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"I'll tell you a story about Anquan," said quarterback Josh McCown, who has played 11 NFL seasons (including a brief preseason stint with the 49ers in 2011) and enjoyed a resurgence with the Bears this season.

McCown goes on to describe Boldin's first NFL game, in September 2003. They were teammates with the Cardinals when Boldin began his pro career with a 10-catch, 217-yard performance in a loss to Detroit.

"He had the greatest rookie debut in the history of the league," McCown said. "He also muffed a punt in that game. I don't think it lost the game or anything, but it was a big play. So after the game, everyone is crowding around Anquan's locker, and everyone is asking him about all the catches. And all he wanted to talk about is the punt. That sort of tells you what kind of player he is."

Boldin still seems uncomfortable talking about his own importance. But teammates are quick to praise his leadership, even on a team that had no shortage of leaders -#8212; think Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis -#8212; when he arrived.

"From his history, he's already got that instant credibility of being that guy, because of the way he approaches the game," said 49ers wide receivers coach John Morton, in his 16th year as an NFL assistant. "His preparation is by far, by all the guys I've been around, the best. Anywhere."

Morton gave Boldin the ultimate NFL compliment, noting that he prepares like a quarterback.

"A quarterback does their due diligence," Morton said. "They have a notebook, they put all the tips and reminders in there. He does the same thing. He's on top of stuff. I mean, there's times where maybe I forgot something, and he goes, 'Hey.' So he's always on top of everything."

"Every rep that he takes, you as a coach, you say, 'Don't go in, let somebody else take this rep,' " 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You've got to pull him out of rep situations sometimes. So, any young receiver that's watching that, or any football player, or any coach would be impressed: 'That's the way I should practice, or approach every day.' "

Boldin might be obsessive in his work habits, but as anyone who has watched the 49ers this year can attest, he is no automaton. This is a man who plays with emotion. He can match even the most vocal defensive back syllable for syllable, and is never timid about punctuating a key reception with a flamboyant first-down signal.

"Anquan pretty much has the most energy on the team," said fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

Some receivers shy away from contact, and current NFL rules make that pretty easy to do. Boldin, who was an excellent defensive player in high school, seems to seek it out. How hardy is this guy? He shattered bones in his face and suffered a concussion on a devastating helmet-to-helmet hit by the Jets' Eric Smith in 2008. He missed only two games.

"That's just my personality," Boldin said. "It's always been the way that I played the game. I was always told if you don't play the game all out, then you're cheating yourself."

And yet a week ago in Carolina, when an incensed Harbaugh ran onto the field, screaming at officials to stop the game clock at a crucial juncture just before halftime, it was Boldin who held up the coach and calmly but firmly told him to get back to the sideline.

"And that's why I wouldn't classify it as emotion," McCown said. "Because I think it's just passion. . . . So it's not like he's bouncing in and out of emotion, and then something earth-shattering happens where he has this calm moment where he pulls Jim off the field. He's always clear. When he's talking after a catch or something like that, at least my experience with him, he's gonna stay in control."

Boldin talked just as much smack when he was with the Cardinals, but McCown offers this nugget: He never heard a cuss word leave Boldin's mouth.

"It was similar to when we'd go play basketball," McCown continued. "He would just kind of jaw back and forth with you. It was what created his edge. When you see that, it's not like he's losing his mind. He's super-poised. He's always in the moment, he always understands what's going on."

Boldin's reputation for intangible qualities has been matched by his production. He has averaged about 5.5 receptions per game over his 11 seasons, the fifth-highest rate in NFL history. He was a shade under that mark this year as he led the 49ers with 85 catches for 1,179 yards, vital numbers in an offense that was missing Crabtree until Week 13. It was Boldin's sixth season with 80-plus receptions and 1,000-plus yards.

And some of Boldin's biggest games have come in the postseason. He had five catches for 145 yards in a first-round game against the Colts in last season's playoffs, six for 104 against the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII (both of those with Baltimore) and eight for 136 against the Panthers in a divisional playoff game last week. All of them were victories for Boldin's teams.

"He's a guy that I think when it's all said and done, will be a strong Hall of Fame consideration," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I think he's that kind of player and has been his whole career. So I just think he's just a guy that for whatever reason -#8212; maybe it was not enough bang or flash, whatever that is -#8212; people just haven't given him enough due over the years."

Maybe it's because Boldin was overshadowed by the great Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, and played in a fairly conservative offense in Baltimore. Perhaps it's because Boldin has never been seen as a dangerous deep threat.

Don't argue that one with McCown.

"Whatever his speed is -#8212; and I don't know what it is -#8212; you get 100 percent of that every snap," the quarterback said. "And I'll take that any day. I would take a guy that runs 4.6 (seconds over 40 yards) a hundred percent of the time any day over a guy that runs 4.4 half the game, and is tired or is not conditioned or is not playing hard, or doesn't know what he's doing so he plays slow. Anquan always knew what he was doing, and he always got to his spot."

Boldin went to the Super Bowl with the Cardinals, and then again with the Ravens. He's trying to get back with his third team, and will face a daunting challenge against Seattle's physical defensive backs. They will probably try to intimidate Boldin, or at least knock him off his rhythm. He may tune them out -#8212; for a while.

"It's almost like the calm before the storm, in a sense," Morton said. "Football is an emotional game, you get caught up in the game. Some guys play like that because it makes 'em play better. But at the same time, he knows when to be poised. He's kind of a scary, silent killer almost."