We Turned The Proverbial Corner.
Celek has been a 49er his entire career. He signed as an UDFA with 49ers in 2012 after graduating from Michigan State, and earned a spot on the 53-man roster right away. (Come to think of it, Trent Baalke was responsible for that signing, but I still don’t apologize.) He caught his first NFL pass that season against the Bills.
In Week 15 of the 2014 season, Celek was placed on injured reserve after suffering an ankle injury, but he did sign a contract extension in 2015. He caught three touchdown passes in 2015, two from Blaine Gabbert and one from Colin Kaepernick; last year, he became the primary receiving option for both those gentlemen, and caught 19 passes for 186 yards and three more touchdowns.
But the history lesson ends there, and the current events portion of this article begins. Here’s why Celek’s time to shine has finally come:
He’s still here: The tight end corps of the 49ers has done a massive reorganization this year, with the departure of Vance McDonald and the arrival of Logan Paulsen, Cole Hikutini and George Kittle. Plenty of observers feared he would wash out in the competition, but he’s ascended to first on the team depth chart — and even considering Kittle’s injury problems, Celek’s performances likely would have earned him the first choice spot.
Short term statistics: Since the 9/21 game against the Rams, when Celek caught exactly one pass and gained exactly one yard, he has pulled in 18 passes (with at least one every game) and scored 4 TDs. Celek has gained more yards for the team in the last three games than he racked up in the first 8 games of the season. And according to at least one source, he has gotten more plays of over 45 yards in the past month than DeSean Jackson, Demaryius Thomas and Mike Evans have — combined. The Jimmy G effect is of course worth noting in Celek’s improvement.
Long term statistics: We’re still 2 weeks away from the end of this season, and Celek has already scored more touchdowns than he did in the previous two years of his career. In fact, he has already gained six times more yardage this season than he did in all of his rookie season, and eight times more than in his sophomore effort. 43 more yards between now and the end of the regular season, and he will have a career high.
Seasoning: Celek has been with the team longer than any of his counterparts, and he has more NFL experience than any of them except for Paulsen. That has earned him some respect from Shanalynch, who were under absolutely no obligation to keep Celek around when they took the wheel in Santa Clara. And, if we want some perspective on his performance as a 49er, he was one of the very few guys last season who made some good plays on an offense that was stuck somewhere between junior high school flag football and an old folks’ home bingo game.
Sheer ability. Celek doesn’t give up on his routes halfway (unlike some tight ends this club has seen), he doesn’t leap to catch balls that were targeted for his chest, and he can knock over most defensive backs who get in his way once he pulls the ball down. We always knew Celek was a good blocking tight end, but now we see that he can catch and run as well.
PFF ratings: Okay, this is the least reliable reason why Celek is worthy of respect, but still: his rating has increased by thirty points since the season began. And he earned an 86.2 grade for the triumph over the Texans this past week.
In fairness, Celek is not Kellen Winslow, the great Chargers tight end of years gone by. He has dealt with both injuries and dropped passes in past years, and he couldn’t keep up with Marquise Goodwin in a straightaway race. And we are dealing with a fairly small sample size of on-field successes. So Celek, for all of his recent accomplishments, hasn’t reached Hall of Fame status.
Perhaps (probably.. most likely… almost certainly) he never will.
But it is his time to emerge as a critical cog in an offense that is, as of this writing, the hottest thing in football (except Jimmy G). And it’s time for one other thing to happen.
I was one of those who stated, on this blog, that Celek’s time in San Francisco was coming to an end, that he wasn’t worth the money we were paying him, and that he wasn’t going to live up to any of his potential. I was 100% wrong on all those counts. Mr. Celek, if you read this, please accept my apology.
Put me down for an extra large order of crow, with all the trimmings, please.
Photo by Icon Sportswire, Getty Images