Just a few days ago, this would have already been considered one of the most memorable offseasons 49er fans have experienced in some time. This team, which had become one of the most consistent and successful franchises in the NFL over the past few seasons and reached three straight NFC Championship games, has seen its positive progression halted by some notable departures.
The dismissal — for lack of a clearer descriptor — of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the exits of fan favorites Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Michael Crabtree, and the sudden retirement of promising linebacker Chris Borland have given the Niner faithful reason to behave like Cleveland Indians fans at the beginning of “Major League.” Seeing Rachel Phelps waltz into the team locker room before kickoff of Week 1 wouldn’t seem completely out of place.
The most recent departure is a less light-hearted one. With the DUI arrest of star linebacker Aldon Smith — his third since entering the league in 2011 — San Francisco opted to cut ties with the player and continue moving forward in its rebuild. It’s a conclusion that almost seems to have been inevitable, but it’s no less sad in its realization.
At just 25 years of age, Smith, when healthy and active, is easily considered one of the game’s best pass rushers. He accumulated 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011, then upped it to 19.5 in 2012 when he was a First Team All-Pro, helping San Francisco reach the Super Bowl.
He removed himself from the team for five games in 2013 to enter substance abuse treatment and was then suspended for nine games last year after a DUI arrest. It’s a recurring problem and the team has indicated that though he will no longer be in a 49er uniform, they are committed to helping him get whatever help he’ll need to hopefully break this pattern.
While the previous exodus of personnel had been sort of fun to recount, at least for those of us who aren’t Niner fans, this final chapter isn’t a gleeful one. It should always be considered sad when a young player finds themselves in a similar cycle, but we do take note more seriously when it’s a star-caliber player. That seems like a flaw in our own psyche, but it’s still true. Unrealized potential always adds an extra layer of tragedy.
Whether or not Smith will get another shot in the NFL is unclear. I suspect he will down the road, though any extended time away from the league has a compounding effect on a player’s effectiveness. An alcohol problem would also seem to be harder to reconcile than a different drug addiction because the typical signs and symptoms usually only come to the surface in these unlawful situations. Teams will have a hard time feeling secure that Smith won’t fall back into a similar pattern unless they’re monitoring him at all times, which they may feel obligated to do.
The Niners may have let Smith remain on the roster had he been more upfront with them, but they reportedly opted to cut ties after he “refused to take responsibility for being arrested,” according to ESPN sources. That’s concerning for anyone close to Smith, as well as any teams who may consider signing him in the future. While phony contrition doesn’t solve anything, legitimate denial will always raise legitimate red flags.
Smith’s career arc correlates almost identically with San Francisco’s success, so maybe their separation at this time is a necessary one. While I don’t necessarily hope the 49ers return to an upward trend all that quickly, I do hope that Smith can at least halt his downward trajectory and get his life back on stable ground.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.