Justin Smith’s Exit Confirms 49ers Are No Longer Contenders

Comedian Richard Lewis claims to be the originator of the phrase “The (blank) from hell” and has even petitioned the editors of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to be given credit for the idiom, something he lampooned on his friend Larry David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Bartlett’s balked, claiming the phrase was commonly used prior to Lewis but it’s now conceivable Trent Baalke might want to take a crack at ownership because the San Francisco 49ers general manager is in the midst of the “offseason from hell.”

The latest domino fell earlier this week when the Niners’ talented defensive lineman Justin Smith, citing a chronic left shoulder injury, called it a career four months shy of his 36th birthday, the third high-profile San Francisco player who has retired since the 49ers last played a game.

“I mean, for me it’s just, you know, where I play on the right side, all my contact comes on my left shoulder and left side,” the three-time All-Pro said. “And, I mean, (the shoulder) doesn’t respond like I want it to respond anymore. You know? You don’t have the tools, you can’t do the job, so it’s just time to go.”

Smith might as well have been talking about the Niners as a whole, a team which was once regarded as the most talented in football but is now on a steep decline with the brake lines cut.

The downturn really began about 16 months ago when San Francisco was making its third straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game and All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman ravaged his knee in the 23-17 loss to NFC West-rival Seattle.

By the end of the 2014 season, the once mighty 49ers were the definition of ordinary at 8-8 and no longer one of the NFC’s elite, allowing Baalke the opportunity to cut ties with Jim Harbaugh, a
true coaching heavyweight who the GM disliked on a personal level.

Harbaugh was replaced not by one of his highly-regarded coordinators, Greg Roman or Vic Fangio, but by defensive line coach and Baalke loyalist Jim Tomsula, a move that came off poorly when the new mentor looked like a Saturday Night Live skit in some early interviews.

Meanwhile, the talent continued to erode. Patrick Willis, the heart and soul of the team’s vaunted defense, retired as did his potential replacement Chris Borland, who walked away after just one season because of his concerns over concussions.

Smith, though, may have been the biggest blow of all.

The loss of Justin Smith may have been the most crushing blow in a brutal offseason for the 49ers.

The loss of Justin Smith may have been the most crushing blow in a brutal offseason for the 49ers.

A throwback, who more often than not was the strongest man on the field, Smith is one difference maker to depart Santa Clara this offseason who simply can’t be replaced.

The no-frills star was as versatile as it gets, easily morphing from the 5-technique to a 3-technique on a whim depending on what Fangio or Tomsula wanted. He was one of the few defenders who could treat an offensive lineman like a blocking sled and push him right into a quarterback’s lap, the ultimate strongman in a strongman’s game.

“I think the one thing that defines him is that he’s just a true warrior in the truest football sense of the word,” Fangio, now the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator, told the Sacramento Bee. “He played a whole season last year with half an arm. There are a lot of guys that wouldn’t have even gone out there. But the guy loves football, loves playing, loves competing. He’s definitely in my personal top three or five Hall-of-Fame (players) that I’ve been around.”

And those types aren’t replaced easily.

“Justin Smith next stop HOF!” Harbaugh, now the head coach at the University of Michigan, tweeted Tuesday. “Utmost Respect & Admiration! 1 of Toughest to ever play. Made Gr8est hustle play I’ve witnessed!”

That was a nod toward perhaps Smith’s most famous effort, the time he hustled downfield in Philadelphia and poked the ball from receiver Jeremy Maclin. The forced fumble secured a win which some believe ignited the Niners’ three-year stint as significant Super Bowl contenders.

“Oh, it was great,” Smith said of the 49ers run at the top of the conference. “You know, there’s a lot of guys going into training camp this year, everybody’s going to show up to training camp talking about they want to win a Super Bowl. And I was no different.

“Every year, there’s only a 10-percent chance you think you can really win it. But, deep down, you know if you’ve got a team to do it. For four years there, the feeling walking into camp thinking you can win a Super Bowl was pretty cool.”

These days “pretty cool” has shifted toward: “hey maybe we can win on Sunday” for the 49ers.

Give Baalke credit, though, he’s brought in a cast of thousands in an attempt to replace Smith. There’s this year’s first-round pick, Arik Armstead, as well as incumbents Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine, and former Cardinals star Darnell Dockett, who signed with the 49ers after suffering a torn ACL in 2014.

“We’ve been making preparations,” Tomsula said. “A guy (Smith) gets to 12 years in the National Football League and he’s about a 92-percent rep count playing defensive line, you better start making preparations. That started a while ago.”

It may have started a while ago but it will probably take a generation to finish the job.

In fact Smith’s retirement signaled a harsh reality … the 49ers’ window as a legitimate Super Bowl contender has been slammed shut in a violent fashion, almost like “The Cowboy” himself throwing a hapless signal caller to the turf.

In the last four months, San Francisco has regressed from the team that was a hair away from the Lombardi Trophy to a club that might consider a second straight eight-win season a real success.

And that’s an offseason from hell.

“Justin Smith has gotten me a pay raise,” Tomsula admitted. “Let’s not hide the facts. The guy’s, he was just an unbelievable football player. Justin Smith, you don’t compare him to anyone. The bar that he’s reaching, or the bar that he was always going after was the bar he set. So he was always competing against himself.

“All the talk with he can still start in the National Football League, absolutely. But that’s not, where he’s at and all the stuff, I don’t have anything but awesome feelings for Justin Smith and where he’s going.”

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