Nine games is a long time for the San Francisco 49ers to be without Aldon Smith.
When the suspension came down on Aug. 29, it was a surprise—CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco had tweeted that the 49ers were expecting a six-to-eight-game suspension. Earlier, Commissioner Roger Goodell had implied to CSN Bay Area that Smith’s voluntary rehab stint would factor into any discipline, but ESPN’s Ed Werder tweeted that in the end, it did not.
Whether you think the length is deserved, too long compared to other recent suspensions or not long enough for a player with a laundry list of off-field incidents is a moot point at this juncture. The 49ers will be without Smith for nine games.
With the bye week, that means we won’t see Smith until the Nov. 16 game against the New York Giants. Smith will miss the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, just to name the highlights. He will be available for both Seattle Seahawks games and the matchup with the San Diego Chargers.
The combined loss of Smith and NaVorro Bowman is a humongous blow to the best linebacker corps in football. Smith has 42 sacks in 43 career regular-season games, an insane production that Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta can’t hope to match. While I think Lemonier is poised to break out, there’s a significant gap between his level of play and that of an All-Pro performer like Smith.
It is worth noting, of course, that the 49ers won all five games Smith missed last season. However, those five teams combined for a 30-50 record, so it wasn’t exactly a gauntlet of the toughest competition. By comparison, the nine teams the 49ers will play during Smith’s suspension had a record of 85-59 in 2013. It’s the difference between playing the San Diego Chargers every week and playing the Buffalo Bills every week.
The question now becomes about survival. The 49ers need to get through the Smith suspension and the Bowman injury in a decent enough position to challenge for at least a wild-card spot, if not the division title outright. As long as the 49ers can get into the postseason, they’ll have the advantage of having Bowman and Smith relatively rested for the stretch run.
The NFC is a tough conference in which to make the playoffs. Last year, the Arizona Cardinals missed the postseason despite going 10-6, but that’s a rarity—there have only been 10 teams to win 10 games and still miss the playoffs since the dawn of the 12-playoff-team era in 1990.
So let’s assume 10 wins are necessary and sufficient to make the playoffs this season. Let’s also assume that, by Week 11 when Smith’s suspension is up, the 49ers are at full steam. Smith gets to work out with the team during the suspension, so there should be no delay in getting him back on the field. Bowman might need some practice time to get ready, but he’s eligible to come off the PUP list in only six weeks. A Week 11 return date is actually quite conservative for Bowman.
A full-strength 49ers team will face an interesting schedule over the last seven weeks of the season. You have both games against the Seattle Seahawks, which could well decide the winner of the division. You also have an interesting travel situation: After the Giants game in Week 11, the 49ers never travel farther than Seattle for a road game, with the game in Oakland being an especially short road trip.
How will the 49ers do in those seven games? If you use Pro-Football-Reference’s Simple Rating System from last year, and adjust the three points that home-field advantage is more or less worth, you’d end up with the 49ers going either 5-2 or 6-1, depending on how you grade the Seahawks game at Levi’s Stadium—the gap between San Francisco and Seattle falls right in the range of values assigned to Home Field Advantage.
This is obviously a simplistic method; teams won’t be precisely as good or bad as they were last season. Washington, for example, should be significantly better with a full year from a healthy Robert Griffin III. However, the five non-Seattle teams on San Francisco’s schedule don’t worry me significantly at this point.
Pat Kirwin of CBS predicts that Arizona, Washington, Oakland, San Diego and the NY Giants will have a combined record of 38-42 this season, with only the Chargers finishing above .500. I might quibble with a win or two here or there, but the fact is that these are teams the 49ers should beat if they consider themselves a playoff team. If they can’t handle a game against the Oakland Raiders with their season on the line, they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs regardless.
So, if we think the 49ers will get five wins in their last seven games, that means they need to get five wins in the first nine games—essentially playing .500 ball for the first half of the season. That’s the head-above-water point; if they fall below that, their odds of making the postseason look grim indeed.
So, the question is, are the 49ers, without NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, an 8-8 quality team? I think the answer to that question is yes. The 49ers still boast Pro Bowlers in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis and Eric Reid. Teams with eight Pro Bowlers tend to do fairly well the next season.
Let’s do another thought experiment with last year’s SRS ratings. If you just take the 49ers’ SRS ratings and compare them to their opponent’s SRS ratings from last year, the 49ers go 7-2. They lose at Denver and at New Orleans—that seems fair enough for a basic prediction, as the 49ers actually did lose at New Orleans last season, while the Broncos went 7-1 at home and were generally very, very good. That gives them a two-game cushion going into our 5-2 prediction at the end of the year.
Now we have to figure out how much the loss of Bowman and Smith will hurt the 49ers. How many points per game would the 49ers be worse without them? Well, of course, we don’t know, but we can make a few guesses.
After the two “expected” losses, the SRS system spits out the games in Arizona and St. Louis as the toughest matchups for the 49ers in the first 10 weeks. Divisional road games are certainly tough, and the Cardinals, especially, played the 49ers hard in 2013.
In the game in Arizona last season, the 49ers won 23-20 on a field goal as time expired. This was a meaningful game, too—the 49ers had to win to ensure themselves the fifth seed in the playoffs. It’s not hard to imagine the loss of two great defenders being enough to change that by one score, flipping that from a win to a loss.
The St. Louis Rams, however, faced the 49ers without Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis last year, and that didn’t seem to hurt the 49ers too much. They rolled over the Rams, 35-11, with the game being more or less over a couple drives into the second half. Without Sam Bradford, I doubt the Rams will be as good as they were last year, and that wasn’t enough to overcome the 49ers without Willis, Smith and Michael Crabtree.
It boils down to this—if the 49ers can beat the teams that did not make the playoffs last year, they’ll be in position to make a playoff run. If, however, they struggle with the Chicagos or Dallases of the world, then they are in serious trouble.
The Smith suspension, like the Bowman injury and all the other issues that have plagued the 49ers’ season so far, definitely hurts. All the team has to do to ride it out, however, is be an average NFL team, and that’s something they are more than capable of doing.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.