Boomer Esiason gave his thoughts to SI.com on the dilemma facing Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers regarding troubled star outside linebacker Aldon Smith. This is a problem that has become quite prominent in Santa Clara, California, but more generally faces coaches on all teams every season—just look at the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, the Ravens with Ray Rice, the Cardinals with Tyran Mathieu, to name a few. Circumstances differ in each case, of course, and Smith, right now, looks to be deservedly in the doghouse. So what does Boomer have to say regarding the 49ers’ situation?
“I understand the moral dilemma that a lot of these coaches find themselves in . . . [Aldon Smith] has been as productive an outside linebacker as there is in the NFL . . . But now, if you’re the head coach, how do you deal with this? And I know there’d be a lot of people out there that’ll would say ‘You gotta get rid of Aldon Smith, you gotta get him out of here; he’s a distraction to the team.’ But that’s not so easy for the team or the coach. You see, they have built up a relationship with these players and they also know the inner workings of how this player has had to live his life to this point, so there is going to be some sympathy there as long as they’re productive on the football field.”
Boomer brings up a really good point. Many players in the National Football League have grown up in adverse circumstances—most of which the average viewer, or even media member, has little to no idea about. True, Patrick Willis’ difficult childhood is now known quite well thanks to an ESPN special, but the vast majority of NFL players do not get the opportunity to tell their story, whether they want to or not. Thus, only the coach, some teammates, and some front office personnel truly know the difficulties that have helped shape the personality and mindset of each individual player.
Relationships build up too. Yes, Trent Baalke quickly announced that the 49ers were “disappointed” in Smith, but he has also given him the support he needs. Smith has not had any more issues with drinking or substance abuse—or stabbing, for that matter. Rather, he did an admittedly stupid thing—comment about having a bomb while in the midst of airport security—but this just seems, to me at least, to be an action undertaken by a frustrated individual (who isn’t frustrated while going through airport security?) who has not had proper instruction on how to engage in public. (To be honest, I have always had the nagging urge to do the same thing Smith did. I would imagine most of you have had it too but, like me, have always suppressed it because you reconsider and realize that the small thrill would not justify causing disruption and even more frustration for yourself. The only difference between that and Smith is that he did not turn on that “filter” if you will, and spoke without thinking.)
Boomer Esiason had a bit more to say about the situation, as well:
“Sooner or later [Harbaugh] is either gonna have to decide that Aldon Smith is too much of a distraction and is bringing down his team or somewhere along the line he’s got to show that he is going to give him his full support and get him back on the field. I think it is going to be the latter because Jim Harbaugh knows that Aldon Smith, when of right mind—and of sound mind—is a difference maker on the football field and is still young enough to get his act together.”
I agree with Boomer. I expect Harbaugh and Baalke to continue to support Smith. Whether this means they will pick up his option before May 3 or try and get a deal done later on in the season, I do not know. (However, I imagine he might be able to get a cheaper extension right now if the 49ers want to pursue that and be in it for the long haul with Aldon.) What I do believe is that Harbaugh and Baalke recognize that simple punishment will not be nearly as productive as encouragement, support and helping Smith along. Countless studies have shown that positive reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment in changing people’s behaviors. Baalke and Harbaugh are not naïve, they know this, and they have shown support consistently and in a proper manner—yes, I firmly believe they did the right thing by Smith in playing him the Sunday after his DUI, not because it was in the team’s best interests, though it may have been, but because ostracizing a person in this situation would have been devastating and really caused Smith to question how much the 49ers organization cares for him.
Smith knows, now, that he owes a lot to the support of his employer. Perhaps this will encourage loyalty and a newfound dedication to turning his life around. I certainly hope this is the case, not just as a 49er fan, but more importantly, as a person concerned for Aldon Smith’s wellbeing.