With the Super Bowl in sight earlier this week, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh announced that Aldon Smith, the second-year defensive end, was named “team MVP.” While it’s easy to accept Harbaugh’s praise for the young star, as Smith tallied 19.5 sacks in the 2012 regular season, ranking him second in the league, there are some lingering questions surrounding Harbaugh’s declaration.
The 49ers are the best team in the NFC, finishing the regular season at 11-4-1. The team ranked 2nd in the NFL in points allowed per game (17.1), 3rd in yards allowed per game (294.4), 4th in team rushing yards, and had 9 players make the Pro Bowl, although they did not attend because of the upcoming Super Bowl. Many of their players could have been named “team MVP,” mainly because there was no single “star” who was responsible for their success.
With that said, there are several players who may have deserved the designation over Aldon Smith. For one, captain and middle linebacker Patrick Willis had another Pro Bowl season, his 6th straight selection since entering the league. He is the heart and soul of this defense, which many consider to be the more valuable aspect of the 49ers team. If the 49ers were anyone’s team, it would be Willis’.
But, that would be the most logical pick, and sometimes the head coach likes to choose a player who he wants to rile up before a big game. Even so, does Aldon Smith deserve the honor? Sure, he had an incredible season statistically, but the final numbers don’t tell the whole story. Smith had amassed 19.5 sacks by Week 14, but was unable to come up with a single sack in his last three games. This could be explained by a simple cold streak, or perhaps the offense figured out his strategy, but it is most likely the result of his counterpart, defensive tackle Justin Smith, missing the last two games due to an injury.
With Justin Smith out, Aldon Smith lost his best partner on the field. While Aldon Smith spends his time blitzing the offensive tackle, Justin Smith pushes through the middle, stopping the run and occupying offensive linemen who focus on the immediate threat to their quarterback and lose track of an outside end.
If anything, Justin Smith’s absence proved that he is more valuable than Aldon Smith, something that is often seen in the case of a defensive line with an elite nose tackle.
Take, for instance, the New England Patriots, who have one of the game’s best defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork. Last year, with Wilfork in the lineup, defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, who had only had a double-digit sack total in 4 of their previous 16 seasons, racked up 10 sacks each with Wilfork dominating the middle. Cliff Avril, a very talented defensive end on the Detroit Lions, had 10.5 total sacks in his first two seasons on the Lions. After Ndamukong Suh, one of the best young nose tackles in the NFL, joined the team in 2010, he averaged nearly 10 sacks per season over the past 3 years.
While talented defensive ends can majorly impact a game, defensive tackles go largely unnoticed due to a lack of statistics that could measure their performance. Aldon Smith was a huge part of the San Francisco 49ers defense, but he was clearly not the best player on the defense, let alone the team. The “team MVP” should go to someone who had a positive impact for his team on the field and a negative one for it when he was hurt, and that honor goes to Justin Smith.
Evan Kendall is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]