The San Francisco 49ers knew they would be playing without Aldon Smith for a chunk of this season. They were surely being optimistic, and hoping for a four-game suspension after his repeated violations of the rules that govern basic human decency and common sense (technically, for violating both the personal conduct and substance abuse policies, which takes true talent). At worst, the expectation was eight games, and half the season.
Nope. The worst is nine games, which was the ultimate ruling by Roger Goodell’s hammer of justice.
The worst — whatever it happened to be — was always the most realistic ending here. If Smith wasn’t one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, he would have been cut long ago. That’s what happens when you miss five games and need to receive treatment after yet another DUI. And it happens when you’re handed a 12-day jail sentence for three felony weapons charges, and two other DUIs.
But Smith isn’t average, or even good. He’s great, and even though Jim Harbaugh preaches being above reproach, greatness gets exempted.
He’ll return in Week 10 (the 49ers have a Week 8 bye), which includes missing games against the Cowboys, Bears, Eagles, and Broncos, all high-volume passing offenses, making pocket pressure essential. Smith has 42 sacks in 43 career games, an average of .98 per week since he entered the NFL. Now for over half the season, that speed off the edge is gone.
The 49ers have depth, and Corey Lemonier will step up, a third-round pick in 2013 who has two sacks this preseason. But let’s have some real talk here: they’re taking a screeching step back defensively.
The loss of Smith is the latest and heaviest hurt, but it only adds to an offseason of departures and questions. San Francisco will also be without NaVorro Bowman for at least six games, and likely half the season. When healthy Bowman is a versatile, all-around defender with sideline-to-sideline speed matched by few others. That unique ability led to 120 tackles last year, along with five sacks, 10 passes defensed, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles.
Donte Whitner is gone too, leaving for Cleveland after a season when the hard-hitting safety allowed a passer rating of only 66.8 when targeted in coverage. There will be a step down from him to Antonie Bethea and rookie Jimmie Ward, while Bowman and Smith simply aren’t replaceable.
The 49ers have won through dominant defense, and a running game that’s then given an opportunity to pound and grind away. Now the two gaping holes in their front seven will have a trickle-down effect on the offense, with Colin Kaepernick asked to be more accurate, and win games with his often inconsistent arm while clawing from behind. That’s not ideal, and it goes against the team’s basic structure during the Harbaugh era.
The only hope is to limit the regression while keeping pace with the rest of the division. Good luck with that in the NFC West, a division powered by fierce pass rushes, and home to three teams with 10 wins or more last year.