Forget for a second that San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke recently said the franchise isn't ready to give up on troubled outside linebacker Aldon Smith. You also shouldn't spend too much time dwelling on the reports that Smith won't face felony charges stemming from his arrest at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month. The main focus in this ongoing story should be how 49ers CEO Jed York views his 24-year-old star. From the looks of things, York's attitude toward this situation is the only thing that truly matters going forward.
Baalke said Friday that the 49ers are hoping Smith can stabilize his personal life to the point that he can be in San Francisco for many years to come. However, a league source said York doesn't have much patience left for a Pro Bowl player who has been arrested four times and also missed five games last season after checking into a rehabilitation facility. There already has been an ESPN report that the 49ers aren't expected to pick up Smith's $9.75 million option for 2015, but as the source said, "The real variable is what Jed wants to do. If he decides [Smith] lied to him, isn't committed to sobriety or poses any distraction for his stadium grand opening, he may want to cut bait."
That's a fairly sizable checklist for Smith to deal with in the coming months. It's also one that will be somewhat difficult for him to handle. We're not talking about what he told York about his off-the-field problems, or Smith's daily battle to stay clean and sober. It's the part about not becoming a distraction for the 49ers' new stadium opening -- which happens this season -- that sounds a little too sizable for him to overcome.
You can talk all day long about Jim Harbaugh's supposedly fractured relationship with Baalke, or the question of how big a contract extension quarterback Colin Kaepernick deserves now that Miami police are questioning him about a "suspicious incident" in that city. Nothing compares to the headlines Smith has produced with his erratic behavior over the past two years. In 2012 alone, he was arrested for a DUI in Miami, stabbed at a party in his home and eventually charged with possessing illegal firearms after police arrived at that event. His recent arrest for allegedly telling airport security he had a bomb as they detained him -- a charge that the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office said will be reviewed as a misdemeanor instead of a felony -- also occurred nearly eight months after police found his car crashed in San Jose and booked him on suspicion of DUI and possession of marijuana.
No matter how you feel about TSA or the hassles that come with commuting through airports these days, Smith should've been smart enough to diffuse a situation that would only look bad for him in the end. Since he apparently did not handle that one well, York has every reason to wonder if it's time to move on from one of the best pass-rushers in pro football. Smith has a jaw-dropping 42 sacks in just three NFL seasons. But even that isn't enough to distort the obvious reality that he's been living on the wild side for far too long.
His latest arrest should've put Smith into zero-tolerance territory with the 49ers. After all, this is shaping up as the hardest decision York may have to make since he became the operating head of the franchise in 2008 (his parents, John and Denise York, are the 49ers' co-chairmen). Smith could've made things much easier by keeping a low profile and letting his play do the bulk of his talking. Now he's pushed York into a corner that no owner wants to be in.
For the people who think it's a major deal that Smith won't get that option, just consider how York would feel if the opening of Levi's Stadium really was overshadowed by another Smith transgression. The 49ers spent decades trying to make this project work, and they can't wait to unveil a state-of-the-art venue that will also be home to Super Bowl L during the 2015 season. Talented players come and go. New stadiums -- along with the likelihood of greater revenues -- always make owners feel like their lives are even more charmed than they already are.
The other obvious issue with Smith is that the 49ers have to be thinking about sending a stronger message to the rest of the roster. The decision to not pick up that option (which has to occur by May 3, according to his contract) would be a positive start in that direction. Smith has reached the point in his career where the 49ers have to face legitimate questions about what rewarding a gifted player with baggage could do to their franchise. While the league source quoted earlier said the team is willing to ride out any league-imposed suspension this coming year, don't think the 49ers aren't already thinking long and hard about possible options for replacing Smith if he can't turn around his life.
If York needs a situation to compare this to, he might want to look at how the Kansas City Chiefs handled former defensive end Jared Allen in 2008. Allen spent his first four seasons with that organization, including a Pro Bowl campaign in 2007. He also had two arrests for driving under the influence, which proved to be troubling enough for Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson that he refused to offer Allen a long-term deal. That story ended with Peterson ultimately trading Allen to the Minnesota Vikings.
That deal is significant in this context for two reasons. The first was that Allen got the opportunity for a fresh start and has been named to four more Pro Bowls to date (he recently joined the Chicago Bears as a free agent). The Chiefs also benefited from the three picks they gained in the trade, as the first-round selection became Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert (now with Miami), and one of their two third-round picks turned into Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles. That trade was an example of what happens when a team realizes it needs to make the best of a worrisome situation.
It wouldn't be surprising if the 49ers find themselves contemplating similar possibilities with Smith. There is still ample time for him to turn his life around, and as Baalke said, "He's made a lot of decisions that could've been made differently and better and he's the only one now who can get himself out of it." But Smith is also past the point where the benefit of the doubt -- or even a sympathetic view toward his issues -- is something he can expect from ownership. The biggest challenge Aldon Smith faces these days is making sure he never makes his boss look bad again.