When you write about sports all the time and you’re trying to come up with angles others aren’t hitting, there’s a constant temptation to look ahead. Specifically, latching onto young players that, based on glimpses and projections, could turn into guys worth bragging about for several years. Yes, we’re all day traders, only instead of money we’re putting credibility — such as it is — on the line.
I bought in on Aldon Smith from the beginning, but I was also driving the Anthony Randolph bandwagon for months so I hardly have a blemish-free track record.
But even though I was a believer from the first YouTube highlights package (which I linked to at the end of this post) that I watched in the moments after Smith was drafted, even though after seeing him in person for the first time at a 49ers practice I marveled at how on earth one man can make everyone else on an NFL team look small, even though I couldn’t help but notice Smith making all those plays during his first preseason game, even though I kept calling him “future Haley” … I couldn’t have predicted he’d give Von Miller a run for his money like this.
I did have my hopes though, as you can see from a post I wrote on Dec. 8 titled, “How Aldon Smith can win Defensive Rookie of the Year”:
Smith needs to make the last four games of the regular season count — maybe run some 1.5-sack games together and finish at 14.5 (Jevon Kearse’s rookie sack record) or higher. There’s no way he’ll catch up to Miller in total tackles with this much time left, but tying or breaking a glamourous record like Kearse’s would give Smith some buzz.
Also, Smith needs to go crazy against the Pittsburgh Steelers a week from Monday. He already has a safety this season, so perhaps grabbing his first interception and returning it for a touchdown would be a nice touch.
So Aldon, if you want to take home the same award Patrick Willis won after the 2007 season, just keep playing like you did on Sunday against the Rams. And most importantly, do your best to knock Ben Roethlisberger to the Candlestick turf repeatedly on MNF.
Smith didn’t score a touchdown last night, but the way he dominated Max Starks, Marcus Gilbert and the rest of the Steelers’ offensive line was just as effective. His 2.5 sacks didn’t just give him 13 on the season (putting him 1.5 ahead of Miller), but it was the way he did it. Bull rushes. Club moves. Jets. Jon Gruden audibly drooling.
I’m sure the Steelers’ QB has been picked up and driven into the ground before, but I can’t remember the last time I saw it happen like this — getting lifted into the air by Smith as if Big Ben were actually a toddler. Now Roethlisberger’s going to see incredibly long, huge arms covered in long white sleeves in his nightmares for the rest of his life.
Now we have a battle! Miller’s still probably the DROY frontrunner due to how many more downs he’s played than Smith, which has led to twice as many tackles.
That’s no reason to change the way the 49ers are using Smith. Since things seemed to click on Week 4 at Philadelphia (when Smith registered his first tackles and 1.5 sacks of his career), he’s looked fresher, faster and stronger than everyone else on the field in the second halves of virtually every game. Offensive linemen have no chance, and now Smith is looking at a career full of double teams — except with how well Justin Smith is playing, that’s a pretty risky proposition.
Smith’s chances at surpassing Miller for this postseason honor will rise if these three things happen:
1. Denver misses the playoffs (extra points if the 49ers nail down the No. 2 seed).
2. Smith ends up with the 15 sacks needed to surpass Kearse’s rookie record.
3. Miller has two more relatively quiet games like on Sunday against the Patriots (1 solo tackle, zero in the way of sacks, forced fumbles, passes defended, interceptions).
Individual awards aren’t a lot more than hardware and reasons for people to argue in bars (or on Twitter), and the 49ers have bigger things in mind this season than DROY, Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections. But I’ll admit that it’d be pretty cool if our belief in Aldon Smith, a somewhat unknown No. 7 overall pick who some of us saw something in from the very beginning, was validated with a little national recognition. After how he performed on ESPN, Smith already has some national recognition. The hardware may be coming.