Patrick Willis' Shock Retirement Marks Official End of Jim Harbaugh-Era 49ers

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 9, 2015

Marcio Sanchez/AP Images

When NFL superstars retire unexpectedly, you can feel the collective gasp.

It's the gasp you hear when one team fumbles and the ball lies unprotected on the turf. The air sucks out of the stadium, the crowd falls utterly silent—save for maybe a terrified shriek—until the uncertainty is erased. Nobody knows what's going to happen next, but everyone knows it's going to change the game for good.

Per Yahoo Sports' Rand Getlin and CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith are expected to retire Tuesday. If they do, the Jim Harbaugh era will be completely, utterly over. Between those two stalwart defenders and the likely departures of free agents Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati, the 49ers would lose a collective 20 Pro Bowl nominations and seven first-team All-Pro nods.

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 05:  Patrick Willis #52 of the San Francisco 49ers runs onto the field during player introductions for their game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi's Stadium on October 5, 2014 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Sha
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

New head coach Jim Tomsula, promoted from defensive line coach, might have been chosen in part to preserve momentum and continuity for the 49ers' strong veteran nucleus. But with Harbaugh coordinators Vic Fangio and Greg Roman already working elsewhere, Willis, Smith, Gore and Iupati likely gone and star receiver Michael Crabtree also an unrestricted free agent, there is no veteran nucleus.

Even starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick is on the trading block, per a report by KBME SportsTalk 790's Jayson Braddock, though 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has since denied that is the case, via Maiocco.

Baalke and owner Jed York have willfully ripped the heart out of one of the NFL's most talented, successful teams. Now the patient is lifeless on the table, and it's an open question whether they've got the expertise to revive him.

Willis, almost immediately after being drafted 11th overall in 2007, became the best inside linebacker in football. His rookie season, in which he put up four sacks, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 135 solo tackles, established him as one of the NFL's premier defenders. Together with partner NaVorro Bowman, Willis put together a stunning run of dominance, racking up seven Pro Bowl nods and five first-team All-Pro nominations.

Justin Smith spent the first half of his career in Cincinnati, where he was a two-way 4-3 defensive end. Incredibly stout against the run but lacking the pure speed to consistently get around the corner on NFL right tackles, the 2001 fourth overall pick never topped his rookie-season best of 8.5 sacks. His move to San Francisco didn't get much fanfare—but his immediate impact as a 3-4 end brought plenty of accolades.

His second season in San Francisco, Smith started a five-year streak of Pro Bowl nominations. In 2011, he earned first-team All-Pro honors. Unbelievably, Smith had the exact same number of official sacks, 43.5, during his seven years in San Francisco as his first seven years in Cincinnati. Despite switching to a position where sacks are harder to come by, Smith was just as productive a pass-rusher from age 29 to age 35 as he was from 22 to 29.

In the 49ers' first season with Smith and Willis together, the team finished 23rd in scoring defense, per Pro Football Reference. In the following year, 2009, it finished fourth. That started a stretch of four times in five years in which the 49ers had a top-five scoring defense. In 2014, they finished 10th.

Smith's retirement is a shock, but not necessarily a surprise. He entered the league in 2001, just ahead of retired defenders like Richard Seymour and Andre Carter, and will turn 36 on Sept. 30.

Willis, though, just turned 30. Most great inside linebackers have three, four, five or more quality years left at that age. Age may be taking a toll on Willis' durability, though; he missed just four games in his first six seasons but 12 in the final two.

Surgery on his strained left big toe, which, per ESPN.com news services, had been bothering him for years, caused him to miss the last 10 games of the 2014 season—and, for the first time in his career, the Pro Bowl. The image of a toe injury putting a fire-breathing beast like Willis down for the count is a comic, almost Flintstonian image, but perhaps the pain really was too much for an all-or-nothing player like Willis to bear.

Independent blogger Kyle McLorg of BayAreaSportsGuy.com alleges, according to his source, that a recent "religious awakening" is causing Willis to step away from the game. Willis' verified Twitter account has recently numerous inspirational musings and Scripture quotes.

Patrick Willis @PatrickWillis52

Good morning to everybody! If you have been watching the videos that I have been posting then you might understand t… http://t.co/elthPszG6d

Or maybe we should apply Occam's razor: The simplest explanation is most likely correct. Willis, Smith, Gore and the other foundational players may be leaving the 49ers because they no longer believe in the team, the coaches, the leadership, the ownership or some combination thereof.

No matter the cause, one of the NFL's most prestigious organizations has a beautiful new Silicon Valley home and few exciting players left to help fill it.

Instead, Baalke-drafted youngsters like Tank Carradine and Chris Borland will have to step in and replace the lost on-field production.

Chris Borland
Chris BorlandUSA TODAY Sports

Borland, Pro Football Focus' fourth-rated inside linebacker of 2014, put up a whopping plus-20.8 grade despite playing just 487 snaps. He earned the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month award this past November and should have a leg up on Michael Wilhoite in the competition to play next to Bowman.

The 49ers have talented players at other positions on the defense, like outside linebackers Aldon Smith and 2014 fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch, 2014 first-round cornerback Jimmie Ward and 2013 first-round safety Eric Reid. Veteran nose tackle Glenn Dorsey was a big injury loss last year, and a healthy return from him would be a welcome bolster to the entire front seven.

Offensively, the 49ers have been bracing for Gore's eventual decline or retirement for a while; 2014 second-rounder Carlos Hyde averaged 4.0 yards per carry in relief of Gore last year and looks ready to take over the offense in 2015. Vance McDonald, a tight end taken in the second round of the 2013 draft, should have the opportunity to push a flagging Vernon Davis.

Center Marcus Martin was supposed to step in and start at center after being taken in the third round of last year's draft, but he suffered a dislocated kneecap during preseason and didn't get up to speed quickly when he got on the field. Together with veteran stalwarts Alex Boone and Joe Staley, the 49ers still have much of a quality offensive line in place.

Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reported Ravens free-agent wideout Torrey Smith is likely to reunite with Anquan Boldin in San Francisco, adding a vertical threat the team lacked in 2014. With a few more pieces in the draft and free agency, it's easy to see the new-look 49ers remaining a contender in the NFC.

But maybe the rumors aren't true. Maybe Kaepernick isn't on the market. Maybe players like Iupati and Crabtree aren't heading elsewhere. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, even Gore could be reconsidering his supposed-to-be-agreed-upon deal with the Philadelphia Eagles; though the Indianapolis Colts are making a push, nothing's yet final.

Whatever this 49ers team looks like going forward, it won't be the all-for-one, one-for-all unit that went to three straight conference championship games and came breathtakingly close to winning the Super Bowl.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

49ers fans will rightly be clutching their chests throughout the rest of free agency, all of the draft and most of the offseason. They won't breathe again until the 49ers take the field, push teams around and put some Ws on the board.

Maybe York, Baalke, Tomsula and company have it all under control. Maybe this isn't just the end of one glorious era, but the beginning of another.

Until we see proof the floor hasn't dropped out underneath them, though, that fear of the unknown will grip 49ers fans—and maybe 49ers leadership—in a months-long panic.


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