Over the past several seasons Aldon Smith and the word ‘trouble’ have become almost synonymous. Nobody will question his immense talent on a football field, as he is one of the premier defensive players in the NFL, but some of the decisions he has made away from the gridiron are perplexing to say the least. The 49ers organization is most likely tired of the off-season drama, and would probably like nothing better than to see their prized pass rusher’s legal issues absolved, but the fact of the matter is that even if Smith is able to dodge all charges, he will almost certainly face discipline from league commissioner Roger Goodell. San Francisco has invested far too much in their former first round draft pick to simply let him walk at the end of the season, and so the 49ers had no choice but to exercise the fifth year option on Smith’s contract in order to give them more time to figure out what to do with the troubled star.
San Francisco’s General Manager Trent Baalke drafted Smith with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Since then, the pass-rushing phenom from Missouri has recorded 42 quarterback sacks in 43 career games. Jared Allen is the only player to record more sacks over that time span with 45.5. The only difference being that Allen played six more games and was already a full-time starter, while Smith was still a rotational player for the majority of his 14 sack rookie season. The 24-year-old has been voted a first team All-Pro and has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. He records a sack every 46.9 plays, and there is nobody in the NFL that dumps the quarterback at a higher rate. In his first two seasons, Smith got to the quarterback more times than the legendary Reggie White did in his first two campaigns, to put into perspective just how dominant number 99 in the red and gold has been thus far.
Smith, however, does have one glaring weakness–himself. In June of 2012, the linebacker was stabbed during a party at his own home while trying to break up a fight. Since then he has been charged on three counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon stemming from the investigation that was launched into that very incident. During the 2013 season he missed a stretch of games due to a stint in rehab after being arrested on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession. The latest incident, which also happens to be the most bizarre, occurred this past April, when Smith was arrested at LAX International Airport after claiming to be in possession of a bomb. Allegedly, it was in a joking manner, but who in their right mind jokes about explosives to airport security in this day and age?
As Smith continues to amass legal issues he forces the niners management into exploring some very difficult questions–one of which being how many more of these incidents can the franchise withstand, or will they withstand? There is no doubting Smith’s importance to what is a championship caliber defense, but sooner or later the off field antics may catch up, and with San Francisco standing by their pass rusher they could be made a fool. Then again, they could cut ties with the All-Pro and be made a fool when he signs elsewhere and aids a rival in winning a championship. It seems at this point that San Fran is in for the long haul–regardless of Smith’s transgressions–as evidenced by their support of his rehab, and continuing to stand by their statements even as new arrests pile up. However, the league has seen other premiere players shockingly released by the teams that drafted them before.
Earlier this off-season the Dallas Cowboys cut their best player from the past decade, and a sure-fire hall of famer, in outside linebacker/defensive end DeMarcus Ware. The four-time All-Pro, who played a similar hybrid linebacker position for Dallas as Smith does now in San Francisco, was arguably the best pass rusher of his generation. He was an unstoppable force on the Dallas defense, but after an injury-plagued 2013 season that saw him record his first single digit sack total since his rookie season, the cap-strapped Cowboys decided to part ways with the 31 year old star. Only a few days later he was signed by the Denver Broncos.
Two seasons ago the Indianapolis Colts decided that four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning was finished as a superstar quarterback due to a career threatening neck injury. Upon release Manning signed with Denver and has since won his fifth league MVP award, has made two trips to the pro bowl, and this season he broke the single season records for both passing yards and touchdowns en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Even though Manning and Ware are in the latter stages of their careers, they are clearly still performing at a hall of fame level and nobody could have predicted their release. Now they will be teaming up next season to try and bring a title back to the Mile High City.
Obviously Smith has not accomplished anything remotely close to what Manning and Ware have done in their illustrious careers, and would certainly not be considered on the same talent level either, but the dilemma for the 49ers is that he could be. He is only 24-years-old, not even in the prime of his career, and is an integral piece to a San Francisco team that is desperately trying to grab a Super Bowl victory while the window is still open.
At this point the 49ers have invested far too much time, money, coaching and assistance into number 99 to lose his production now. There is nobody on the roster that could match Smith’s impact, and San Fran would be extremely hard pressed to find a replacement of equal skill level. General managers lose sleep, and sometimes even their jobs, over problematic players creating sticky situations like Smith has, but as long as the Niners continue to stand by and support their All-Pro linebacker, they have no choice but to exercise the fifth year option on his contract in order to provide the time to sort things out. However, if Smith finds himself suspended, in rehab, or even worse, in jail, he would quickly become nothing more than a very expensive non-commodity for San Francisco. The Colts embraced Manning and the Cowboys loved Ware, until their respective franchises believed their issues outweighed their usefulness. There is always the chance that San Francisco could follow suit.
Welcome to pro football in 2014, where loyalty between franchise and athlete often comes at a premium. There was a time when an athlete chose to play out his entire career in one place and was praised for it, just like there was a time when an aging veteran could hang onto a roster spot based upon his name, credentials and a belief that he still had plenty left to offer. That way of thinking, however, is rapidly nearing extinction–especially for players with a penchant to be problematic. General managers are no longer concerned with what a player has done in the past, they are strictly concerned with what he has done lately. Simply put, pro football will devour an athlete while the getting is good, and spit him out the second he loses a step or finds trouble. This cutthroat business mentality can be blamed on the salary cap or a philosophical shift among owners. It can be blamed on a perceived lack of respect, or athletes being viewed as a product rather than a human being. The cold and callous relationships between players and NFL franchises could even be blamed on a simple case of flat-out, old fashioned greed from both sides. Whatever spectators choose to label it, they had better get used to it because things appear to be settling in that way for the long haul.
For now in San Francisco they appear to be standing by their player in question, for better or for worse. Both Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh share the same sentiment that Aldon Smith overall is a good kid, of course that is much easier to say when he happens to be a rising superstar performing at a hall of fame level. It is even easier to say when the team’s success is largely connected to him being on the field. If Smith can clean up his act then the sky is the limit for him and his team, but until that happens the 49ers will be forced to weigh the pros and cons and ultimately make a very tough decision going forward. In order to make such a decision it will require time and patience which is exactly why the 49ers had no choice but to exercise Smith’s fifth year option.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky