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The Cowboy’s Last Ride?

Al Sacco
Jun 13, 2013 at 8:42 AM9

One could argue (and one probably should) that the best free agent signing in the history of the San Francisco 49ers occurred in the 2008 off-season. That was when then head coach Mike Nolan took a former Cincinnati Bengals' defensive end on a helicopter tour of San Francisco in an effort to get him to sign with the franchise. Whatever was said on that ride in the sky and the hours surrounding it convinced the defensive lineman to cancel his planned visits to Minnesota and Jacksonville and sign with the 49ers. Six years later, Justin Smith has proved to be worth every penny of his 45 million dollar contract.

Affectionately nicknamed "Cowboy" by his teammates, Smith has been the lynch pin of a 49ers defensive that has been one of the best in the league in recent years. Smith is not the type of player whose stats tell the whole story. Instead, it's the little things he does like pushing the pocket or commanding double teams to free up other players. It's his non stop motor that makes him a nightmare to deal with for opposing offensive lineman. Smith said it himself on NFL Network after a Thursday night victory against the Seahawks, "Stats are for losers."

Smith has made the pro bowl each of the last four seasons and was so good in 2011 that he was the first player ever to be named All-Pro at two different positions. His importance to what the 49ers do defensively was never more evident than when he he was injured and not playing last season. According to Todd McShay, the 49ers defense recorded a sack once every 16.2 drop backs when Smith was on the field and once every 29.4 when he wasn't. Looking deeper, they allowed 2 touchdowns on 305 rushing attempts when Smith was in the game and 5 touchdowns on 102 rushes when he was not.

2013 marks the last year of Justin Smith's contract. Could this year be his swan song with the 49ers? Smith looks to be fully recovered from the triceps tear that caused him to miss time at the end of the regular season and be a shell of himself in the playoffs. But the Cowboy will be 34 years old this season and doesn't want to stick around if he can't be the type of player he has been in the past.

"I don't want to be the guy who becomes the third down guy who plays 17 (snaps)," said Smith. "I don't want to do that."

But it's not out of the question that Justin Smith may have more than one season of quality football left in him. What the team (and Smith) will have to weigh is how much those years are worth. The 49ers have a number of significant core players up for contract extensions in Colin Kapernick, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith, and Michael Crabtree. If Justin Smith were to come back on a short term deal, it would most likely have to be at a reduced rate. One idea, if Smith remains healthy and effective, would be to take it one-year at a time with cap friendly deals that are incentive based.

Even though Smith remains an option past 2013, the 49ers have begun to plan for life without him. They spent a second round selection in the 2013 draft on defensive end Tank Carradine. Carradine projects to be Smith's eventual replacement when the time comes. Smith, however, remains focused on the present.

"You can't really forecast past the year you're in. I'm thinking about 2013 and 2013 only. We have our team back for the most part, added some other pieces. The goal is still the same as last year. Got close. Didn't get it done. Hopefully we get it done this year."

He's right. San Francisco's championship window is still wide open and the team needs Smith to be his dominant self to make another run at the Super Bowl. The 49ers are hoping their cowboy has at least one last good ride in him.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • McMaster
    Hey Great Comments... Problem with Niners former coaches after Siefert, ... Moocci and Erickson, and before Nolan, could not tell talent based on their draft choices. Their lack of ability to Draft good players is why the Niners had so many down years. Good Drafts form the backbone of championships. Thanks Balke.
    Jun 26, 2013 at 9:28 PM
  • Frank
    It'd be great if Cowboy can play another couple of seasons...would give Carradine a chance to get established. Although I know many Niner fans still blame Mike Nolan for the team not doing better, one thing he did is improve the roster, and Justin was definitely his crowning achievement.
    Jun 19, 2013 at 10:59 AM
    Response: Nolan did a lot of good things with the roster. But hey, Justin just signed the extension so you got your wish!
  • Ted
    Hey Al, the run from 95 to 99 was also due to coaching. After 94 we lost Shanahan whom I thought was the architect of that explosive offense and to some degree Rhodes. As much as I loved Seifert, he was a head coach that that had mastery of the defense, since he couldn't focus solely on the D, it wasn't as dynamic. The D looked dynamic when we had Deion in the secondary which helped improve our pass rushing (the team never recovered after the Haley trade). In my eyes Seifert maxed out from 90-93, that after 94 I was probably one the few that wanted Seifert promoted/replaced, and Shanahan promoted head coach.
    Jun 18, 2013 at 9:17 AM
    Response: I always say the 90s 49ers were a lot like the 00's colts. Great talent and regular seasons but flamed out in the playoffs. Both won 1 title but really could have had a few
  • G
    One could also argue that Jim Harbaugh was the best free agent signing in the history of the Niners
    Jun 18, 2013 at 6:53 AM
    Response: This! Well put!
  • Ted
    DaNiners, so many new faces on the D that year. Deion was the most visible, but it wouldn't have mattered if we didn't have the line backers (Plummer, Norton, Jackson) and the D-line with rookie Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield controlling Emmit Smith. The D was not dominant because of one player, its because we had greatness at almost every position. The following year was a failure not just because of the loss of Deion, the loss of Watters and his numbers had a significant effect on the offensive side of the ball.
    Jun 17, 2013 at 8:59 PM
    Response: They went for it all in 94. Those 90s teams were loaded but had a tough time getting over the hump (dallas, green bay). They should have won more than the one SB in the 90s
  • DaNiners
    Some would also argue the greatest FA signing in Niner history was the one that gave us our 5th SB, Deion Sanders. He was brought in to nullify one guy, Michael Irvin, which he did, propelling us to the SB. Without him, they would not have beaten the Cowpokes.
    Jun 17, 2013 at 6:31 PM
    Response: Deion was great but he was there for such a short time. Could definitely make a strong arguement for him though considering they won the superbowl that year
  • Sl
    He deserves to get a ring and if that means giving him 1 year contracts why not? I re watched the earlier games of this past season. He was an absolute monster. Hate to agree w the giants but aldon really got his sacks because initially many teams had 2 sometimes 3 guys on cowboy. Giants showed how you beat superior teams ( see ne and Tom Brady twice) you rush the qb rotating DL keeping them fresh. Keeping cowboy to form that kind of rotation means winning a championship instead of just getting to go to the championship.
    Jun 14, 2013 at 8:39 PM
  • Ted
    Hey Al, I thought you were going to discuss Dallas's ineptitude on a 49ers website...whew! To Jack, don't know if he was 85 percent or not, but the man needed both arms and he didn't have that. Let's see what he has left, I would like to see him finish his career and retire a niner but in todays NFL economy the percentage doesn't look so promising, hope he does.
    Jun 13, 2013 at 2:11 PM
    Response: Lol..
  • Jack
    Some good food for thought here. Bryant Young remained pretty effective right up until the end of his career (side note: sad BY and Cowboy were never teammates - one leaves after 2007, the other arrives 2008). Normally I'd say something like "Even an 85% Justin Smith is still a force..." but unfortunately, that is exactly what we witnessed Week 16 onwards and the results weren't pretty. All that said, a fair, incentives-laden deal through 2014 would make the most sense.
    Jun 13, 2013 at 1:01 PM

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