Alex Boone once was kicked in the face by a Cardinals opponent. Which is to say, the relationship between the brash 49ers offensive lineman and his Arizona adversaries over the years has been anything but warm and fluffy.
So when former veteran Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett finally met Boone, his new 49ers teammate who had been training on his own this offseason, the atmosphere was a tad tense.
Dockett said he lightened the mood with a joke: “I asked if he was retiring.”
By this point, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Boone had said yes. (For the record, according to Dockett, Boone said “Nah.”). Four prominent 49ers stepped away from the game since March, decisions that ranged from “probable occurrence” in the case of Justin Smith to “this-has-to-be-a-joke astonishment” when it came to Chris Borland.
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The retirements have punctuated a rotten-news offseason in San Francisco, one in which the team not only lost most of its coaching staff but also a dozen players – either through retirement, free agency, trade or release – who started six or more games last season.
The reaction in some circles has been that this must somehow be an aftershock of the decision to part ways with coach Jim Harbaugh in December. That is, the players feel lost and adrift without Harbaugh and don’t like his replacement, Jim Tomsula.
That’s not accurate. If anything, the average 49ers player probably would rather go to work for the congenial Tomsula than the intense and ever-pressing Harbaugh. Boone, for instance, recently said that after playing under Harbaugh a while “you just want to kick his (butt).”
No, it’s hard to wrap the 49ers’ retirement trend with a nice, pretty bow.
Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Willis retired, they said, because their bodies no longer would perform to their expectations. Smith had contemplated it in previous seasons.
Borland and Anthony Davis worried about concussions. Borland, 24, said he was concerned the impact a football career would have on his brain. Davis, 25, suffered a concussion in November that obviously opened his eyes to the effects of head trauma.
He didn’t miss a start in his first four seasons. His fifth season, however, was a disaster for him physically as hamstring, knee and head injuries knocked him out of all or some of 11 games.
If there are themes to all the retirements, the first is probably a mundane one: Football is a rough sport.
The 49ers went deep into the playoffs the previous three years and did so with a demanding, driving coach. It took a physical and mental toll on the players, perhaps more than anyone realized.
Another theme: Once one player retires unexpectedly, it opens the door, or removes the taboo, for another to do the same.
A similar phenomenon happened to the 49ers in 2010 – another decidedly tough season in Santa Clara – when running back Glen Coffee suddenly quit the team. A few days later, defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer essentially did the same, triggering a trade to the Seahawks.
A final reason: Super Bowl expectations aren’t as rampant in the locker room as they were a year ago when the 49ers felt they were on the cusp of a championship.
If they were, it’s hard to imagine Smith retiring with a year left on his contract and his skill level – compared to the average defensive lineman – still high. Same goes for Willis.
Running back Frank Gore, meanwhile, chose Indianapolis in free agency over the team with which he had spent the past decade. Money was a factor, for sure. But so was this: Gore felt he had a better shot at a championship playing with Andrew Luck and the Colts than he did the 49ers.
Of course, not every 49ers player feels the window has slammed shut.
Both Dockett and receiver Anquan Boldin, for instance, spoke confidently about the team’s talent and prospects in recent days. Both are multiyear veterans who command respect, and their words and tone underscored the point they were making: Just because leaders have left the team doesn’t mean the 49ers lack leadership.
Said Boldin: “If you’re not playing to win a championship, then you don’t need to be in this locker room.”