In an off season that is quickly becoming a nightmare in San Francisco, Aldon Smith continues to complicate things for the 49ers as he finds himself in legal trouble yet again. This time he was arrested after issuing a false bomb threat in Los Angeles International Airport as he was attempting to make his way through security. Everyone knows that the word ‘bomb’ is not taken lightly in any public setting, let alone an airport, so what exactly Smith was thinking–if he was at all–is anyone’s guess. But beyond all the legal ramifications that the All-Pro linebacker will be faced with in the coming months, his behavior has not only left him in a difficult position, but it has put his team in a bit of a conundrum as well.
Falling one game short of the Super Bowl to bitter rivals Seattle, and then watching them go on to become league champs is difficult enough. Add in a serious injury to All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman that will carry over to the next season and it hurts that much more. That is what San Francisco knew they were faced with going into the off season, but unfortunately for them, that was just the calm before the storm.
Just as the rumors of a disgruntled Coach Harbaugh settled down, star quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s name flooded the sports news as he became involved in a police investigation in Miami, where he and 49ers receiver Quinton Patton, as well as Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette, were a part of a mysterious incident involving a girl in a hospital with no recollection as to how she got there. Then there was cornerback Chris Culliver’s misdemeanor charges for a hit-and-run and felony possession of brass knuckles. That was followed by recently re-signed OL Daniel Kilgore being arrested for public intoxication–though the charges have since been dropped–and now, the latest episode in the Aldon Smith saga continues the rash of complications for the 49ers, well before they have even set foot on the field for training camp.
So what are the 49ers to do about their troubled star? If he was a late-round draft pick who was nothing more than a depth player on defense he would have most likely been cut from the team already. But he is not. He is a former top 10 pick, an impact player on the San Francisco defense, and with 42 sacks in 43 career games he has proven to be one of the best pass rushers in the entire NFL. The 49ers expressed last season just how important the rush linebacker is to the team in their eyes when they allowed him to play in an early season game against the Colts despite being arrested on a DUI charge the week before. Smith was eventually placed in a rehab program and missed several games in the middle of the season, but once brought back, he almost immediately resumed his role as a starter on the defense and began making big plays once again. There is no question that Smith is an elite talent but the dilemma that general manager Trent Baalke and company are faced with is that if something does not change in a hurry, the negative publicity off the field will begin to weigh much more than the impact the star defender can make on the field.
Compare the situation to the one in Jacksonville where young star Justin Blackmon is suspended indefinitely for his off the field shenanigans. The Jaguars are left in limbo as they have a very talented receiver on the roster but they are not able to play him, let alone be in constant contact, and are unclear as to what his future with the team may be. He was drafted in the hopes of turning around an inept passing game and had begun to showcase his immense talent before his problematic lifestyle flared back up. Now, instead of a continuous development in the Jaguars’ passing game, coach Gus Bradley’s offense is essentially being held hostage by a young man who appears ill-equipped to be a professional at this stage in his life. Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh are now facing the very same dilemma with Smith in San Francisco.
For the past several seasons the 49ers have fielded one of the league’s most talented defenses. It has been the strength of the club as well as a driving force that has propelled them to three consecutive NFC championship games. However, for the first time in several seasons the defense has some glaring question marks. Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner, as well as starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have all left via free agency, so the secondary will have three new starters in 2014. Long-time Colts safety Antoine Bethea was signed to replace Whitner, but how he fits in with the 49ers remains to be seen, and aside from last year standout 49er Tramaine Brock, the cornerback position is as fluid as ever. As mentioned earlier, All-Pro middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman will miss a large portion of the season due to rehab for a knee injury he sustained in the NFC championship game, and now to top it all off, San Francisco may be looking for a new pass rusher to start in Aldon Smith’s place. And though the 49ers are one of the few teams who have the defensive talent to survive such losses, nothing is easy in today’s NFL.
Nothing is constant in professional football. One day a team finds itself on top, and the next they find that they have fallen to the bottom. It is both a struggle and a fight, as well as a test of wills and character. It is a game of inches, a game of breaks, and a game of choices, both on and off the field. Every move has an impact on the next, and while Aldon Smith continues to complicate things for the 49ers, the tough decisions that will be made in San Francisco over the next few months will impact the 2014 season and well beyond.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky