Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Recent Retirements Due to Health Concerns, Not 49ers Management

Jun 6, 2015 at 8:04 AM15

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It has become trendy to blame San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke for each offseason mishap that befalls the team, even things are are seemingly out of their control. There has to be a limit though. At some point, placing complete blame on management becomes a bit ridiculous.

In the 49ers' long and storied history, this offseason has been one of the most bizarre. The front office let go of the head coach that brought respectability back to the franchise. His replacement? The team went with a position coach in Jim Tomsula after they oddly fumbled away their chance to bring in their first choice, former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. They struggled as they attempted to piece together a coaching staff under Tomsula, with first and second choices saying "no thanks" and going elsewhere in almost a laughable fashion.

The team let fan favorite -- yet aging -- running back Frank Gore go to the Indianapolis Colts. Gore would later state that he felt unwanted by the 49ers. The team lost both 2014 starting cornerbacks in free agency, but felt they had youngsters on the team that could step in and take their place. Other key free agents were allowed to leave as well after the team made little or no attempts to retain anyone.

To everyone except the 49ers themselves, it looked like the team was gearing up to rebuild. Although, convinced that this team was still stocked to make a Super Bowl run, Baalke insisted that they were instead reloading. Surely this was just talk to keep the fan panic level down, right?

Then the draft happened. Shockingly, the team indeed drafted as though they were reloading and not rebuilding. Rather than focusing on obvious team needs, it was business as usual as the 49ers repeatedly drafted who they felt were the best players available at each selection, including a "project" defensive lineman in the first round who may not even contribute much during his rookie season. They seemingly ignored glaring team needs through much of the draft. Now that was ballsy.

If you feel the need to do so, there is a lot of blame you can place on the team's management. However, the player retirements absolutely should not be one of those reasons.

This offseason saw the abrupt retirements of four key players. Well, three were abrupt. The other had the writing on the wall for some time.

The unexpected and shocking retirements kicked off in March with the announcement by linebacker Patrick Willis, which was devastating to fans. Willis, a fan favorite and well respected team leader, was the heart of the defense. However, the team had a promising young linebacker in Chris Borland that could take over and he was coming off of a surprisingly spectacular rookie season. Then a week later, he too retired. It read like some sort of cruel April Fools joke, but it was weeks too early for that.

Defensive lineman Justin Smith strung along fans since the end of the 49ers' disappointing 2014 campaign. The team stood by Smith, simply saying that he would decide when he decides and that he has earned the right to take his time. Many felt that he would retire. Some hung onto hope that the Cowboy would ride with the team one last time. Then, months later, All speculation finally ended as Smith officially announced his retirement.

On Friday, offensive tackle Anthony Davis announced that he would be retiring. Actually, he stated that he would be taking a year or so off, saying, "I'm taking this time to allow my Brain and Body time to heal and recoup."

Justin Smith is 35 years old. Patrick Willis is 30. Anthony Davis is 25. Chris Borland is 24. All were key players for the 49ers and each will be tough to replace.

Like I said, if you feel the need to blame team management for some aspects of this odd offseason, go right ahead. However, blaming them for these retirements is narrow minded and just plain wrong. It is highly doubtful that any of these players looked at the current state of the team and thought, "What a mess Jed York and Trent Baalke have gotten us into. I'm going to go ahead and forego a lot of money and just quit rather than play for these guys anymore."

All of these retirements had one thing in common. They occurred due to injuries. More specifically, they occurred due to each player wanting to do what was best for their health.

During his retirement speech, Willis stated his his reasons for leaving the game. His feet just didn't cooperate with him anymore and he felt that he could no longer contribute at the level the team expected, he expected, or the fans deserved. His 2014 season was ended early due to an injury to his left big toe. He had surgery on it after he was placed on injured reserve. However, he simply did not feel that he would be back at 100% and expressed a desire to not end up like so many of the former football players that now had trouble walking or playing with their kids. Willis retired for his health, not because of poor 49ers management.

Borland retired after his rookie year because of concerns over the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma. Borland had suffered two concussions prior to the NFL. One was while playing soccer in the eighth grade and the other was while playing football as a sophomore in high school. He believed that he suffered a possible concussion during 49ers training camp, but he pushed on because he was trying to make the team. His decision was based on a lot of research he did during and following the season. Borland retired for his health, not because of poor 49ers management.

"They all want you to keep playing, and I want to keep playing as well, but when you get on the bald tires, you're on the bald tires ... it was just time for me to move on," said Justin Smith while talking to reporters about his decision to retire. Smith was hampered the past two seasons by an injured left shoulder that he first hurt during the team's 2013 training camp. Since that was the shoulder that absorbed much of the punishment as he took on huge offensive lineman, Smith did not feel as though he could go through yet another season and play at the level that he expected. It was better to retire and heal than risk any long-term problems. Smith retired for his health, not because of poor 49ers management.

Davis, the 49ers' most recent retiree, missed nine games last season due to injuries, including a concussion that he suffered in November during a game against the New York Giants. He was a key part of the team's ability to run the ball. In the seven games that he played, the 49ers offense averaged 173 rushing yards per game. In the nine games that he missed, they averaged just 107 yards per game. Davis stated, "I'm simply doing what's best for my body as well as my mental health at this time in my life." Davis retired for his health, not because of poor 49ers management.

Nowhere in there did any of these players give the impression that they were unhappy with 49ers management or the direction the team is headed. No one gave the impression that they retired because they miss their former head coach, Jim Harbaugh. They each retired because of their health. To assume anything else is just silly. The 49ers have been victim to a string of very bad timing. The injury plagued 2014 season has simply culminated to where we are now.

And the last time I checked, there weren't any games scheduled in June. Let's wait and see what happens on the field before we decide to storm Jed and Trent's offices.
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.


  • Scott Bennett
    Yeah David keep telling yourself that. Reminds me of a drug abuser denying they have a problem. People have to be held accountable bud.
    Jun 8, 2015 at 8:55 AM
    Response: For bad decisions like the ones mentioned above? Yes. For players putting their health first? No.
  • Pat M
    Laughable. The front office created an environment over a long period of time that made it easy for players to believe that this isnt the place or the time for them...just easier to retire. It may be the easiest thing to do...blame management...but who else has earned that right?
    Jun 8, 2015 at 5:58 AM
    Response: How about Roger Goodell, who repeatedly insists that the game is safer than it has ever been and that the league puts safety first? Of course, the argument could be made that Goodell just represents the owners and their wants which would include Jed York and his family. So...I guess you can blame management that way.
  • Jimmy G
    Actually you are off target here David. Strtong leadership finds ways to retain talent. In business this is a leading tenant of management. If Davis's reasons for self imposed retirement is true, the 49ers could have placed this Pro Bowl player on PUP for 2015 season with minimal impact. There is a fundamental issue with York and Baalke management style, they are treating their operations as being"All" business and nothing but business. This is a fundamental flaw with young managers especially in the Sports Industry. Their organizational moves and communications are sophomoric at best and the lack of integrity shows as their actions are continuously exposed as being ingenuous once the media rips it apart. I've worked in Fortune 500 companies over my career and have seen how true business leaders inspire devotion and dedication by those they employ. York and Baalke neither inspire those they employ nor do they have the respect of many their customer base which will eventually be their downfall. If you look at the best run franchises in the NFL you will see a significant difference in how players and fans view the team management.
    Jun 7, 2015 at 11:47 AM
    Response: Then you know that while it is important to inspire and motivate your employees, it is even more important to make sure they have a healthy balance between work and personal life. Their health is an important part of that. It is important to gauge your employees' limits. Any business that fails to see that, including the 49ers, is setting itself up for failure. The top businesses in the country know this. It's tough as fans to separate ourselves emotionally because we want to see the team do well. But as individuals, the players are realizing more and more that they must look at their own long-term health before the team. I appreciate the comment and love to hear others' opinions, even if they differ from my own. Thank you for the feedback.
  • Dave
    I think your very wrong. Why would I want to beat my brains or body out for and obvious loosing coach and ownership. Who in this present organization has ever won anything. With their passed experience of picking coaches. Winning is a secret that few coaches know. Harabaugh new how to win championships and his players knew that and that's why they are dropping out. Nothing here to want to take a risk on.
    Jun 7, 2015 at 10:15 AM
    Response: Look, I am a Harbaugh fan, but even I would not say that he knew how to win championships. Unless you want to count Division I-AA championships. Almost wins don't count. I will say that he knew how to win though. Just not championships. Maybe one day with Michigan.
  • Edd
    Great read David. Agree 100%. With all the 49er organization misfires, player retirement is not their doing. I am concerned about the tardiness of these decisions, as they could have affected better drafting. Why wait so long?
    Jun 7, 2015 at 6:36 AM
  • RishikeshA
    Thanks David, you always have a way of bringing sanity to the faithful. The Niners went through a stretch of 3 years where they went deep in the playoffs, can the toll on the body and mind be measured under such extreme pressure? I think you will see more players retiring early with the knowledge that is available. The Seahawks went through 3 pressure packed years and were starting to break down last year, my guess is they come back to the pack the same way the 49ers did.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 7:20 PM
    Response: This is an excellent point that I wish I had mentioned. John Clayton just wrote a piece that mentions "Football is a game of attrition. The first sign of wear and tear was visible on the injury report. The 49ers had only 16 missed starts during the regular season in 2012. Missed starts jumped to 86 in 2013 and went to 92 last year."
  • Darrell G
    When the media has a steady drum beat about a coach being on his way out, we are surprised he was pushed out ? When the media spends two years pounding the drum about health risks and safety, we're surprised by a rash of players retiring for health concerns ? Wonder what will happen when the media realizes they reported themselves right out of a job ?
    Jun 6, 2015 at 5:49 PM
  • dustin
    At some point not putting all the blame on management is putting your head in the sand.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 3:20 PM
  • Marvin
    There comes a point where playing a game that beats your body up like that isnt worth playing for CERTAIN PEOPLE anymore. See barry sanders. He wanted to be traded or allowed to buy out his contract and the lions wouldnt do it.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 1:44 PM
  • Jamal
    Would you want to play for a coward? Just saying, it's a factor.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 11:37 AM
  • Jamal
    I'm just saying that Jed and co. focusing on the business aspects rather than football aspects is a FACTOR that annoys players and coaches: 1. Undermining the best coach in 20 years through the media 2. Moving the team to Santa Clara and not investing in SOME sort of home field advantage 3. Failure to bring in solid coaches to replace Harbaugh and co. 4. This may seem minor, but attempting to pave a children's soccer field to replace it with VIP parking for his white collar silicon valley friends.... This type of disregard for the game can, and likely has, factored into players decisions to leave the 49ers early. I agree that players leaving the game early is a growing trend, but it's still fairly rare. To see 3 players who are 30 and younger retire from ONE team in ONE offseason is unprecedented. If there's one thing we learned from the Harbaugh reports throughout the 14-15 season, it's when there is smoke there is fire. I was denying that we could let go of such a transcendent coach as well. And then it happened. The media was being fed credible reports directly from 49ers management. It's one thing to fire a coach. But to continuously undermine the guy is cowardly.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 11:36 AM
  • Reg Brown
    Totally agree with your assessment. As for others that we have loss, Coach Walsh always believed that it was better to lose someone a year early than a year late.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 10:14 AM
  • Jamer
    @Jamal, yeah right!,and if you believe Dumas,then the Rams are gonna go 16-0 this year and pigs will fly.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 9:19 AM
  • J
    How does this article seem rushed? I agree with it personally, all the players stated health reasons that don't factor into it being a team issue, if it truly was a team issue there would be trade demands and players trying to make it miserable for the team in the media.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 9:10 AM
    Response: Good points. If there were other reasons that factored to the retirement decisions, then fine. However, until that is revealed, there is no reason to believe that these retirements had anything to do other than their own stated health reasons.
  • Jamal
    Jesse Dumas' article was well written and objective. This seems like a rushed and panicked response to Jesse, that entirely glosses over the fact that Jed York is catering to white collar suits rather than football men. Look, I hope you're right and the Niners can turn it around, but in order to grow you've got to be honest with yourself. 49ers management shat on the player's/coach's success. The players are well aware and some have decided enough is enough. Of course they will be cordial and professional by keeping the focus of the decision to retire on themselves, but thats business. They don't want to burn bridges. Think about if you had a bad boss but you needed him/her for a reference. Same deal. Jed would be smart to stay out of the media and let Trent run the show. The best thing he can do is fade into obscurity.
    Jun 6, 2015 at 8:55 AM
    Response: Actually, despite the fact that I had it posted myself, I had not had a chance to read Jesse's article until just now. This is in response to our fans on Facebook, who love to express management hate, more than anything else. A lot of it may be warranted. Some of it isn't. While I don't 100% agree with Jesse's article, his opinion is well expressed and thought out. I agree that it is a good piece. Although, the title makes it seem more drastically negative than it actually was. Still, if you read it, it was yet another solid article by Jesse that made me rethink aspects of the offseason a bit. While I too have been somewhat critical of management this offseason, I still don't think any of these retirements had anything to do with anything other than player health. Jesse even expresses in his piece that this is a growing concern througout the league. I just think that most - if not all - of these retirements would have happened regardless of coaching changes or offseason losses. Some players are finally realizing that long-term health is more important than money. Thanks for the feedback.

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