The San Francisco 49ers will open 2014 by christening Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara as their new home, riding a wave of momentum fed by three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game. However, their hopes to continue that streak in the first year in their new digs and keep pace with the division rival and defending World Champion Seattle Sea hawks took a major hit on Sunday.

Word broke Sunday morning that the LAPD had detained a 25-year-old San Jose resident who became agitated when forced to succumb to additional security screening prior to boarding a flight. The man apparently walked away from the security checkpoint claiming he had a bomb in his possession before being detained by the LAPD at the gate and taken in for booking.

Afternoon reports confirmed what many early reports had rumored, citing eye-witness identification made by those present for the incident: the man in question was embattled 49ers linebacker and ace pass-rusher Aldon Smith.

For Smith—who actually will not turn 25 until September—this marks the latest chapter in a string of troubling episodes that have left him as the antithesis of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s model player. Smith was arrested for suspicion of DUI last season following an early-morning single-car accident in which the car he was driving struck a tree. He ultimately spent five weeks away from the team while undergoing substance abuse treatment. He also faces three as-yet-unresolved felony counts of possessing illegal assault rifles stemming from a party at his San Jose home in summer 2012, wherein he and several others were injured in what may have been a gang-related altercation.

Smith has been a critical component in a stifling 49ers defense since joining the team in 2011. He has recorded 42 sacks over 43 games in three years since the 49ers selected him in the first round out of Missouri. He also made a serious run at Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record two seasons ago before cooling off significantly in the final weeks. Smith forms a formidable tandem with his namesake Justin Smith on the defensive line, helping make the 49ers’ defense the type of unit that has kept the team in serious competition for a Super Bowl title throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, despite an offense that has at times been laughably anemic. However, this latest run-in with the law could see him finally fall totally out of favor with the 49ers, even if he ultimately faces no criminal or NFL sanctions.

Harbaugh responded defiantly to news of the rival Seahawks’ numerous conduct infractions last offseason, saying that he wanted to run a team whose conduct and character were “above reproach.” How many more chances can Harbaugh thus offer to a player who continues to run seriously afoul of the law—supremely talented though he may be?

Smith isn’t the only one creating unwanted off-field headlines this offseason.  Cornerback Chris Culliver, one of the few hold-overs in a secondary decimated by salary cap casualties and attrition, faces legal action related to a late-March hit-and-run and illegal weapons possession while star quarterback Colin Kaepernick is being investigated in relation to an alleged recent sexual assault incident in Miami. Considering the reputability of the accusations against Kaepernick (or lack thereof) it seems likely his case will go down as a false alarm similar to the allegations leveraged on Michael Crabtree during the 2013 playoffs. The Culliver and Smith situations, however, are cause for serious concern.

Even if neither player faces prison time or league suspensions as a result of their recent debacles, Harbaugh may be forced to consider voluntary team-imposed sanctions. Allowing them to continue playing with no ramifications would surely undermine his earlier assertions and he is nothing if not a strong-willed man of principle.


If Culliver and especially Smith miss any significant time in 2014—and at this point it seems a likely prospect—the ramifications for the 49ers defensive performance could be dire. The defense has already lost Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Donte Whitner this offseason, leaving Culliver, Tramaine Brock, Craig Dahl, Perrish Cox, and sophomore-Safety-to-be Eric Reid as the only remaining members of the secondary experienced with Vic Fangio’s defense. The 49ers struggled mightily at times last year putting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Missing their top pass-rushing threat for any period of time could put heavy pressure on an already-depleted secondary trying to gel with newcomers like Chris Cook and Antoine Bethea.

The 49ers overcame significant adversity last season to come within inches of making back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, so it is far from absurd to think they could find a way to still contend in 2014. Nonetheless, another poor decision by a long-troubled beleaguered star has put his team in a very unenviable position before the year even begins. It is a shame to again see an utter lack of maturity and self-discipline derailing a promising talent. We may well be witnessing the end of Smith’s tenure as a budding NFL star, and perhaps as a 49er.