One can call this an “it’s about time” move by a franchise bogged down by a series of unfortunate circumstances.
Others can call this “the anvil that broke the camel’s back” in the wake of a number of transgressions by the team’s best pass rusher.
Others, still, can call this the cherry on top of what has been possibly the worst offseason suffered by one NFL team in the history of the league.
It’s all these things and more, with the 49ers’ decision to release talented yet troubled LB Aldon Smith after yet another run-in with the law. This time, the 25-year-old was arrested in Santa Clara on Thursday night, on charges of suspected DUI, hit-and-run and vandalism. Subsequent reports claimed that Smith had crashed his SUV into a parked car at a condo complex in Santa Clara, left his vehicle at the scene, and failed a sobriety test administered by police at the scene. He was released Friday morning on $26,000 bond, but the 49ers were already in the process of releasing the multiple offender.
After all, this wasn’t the first time the young sack-master had been arrested. He was taken in for suspicion of driving under the influence twice already – once on January 27, 2012 in Miami, and again on September 20, 2013 in San Jose. This doesn’t even take into account his other two infractions – once for allegedly making bomb threats at LAX on April 13, 2014; and once surrendering to authorities after multiple charges of illegal assault weapon possession were filed against him in October of 2013.
It has been quite the troubling pattern (to say the least) for the former Missouri Tiger, taken 7th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. And it was a pattern that many hoped would end as the new regime in San Francisco was put in place, led by new head coach Jim Tomsula. That seemed to be the case – earlier in the offseason, likely buried under all of the negative headlines the 49ers had endured, Smith had given San Francisco a “good faith” option on his one-year, $9.5-million deal. He allowed the team to restructure his deal to make the vast majority of his salary non-guaranteed. And it was “all quiet on the Western Front” when it came to Smith before training camp began. He looked like he was going to prove the doubters wrong, and possibly play his way back to his 2012 form in the process.
Apparently, all of that came crashing down for Aldon Smith on Thursday. And, in an offseason where crippling personnel news came on almost a weekly basis, this was the last thing they needed.
Lest we forget – and how can we, what with the national media piling on the 49ers so often, one would think there was a quota system in place – the team that resides in Santa Clara is unrecognizable from the Jim Harbaugh-led squads from 2011 to 2013 that went to three straight NFC Championship games. Between the almost-unbelievable string of retirements, to the defections of key players in free agency, the Niners lost a lot of experience on both sides of the ball. It’s no wonder pundits and experts alike believe San Francisco will reside in the bottom of the NFC West standings in 2015, if not for the foreseeable future.
Now, the defense will likely have to rely on two rookie defensive linemen – DE/OLB Eli Harold and DE Arik Armstead – to replace whatever production they were counting on from Aldon Smith. While both are considered talented prospects, they are also seen as raw – the kind of players who might not reach their full potential for two or three seasons. Will they succeed under new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini? Only time will tell.
More importantly, question marks abound for the recently-released Smith. As previously stated, he bet on himself – quite literally – with the restructure of his one-year deal, and lost miserably. With that in mind, some could say that this is what the 49ers had wrought – after all, they were the ones that coddled him over the last two years of transgressions, because of his immense talent. Furthermore, it would be easy to write Smith off as a hopeless screw-up who couldn’t get his life together – even with the prospect of millions in salary on the line.
But, regardless of what the official reports say about his latest trangression – it should be noted that Smith has denied whole-heartedly that he was driving under the influence – this is a kid who has had a well-documented history of problems with alcohol. For anyone struggling with substance abuse, one could understand that this is not something they can simply “fix” in a matter of months. There will be ups and downs, with slip-ups and relapses, no matter what’s at stake.
Conversely, for anyone who asks aloud how hard it could possibly be to stop doing something if millions were on the line, it’s just not that simple when addictive substances like alcohol are involved. It’s why alcoholism, and its sobering consequences, are a thing.
And, yes, I can admit – when I first heard about the story, I was just as angry as any other average 49ers fan. The tired old tropes flew out of my mouth at first:
“How could he be so stupid?”
“How could this happen AGAIN?”
“Why does stuff like this keep happening to the 49ers?!”
But, then I calmed down, looked at this rationally, and realized, at the end of the day, this isn’t about how the team will suffer. This isn’t even about the intelligence of a young man who obviously has a problem with alcohol – because that has nothing to do with it.
This is about doing right for someone who is struggling with substance abuse – someone who an organization, and a group of men in one locker room, obviously cares about. Don’t believe me? Listen to Coach Tomsula – he’ll tell you, himself:
One thing is certain – he may not be playing for the San Francisco 49ers anymore, but he will at least have the support system necessary to build a productive life away from them.
Ultimately, everyone will have a say, and will pass judgment, on the continued personal struggles of Aldon Smith. Despite the hole he has put in the 49ers’ roster this year and beyond, all I can say is this: I hope the pressures of the NFL didn’t push him to this point. I hope he doesn’t do anything drastic as a result of all this.
And, most of all … I just hope he gets the help he needs.