Almost five months ago, Alex Flanagan reported that San Francisco 49ers star defensive lineman Justin Smith would retire from the NFL after a stellar 14-year career. Today, after 230 NFL games and 89 sacks (including the playoffs), Smith made it official.
49ers’ DT Justin Smith is retiring, sources tell @JimTrotter_NFL. Great player, big loss, in many ways.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 18, 2015
He’s been taking his sweet time on this, and the 49ers were willing to give him all he needed for obvious reasons. He wasn’t quite the automatic double-team in 2014 that he was throughout most of his career. But even in the twilight, Smith was a force that opposing offenses needed to monitor.
Even the 49ers, who were happy to sign Smith away from the Bengals in 2008, couldn’t have imagined how well he’d perform. When he was in his prime, which probably ended right around the time he suffered a partially torn triceps against the Patriots on Dec. 16, 2012, he was simply fantastic — a player who attacked the game with a bruising persistence that made him seem like a player from an earlier era. Up until that game in Foxboro, he was arguably the 49ers’ most important player, certainly one of the strongest players in the league, a guy who rarely (if ever) took plays off and made life easier for the entire team — Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in particular.
Smith came back in short order from the triceps injury and battled through the 2012 playoffs and Super Bowl with one arm. While his pain tolerance will never be questioned, he wasn’t the same player. If he had never suffered that injury, the 49ers’ Super Bowl record may still be blemish-free.
His best season came in 2011, when at age 32 he was named First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press as a defensive tackle AND Second-Team All-Pro as a defensive end. I splurged that year and bought tickets to the NFC Divisional Round game against the Saints and the NFC Championship against the Giants, and I’ll never forget watching Smith stuff nearly every running play when he wasn’t collapsing pockets through sheer brute force, regularly shoving 325-lb offensive linemen several yards backwards and bringing down quarterbacks with one hand.
Smith started practicing less and less over the last two seasons, and it looked to be paying off in 2014. However, even though he tallied five sacks and still managed to play over 700 snaps (about 200 fewer than the year before), his level of play tailed off noticeably over the last quarter of the season. It was reported that he was dealing with back pain, and he looked like a guy who was hurting in the last game of the regular season against Arizona. No push at all. It was sad to see, and I wasn’t surprised at the time when Flanagan’s report hit Twitter.
In typical Smith fashion, instead of leaving right after the season, he pumped iron. Matt Barrows saw him at the gym on several occasions, and today Smith told Barrows that his decision had been made. Unfortunately for Barrows, Smith didn’t relay that decision to the Sacramento Bee beat writer.
Smith’s retirement is the third to hit the 49ers’ defense this offseason. Yet today’s announcement was expected, whereas the decisions by Willis and Chris Borland came as much greater surprises. The defensive line, which has featured Smith and Ray McDonald in prominent roles for each of the last seven seasons, will be manned by some different faces. Perhaps one will be Arik Armstead, who the 49ers chose in the first round ostensibly as a replacement for McDonald and/or Smith.