Aldon Smith SF 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers still hold out hope that Aldon Smith can continue playing like an All-Pro while leaving the nonsense behind. Less than 12 hours before today’s 9 pm PST deadline, the team announced that they’ve exercised Smith’s fifth-year option, which will pay him $9.754 million in 2015.

The reports on this story have blown back and forth like wind gusts at Candlestick Park. Back when I wrote about why the 49ers might at least consider not picking up the option, my assumption was it was pretty likely that they would. Then there were “league sources” who said it was actually very unlikely, given Smith’s most recent arrest at LAX and mounting legal troubles. In the last couple days it changed to “it could go either way.”

The 49ers could’ve waited as long as they did for a variety of reasons. It was announced six days ago that Smith wouldn’t face felony charges for his bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport. That was right around the time Trent Baalke said, “We’re a family,” when asked about Smith. “You don’t just open a door and toss people out of it.”

There was a hearing on Tuesday regarding multiple charges against Smith in Santa Clara County, but nothing came of that besides a new court date: May 12. Smith may have helped his cause just by working hard and acting professionally with everyone watching, as he has been a participant at team workouts in Santa Clara. A source told Tim Kawakami that Smith and Baalke had a face-to-face meeting, and “everything went well.”

Smith’s 2015 salary is guaranteed for injury only, but if he’s still on the roster at the start of the 2015 league year (March), the money becomes fully guaranteed.

This is strictly a business decision, as the 49ers had two choices.

1. Make a statement by taking a public stand of sorts against Smith. This option would mean telling the word that since he’s screwed up so many times and continues to screw up, he needs to prove himself before the team makes any future commitments. This move would’ve been cheered by several columnists as a “step in the right direction,” and many fans would’ve agreed. Smith wouldn’t have seen the benefit to this decision, and instead of proving the 49ers wrong with patience there’s a good chance he’d look forward to proving them wrong by sacking quarterbacks while wearing another team’s uniform.

2. Protect the team, the team, the team instead of worrying about vague PR initiatives. Breaking news: the 49ers know that winning is the best possible PR, and Smith is arguably their most talented player. He’s the rarest of commodities, an athletic, rangy sack artist who has learned to effectively set the edge and defend against the run. If Smith gets into trouble to the point where he can’t take the field and no NFL team would pay him anywhere close to $10 million, they can release him prior to March 2015. But if any other team (cough, Seahawks, cough) would consider giving him that kind of money, the 49ers were going to make damn sure they were that team.

I was shocked when it was reported that the 49ers were leaning against exercising the option, just knowing the team’s history and Smith’s talent level. Let’s face it, the guy has probably registered more sacks while hung over than 95% of active defensive linemen and outside linebackers after a good night’s sleep. Until Smith lands in jail — and from today’s news we can probably assume the 49ers believe he probably won’t — they’re going to keep giving him chances. To the 49ers, the risk of Smith cleaning his life up and going on to have a Hall of Fame career with someone else far outweighs the potential backlash that might come from backing Smith now.