How will the 49ers fix this?

York: There's no timetable for Aldon Smith's return

How will the 49ers fix this?
September 23, 2013, 9:45 am
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This is Jed York’s and Trent Baalke’s and Jim Harbaugh’s first real mouthful of trouble that is not attributable to the failures of their predecessors. (AP)

Programming note: Watch today's 49ers press conference with head coach Jim Harbaugh streaming LIVE today at noon online here. 

It is the day after one of the worst days in Harbaugh Era history, and for the first time in years, that era is being scrutinized not with slackjawed admiration for budding genius, but for dry rot at the base.

Overreaction? Time will tell. Adversity? Most definitely. But he and his operation face its first truly existential question, namely:

Are they as good coming off the pace as they are frontrunners?

The days from zero to Super Bowl final series were swift and seamless. Everything worked, and anything that didn’t work right away worked even better moments later. No 49er coach going back to Buck Shaw hit the ground running the way Harbaugh did, and no organization hit so many home runs so early in the count as the Harbaugh-Baalke-York administration.

Immediate winning? Check. Damaged quarterback fixed, and then upgraded? Check. Big draft? Check. New stadium? On the way, so check.

And now? They’ve just undergone two consecutive comprehensive batterings in succession, one to their fresh new archrivals and another to a team that lost at home to Miami the week before and traded to get a running game at midweek. The quarterback of the future faces an unpleasant present. The outside linebacker is headed to rehab after a breakfast-time DUI, and the team clumsily tried to justify playing him after the arrest. Injuries to important people are multiplying. The star running back apparently snapped at the head coach on the sidelines, though the severity of the exchange (a) has not yet been clarified and (b) will likely be papered over for the moment anyway.

And suddenly Jed York is explaining in the locker room what Jim Harbaugh should have done on the podium, and the team that couldn’t put a wrong foot forward is now stepping on its shoelaces for the first time.

[RELATED: Harbaugh, York, 49ers receive badly needed comeuppance]

So what does all this mean? We are about to test the theory that the 49ers are great frontrunners but unproven off the lead, because their current array looks kind of, well, dis-.

The Aldon Smith mess looks like it will be handled in tardy but textbook fashion, though there is still no compelling reason why he wasn’t deactivated Sunday. He was already a soul in need of more help than a football game could provide, but the need to pressure Andrew Luck took precedence – a misguided choice, and not just because Smith did very little and Luck did very much.

Harbaugh should have made a stand for personal responsibility then and there, and York should have been more forceful as the voice of outside reason. Now if Smith can control and eradicate his addictions, these will be tiny quibbles that matter next to nothing, but that’s an “if” that is months away from fruition. Sobriety is a day-by-day hand fight, and Smith should be in the frame of mind to take all the help he can get.

[RELATED: At least Aldon Smith's problem isn't as bad as Von Miller's]

But the rest of it remains problematic. Patrick Willis is out. Vernon Davis may be out. Michael Crabtree has been out. Colin Kaepernick has been more rookie than he ever was as a clipboard jockey or as an instant success. The offensive line, a perceived strength, has struggled, and the defense, once a tower of turnover creation, has been on the field for 61 percent of the last two games. Personal fouls and other ill-timed penalties have turned a once highly disciplined operation into a spasmodic temperfest.

To sum, the gravity of parity seems to have reached out and grabbed the new budding dynasty before it has even gotten to model the crown. This is the first real down time the franchise has had since the Harbaugh hire, and this is not a delegation of individual blame as much as a question for the group en masse.

[RELATED: Aldon Smith will seek treatment for substance abuse]

Now that they are, at least for the moment, just another team with just another team’s set of problems, what do they intend to do about it, and how? After all, they’ve never had to punch their way out of a corner before, and you don’t know you can do it just by saying you will.

So this week, with Thursday’s game at St. Louis, will be mercifully short. The Smith story will not linger quite so long because their performance against the Rams will spin the narrative in a new direction. Win, and they sigh with relief. Lose, and the wheels are flying off and into the crowd. Tie, and . . . oh, why bother?

But this is Jed York’s and Trent Baalke’s and Jim Harbaugh’s first real mouthful of trouble that is not attributable to the failures of their predecessors. They are at the “if they fix it” stage, and if they are good as people have been telling them they have been, they will get to the “how they fixed it” stage soon enough.

And if not . . . well, like we said, they’ll be JAT. Just. Another. Team.

In line image of jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke provided by The Associated Press; photo of Jed York provided by USA Today Images