First, it was Harbaugh-to-Cleveland gate. Then, the conversation evolved and the media frenzy centered around the Harbaugh vs Baalke feud. Then, it was Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, and Carlos Rogers leaving via free agency. Then, it was Chris Culliver’s hit-and-run/brass knuckles debacle, followed by Colin Kaepernick and Quinton Patton’s seemingly innocuous (but attention-grabbing, nonetheless) issue with a female down in Miami. The latest episode of the San Francisco 49ers soap opera features a recurring character: Aldon Smith. This time around, Smith (appearing to be at least mildly intoxicated, according to reports) was booked in Los Angeles after an incident at LAX in which he may have joked to TSA officials about having a bomb.
All of this leaves fans and pundits to ponder: Just what the hell is going on with this team?
There is no easy or definitive answer to that question. One thing is for certain though: the seemingly constant controversy and bad publicity is doing nothing to help the organization prepare for a monumental 2014 season. The injury to NaVorro Bowman and the turnover in the defensive backfield already put the 49ers in a more difficult situation personnel-wise than they would have liked, but those things are a normal part of the game. The issues with Culliver, Kaepernick, Patton, and Smith—regardless of how significant or insignificant people deem them—are atypical, and those kinds of things serve as a significant distraction for the team. The impact of transgressions such as these has a ripple effect that goes far beyond the scope of mere distraction. As the legal process continues to unfold, repercussions will be felt.
Culliver and Smith will almost certainly be suspended by Roger Goodell for a period of time next season. Both players are in contract years, Culliver is a free agent after this season, while Smith has an option which the team can pick up for his services in 2015. In light of recent events, San Francisco must strongly consider the facts and assess whether these players are worth the money, gamble, and headaches. Extending them could also send a negative message (both internally and externally) that this kind of behavior will be tolerated in San Francisco. That kind of potential perception would produce a damaging effect on the culture and image of the team.
The most immediate consequences involve the 49ers’ draft plan. With less than a month to go before draft day, Trent Baalke and co. are likely rounding out their draft board, finalizing priorities, and doing their homework on specific prospects. Aldon Smith’s latest incident throws a huge wrench in their preparation as they now have to consider his future sooner than they would like and shake up their draft board to prioritize outside linebacker if they are tired of his antics. In fact, Matt Barrows of the Sac Bee is reporting that the team plans to visit with Boise St. defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, a projected first-round pass rush specialist (who, ironically, has been suspended three times himself). In the event that the Niners determine it’s best to part ways with Smith after this season, they’ll be losing one of the league’s premier pass rushers. Players of that caliber impact the entire complexion of a defense and its scheme. Furthermore, they don’t just grow on trees. This situation is a significant hurdle for a team that has to replace NaVorro Bowman and, scarier yet, revamp their secondary—a position group that is most affected by the effectiveness of a pass rush.
As the media hype train continues to steamroll the 49ers’ image and credibility, whether justified or not (hard to argue that it’s not), the 2014 season hangs in the balance. A rocky offseason such as this certainly isn't unprecedented, but its consequences vary from case to case. Reproachful events such as these can doom a team before the season even kicks off, or they can be swept under the rug and become an afterthought once the regular season rolls around. Look no further than the Cowboys teams of the 1990’s for an example of the latter. Player arrests were rampant, while Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones were at each other’s throats for a portion of time; but they still managed to perform on the field and even won Super Bowl trophies under that kind of duress.
If there is a front office and coaching staff that is equipped to successfully handle this kind of turmoil, it’s the 49ers’…but how much more can they take? Have things gone beyond reparation? Some answers will be revealed in the coming weeks; more will follow as the clock ticks down to draft day and September.