Here's the main and strongest theme of the criticism I've received after last week's back-and-forth with Jim Harbaugh over the Aldon Smith situation, which I've heard over and over from loud Harbaugh and 49ers defenders:
"Well, what's Harbaugh SUPPOSED to say to these questions without knowing all the legal consequences?"
That argument is offered to me as if there was no reasonable way Harbaugh could've answered what his supporters believe were rude, trick, inappropriate questions. The point being made to me is this: I surely couldn't have answered them if I was in his place.
Really, there's nothing Harbaugh could've said?
You asked for it; here's what I believe he could've/should've said:
-But first, a general set up...
Every move the 49ers have made with Aldon Smith has, at its essence, informed him that they will ignore almost any of his misdeeds as long as he can suit up and rush the quarterback.
Every enabling, indulgent move.
Jed York, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh can dress it up in whatever rhetoric they'd like—silence in York's case, barking non-answers in Harbaugh's case, and gushing praise of Smith by Baalke.
In the GM's case, apparently, the more trouble Smith gets into, the swoonier and more protective Baalke gets about him.
And this 49ers' see-no-evil-just-sack-the-QB handling of Smith might yet pay off, I'm not denying it.
Smith is an excellent player and he was great after his return from his trip to rehab in the middle of last season—at least he absolutely was in the Green Bay playoff game, and that alone, I'm sure, justified the 49ers' all-out coddling of Smith (to the 49ers).
There's a reason the only-football-matters side of the 49ers operation has won out: Smith plays football at a level that is not replaceable, period. This isn't about fielding a bunch of angels. The business is set up to beat Seattle, Green Bay, Carolina, St. Louis, Arizona, Baltimore... et al.
The 49ers' chances of winning a Super Bowl are better with Smith than without him, and they are in this to win a Super Bowl, not run a morality camp.
But it's not clear that the 49ers' approach to this is the best thing for their real goal: Getting Smith in the line-up as much as possible.
Because the more the 49ers indulge him and let him behave however he wants to behave, the less Smith is discouraged from screwing up so badly that even they can't pretend it doesn't matter any more, and he might've already done that, pending NFL judgment and the July 25 sentencing hearing for three felony weapons charges and one misdemeanor DUI charge after his "no contest" plea last week.
The 49ers have never forced Smith to make a choice: Stay within the lines of our rules, or you won't play football for us.
What have the 49ers shown to Smith through all of this? If he's healthy, eligible to play, not in jail and not inebriated (though it sounds like the 49ers brass might give him some leeway on that last one), they will play him.
Whatever he does, they will forgive him and they will play him. That's what they've shown Smith. So he might cross the NFL's and the criminal system's lines before he gets close to anything the 49ers have done to settle him down.
That's a problem, because the 49ers could have been the first group to show Smith what he couldn't do—instead, all they've done is let him do anything he wanted.
Again, I know this is complicated. The 49ers aren't the first team to be faced with a situation like this, and they aren't the first ones who ignored most of the troubles caused by a very talented player.
But there has to be a line, somewhere, or else Aldon Smith is never going to need to hold back his behavior.
What's the line Smith cannot cross before the 49ers actually get mad at him? That's what I was asking Harbaugh. There apparently is no such line, at least none that the 49ers' executives and coaches have ever displayed to him or suggested publicly.
He has screwed up with the law multiple times, and Harbaugh-Baalke-York have always put him back into the line-up as swiftly as possible each time.
He has screwed up other times that haven't reached the attention of the courts, the 49ers know about these incidents, and Harbaugh-Baalke-York have always put Smith back into the line-up as swiftly as possible.
They rushed him from jail after his DUI arrest straight to practice last September, and they played him 70 out of 70 defensive snaps two days later. In a loss, by the way.
York stood by Smith's side in the locker room after that game and swore that the team would stand by his side always, then Smith went to rehab, missed five games (the 49ers won all five), and he was rushed back into action as quickly as possible once he returned to the team.
Even though there was sentiment in the 49ers front office last month to pass on picking up his fifth-year option for the 2015 season, the 49ers went ahead of picked up his option after Baalke met with Smith a few times and came away totally satisfied with Smith's state of mind.
Unavoidable conclusion: Smith is untouchable in the 49ers' organization, and he knows it. What else is there for him to conclude?
They will always play him; they will always coddle him.
(He went into rehab voluntarily, but basically that was the 49ers begging him and that was Smith realizing he had to do it.)
The other day, Harbaugh made his best point when he said that all actions have consequences; I totally agree. I also point out: There have been no real 49ers-mandated consequences for Smith, other than them pushing him out to play the very moment he sobered up or walked out of the rehab center.
Since it's so important for Harbaugh's fans to challenge me on this, here's what I would NOT have said or done in this situation...
-I would NOT have rushed Smith right from jail to the practice field on that fateful Friday morning in September, hours after his DUI arrest; I would've sent him home to sober up and kept him there until things could be clarified and explained;
-NOT let him play two days after that DUI; not play him all 70 snaps; not stood next to him in the locker room and said it was only about what was best for him;
I would've declared him inactive for that game, paid him his game-check (to avoid a fight with the union) and sent him immediately to rehab, if that was the best thing for Smith;
The idea that the 49ers had to let him play as a "carrot" to get him to trust the idea of rehab was, to me, a huge warning sign that the 49ers were just frantically bribing Smith and had no real idea what he would do next;
-NOT rushed Smith back into action as quickly as possible after he returned from his rehab stint;
-NOT sworn allegiance to him after the LAX incident, as Baalke did, once again, that was all about the behavioral bribe—please be good Aldon, if we keep
saying we're not mad, will you just be nice and behave, even after the fifth time you misbehave?
I would never do anything like that; that's a sign of franchise weakness, not strength;
-NOT picked up his fifth-year option; the 49ers did that to once again show Smith that they supported him and to protect themselves in case he has a great year in 2014 and then they'd have his rights for 2015; that action displayed to Smith that they need him, no matter what;
The 49ers showed weakness once again by picking up his fifth-year option—at least, that's how Smith surely can read it; again, he's untouchable in the 49ers organization.
That's the football imperative running this operation, and yes, I get that. Football teams are supposed to do everything they can to win football games and Smith at his best absolutely helps the 49ers do that.
But do Harbaugh-Baalke-York want to be remembered as the leadership group that accepted criminal behavior and brushed off any questions about this acceptance and let him go to the brink, and then over it?
If they do, they should keep doing what they're doing and saying what they're saying with Aldon Smith. If they don't, the 49ers have a lot of thinking and explaining to do.
* And here's what I would say, if I was involved with this, since so many of you have demanded to hear it:
-I would say that Smith is a valued player and person but he has made mistakes and that no company—sports team, tech firm, soda shop—can tolerate these kinds of repeated mistakes from any of its employees, especially when they endanger the public (as all DUIs do);
-I would say that Smith's status with the team is under review, and I would say that this is complicated; ( I've never said or written that he should be automatically cut, and I wouldn't think he should be released now, but that does have to be a live option in near the future; I would say so, loud and clear, unlike Harbaugh-Baalke-York have ever done;)
-I would say that this team is dropping the Baalke-style fervent defense of Smith immediately, mostly because it's undeserved and it promotes recklessness from Smith (or any of their other top players who watch this unfold);
-I would say that the team wants Smith to be healthy and sober and behaving like a responsible adult and teammate, like it wants all our employees to be healthy and sober and responsible, like everybody in the world should be healthy and sober and responsible;
-I would say that, yes, there is a standard of behavior that all employees (and executives) must meet and I would continue to herald the employees who do surpass it every day (like Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Joe Staley, Anquan Boldin and many, many others) instead of lowering all standards in order to indulge those who fail constantly;
-I would say that everything, as always, is pointed towards winning a Super Bowl, which might be accomplished with Smith, and it would be great if it was;
-But I would say that the highest honor for a franchise would be to win a Super Bowl with integrity, with employees who are held to a standard of behavior, and with executives who sustain and support that with their own actions and decisions;
-I would say that maybe you can win a Super Bowl by cutting moral and ethical corners, but that I wouldn't want to;
-I would say that the pursuit of a title without personal integrity is not worthy of the Lombardi trophies won by Bill Walsh, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Roger Craig and George Seifert; it is not worthy of this franchise's legacy and history, and it is not the way this team and its leaders should ever want to be remembered.
Yes, I know the 49ers Dynasty cut some corners along the way. But those 49ers teams also had a standard of behavior. I do believe that. Don't tell Ronnie Lott that the great 49ers teams had no standards and no internal code of conduct.
Harbaugh, Baalke and York have done little to show that they have a standard of behavior involving Aldon Smith's troubles—they've said nothing about integrity or worthiness or standards or a franchise's core principles.
Which tells us a lot and assuredly tells Aldon Smith even more.