On Monday, January 28th, the San Francisco 49ers announced the recipient of the 2012 Bill Walsh Award. Voted on by the 49ers' coaching staff, the award recognizes the team's Most Valuable Player during the regular season (csnbayarea.com).
Their choice was linebacker Aldon Smith.
The decision is hard to disagree with. San Francisco's defense was a primary reason the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl in 2013. Aldon Smith's play during his sophomore season, including his chase of the single-season sack record, was phenomenal. In addition, the growth and progression he showed in his second year certainly helped him earn the coveted award.
Yet Aldon's abilities and statistics did not occur in a vacuum. They were in direct correlation with his teammates on the 49ers' defense, and one player above all else stands out as the teammate who contributed most to Aldon's success in 2012.
That player was defensive end Justin Smith.
Without taking away anything from Aldon Smith, Justin Smith is the primary reason Aldon was able to perform at such a high level in 2012. Even Aldon heralded Justin's influence by stating, “On the field, we just work well with each other. We feed off each other. We have a rhythm that we just developed together" (via 49ers.com).
With Justin on the field and playing healthy, Aldon excelled. When Justin was injured, Aldon's play struggled.
If that was the sole reason behind Aldon Smith's 2012 statistics and eventual selection for the season's Bill Walsh Award, it would still be hard to argue the choice. But Justin Smith did so much more for the 49ers' defense than just provide a boost to Aldon's talents. In addition to being the man behind the man who won the award, Justin was the anchor of the vaunted San Francisco defense.
Because of this, Justin should have been named the 49ers' Most Valuable Player in 2012.
It is necessary to recognize that Justin Smith received the 2012 Len Eshmont MVP Award which was voted on by his teammates (kansas.com). However, Justin should have been an easy selection for both awards.
If we examine the phrase "Most Valuable Player" and determine exactly what that means, we would eventually come up with a description of a player who was the most critical asset to his team during the season. With him, the team has a large chance of winning. Without him, the team's chances of success are greatly hindered.
Certainly, statistics bear fruit in the argument. This past season, Aldon Smith recorded 49 tackles and one interception. His 19.5 sacks threatened Michael Strahan's single-season record. In comparison, Justin Smith recorded only 47 tackles and just three sacks (pro-football-reference.com). Looking at statistics alone, electing Aldon as the 49ers' MVP would seem to be a no-brainer.
Yet statistics, while useful, do not reveal the entire story.
When the 49ers signed Justin Smith to a six-year contract in 2008, they were hoping to get a veteran defensive end who would complement an emerging defense that would eventually include greats like Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, and Aldon Smith. Justin became a stalwart on the defensive line and earned the reputation as a hard-hitting, bull nosed end who was always around the football (sfgate.com).
Justin's style of play carried over into 2012 and enabled Aldon Smith to emerge as one of the NFL's young stars. Over the first 14 games of the season, the 49ers defense emerged as one of the best in the NFL, eventually finishing as the second-rated defense by the end of the year (pro-football-reference.com). Opponents were forced to frequently double-team Justin, which would often allow Aldon to emerge unblocked or paired up against a weaker offensive line. This pressure provided the opportunity for Aldon to excel in the pass rush.
Then came the Week 15 matchup against the New England Patriots.
Justin left early in the third quarter with a serious injury to his left triceps. The 49ers subsequently surrendered 28 points in the second-half after his departure. Despite eventually winning the game, the 49ers saw clearly Justin's impact and more importantly, how critical his departure was (yardbreaker.com).
The 49ers would suffer an embarrassing loss to the Seattle Seahawks the following week and then have an uninspiring win against the Arizona Cardinals the week after. During those two games, and then the 49ers' playoff games up through the Super Bowl, Aldon Smith recorded zero sacks and the defensive line was struggling to put pressure on opponents' quarterbacks (ninernoise.com). The lack of pressure gave other teams the chance to make more plays downfield, a fact that revealed itself in every game during San Francisco's 2013 playoff tenure.
Justin's injury was immediately recognized for its impact on the 49ers' defense (nbcbayarea.com). While he was able to return for the playoffs, it was evident that the injury hindered his play. As a result, the 49ers defensive line failed to generate the pressure that it had once been able to earlier in the season. The 49ers backfield, often cited as San Francisco's lone weakness, struggled as quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco utilized additional time in the pocket to make big plays downfield (csnbayarea.com).
Aldon Smith was on the field the entire stretch, both during the remaining regular season and playoff games. His play suffered as did the rest of the 49ers defense.
Considering all of this, it is easy to recognize the impact a healthy Justin Smith had on the 49ers. It is also just as easy to recognize how his injury hurt the 49ers' chances of winning the Super Bowl. We saw the type of impact Justin Smith had when he was on the field and healthy. We also saw how his absence and injury hampered the 49ers in so many elements.
Given the difference Justin made before his injury paired with how his injury affected the team over the remainder of the season, his impact certainly made him extremely valuable.
In fact, he was the most valuable of any 49er in 2012.