It’s official. After 14 years in the NFL, the Cowboy has hung up his pads for the last time.
In what was an altogether expected move, DE Justin Smith has decided to head into retirement, opting not to play in his eighth NFL season with the San Francisco 49ers. He made the announcement earlier on Monday, much to the chagrin of a 49ers fanbase still reeling from an offseason full of retirement and defection news, and an NFL Draft full of project prospects. Reports that the 35-year-old out of the University of Missouri was contemplating retirement had been buzzing since early March, when news of LB Patrick Willis’ unexpected retirement decision came down the pipe.
In light of his impending decision, the 49ers had made the proper contingencies during the offseason. They signed former Arizona Cardinals DE Darnell Dockett in early March as a potential replacement / backup to Smith (if he decided to stay). They also drafted Oregon DE Arik Armstead as the team’s long-term answer at Smith’s old position – a prospect that may have to be groomed quicker than expected, in light of the decision.
He will be a hard man to replace, both on the field and in the locker room. After all, the five-time Pro Bowler was an anchor of the team’s vaunted defensive line, and was part of the “Smith Bros. Sack Duo” with DE Aldon Smith in 2012 that helped the team reach Super Bowl XLVII. He was also a leading voice in the locker room and with the defense – something that the team will be hard-pressed to compensate for.
No doubt, pessimistic 49ers fans will point at this near-inevitability as another reason to pillory the 49ers front office of Jed York and Trent Baalke, and new head coach Jim Tomsula. After all, why would Smith want to play one more year on a sinking ship of a franchise – one that already saw the retirements of Willis and Borland? It HAS to be what’s going on up top that was the ultimate factor.
And to that, I say … Give me a break.
Smith, himself, said that an oft-injured left shoulder was simply not responding, and the everyday wear-and-tear eventually showed him the writing on the wall.
And, if anything, Tomsula stepping in as head coach was not, as many pessimists would like to believe, the reason the Cowboy retired. In fact, Tomsula was probably the team’s best shot at keeping Smith on for one more year. After all, as defensive line coach since 2007, Tomsula was the man Smith had worked closely with his entire 49ers career. He was the man who helped Smith reach five Pro Bowls and be named to three NFL All-Pro teams.
Furthermore, as talented as he was, Smith will be 36 years old when the 2015 season rolls around. He has a bum shoulder, and he simply could no longer play at a level befit of a man of his stature. Simply put, let the man go into retirement in peace, without the white noise of pointing fingers at easy targets like York, Baalke and Tomsula.
Congratulations on a great career, Justin. We of the 49er Empire salute you, and you will be sorely missed.