SAN FRANCISCO – The 49ers had a chance to make a statement Sunday that they value the well-being of one of their star players more than the result of a mid-September game.
Instead, they sent the opposite message.
Rather than immediately deactivating outside linebacker Aldon Smith in the wake of his Friday arrest on suspicion of drunk driving, the 49ers allowed him to start and play virtually every key defensive snap in Sunday's 27-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Smith will take an indefinite leave of absence from the team beginning Monday to seek treatment for his behavior issues.
"It's something I will get fixed," Smith said, reading from a brief prepared statement in front of his locker after Sunday's game. "I'll do everything in my power to make sure this never happens again."
It's admirable Smith apologized to his teammates and fans and acknowledged he has a "problem," but it doesn't excuse the 49ers for prioritizing Sunday's game over getting their talented pass rusher help as quickly as possible. After all, there was plenty of evidence Smith's DUI was no isolated incident given that he has experienced off-the-field trouble several times since 49ers made him the No. 7 overall draft pick in 2011.
Smith was arrested in Miami in Jan. 2012 on suspicion of DUI, a charge that was later reduced to reckless driving. He was also recently named in two lawsuits stemming from a house party at his home in June 2012, during which he sustained minor stab wounds.
The last time a 49ers player was arrested for suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession, DeMarcus Dobbs was deactivated the following Sunday for a game in St. Louis. The only obvious difference between the Dobbs incident and the one involving Smith? Dobbs is a backup and Smith threatened Michael Strahan's single-season sack record last season.
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49ers CEO Jed York defended the team's decision to play Smith on Sunday against the Colts, insisting it was "the best decision for Aldon."
"Our opinion was, sitting somebody down and paying them to sit down when they're going to seek treatment in the future, that didn't seem like an appropriate punishment," York said. "I know it might not sound reasonable, but for Aldon to be able to face the media, face his teammates and take full responsibility for what he's doing, we felt that was the best situation for Aldon himself, for the team and ultimately the community at large. And I realize people might not agree with that decision but that was the decision we felt was best."
The one thing the 49ers can't be blamed for is not seeing Smith's off-the-field problems coming. Smith had no history of issues like this in high school or college.
This is a guy who played the drums in a church choir as a kid. This is a guy whose father required him to carry a 3.0 GPA as a junior and senior in high school or he wouldn't be allowed to play sports. This is a guy who told the San Francisco Chronicle two years ago that he wanted to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency once his football career was over.
It's critical for the 49ers that Smith overcome his issues because he's a cornerstone of their vaunted front seven now and in the future. Even two days removed from his DUI, he still managed to make five tackles against the Colts and to contribute to a Justin Smith sack by tripping up Andrew Luck as he tried to scramble out of the pocket.
Smith's 49ers teammates were respectful of what he's going through but declined to comment on whether he should have been on the field on Sunday.
"That's not my decision to say if he can play or not," running back Frank Gore said.
Nope. It's a decision belonging to York, coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. And at first glance, it appears they valued a game over a man's life.