Aldon Smith release latest chapter in 49ers' fall from grace

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The fall from grace has been as swift as it has been stunning.

The San Francisco 49ers, once among the pillars of NFL franchises when it came to decorum and civic pride and winning with class, have become instead a cautionary tale at best, the butt end of a joke at worst.

The 49ers, who a year ago were a popular pick to break through after three straight trips to the NFC title game and claim the franchise's sixth Super Bowl title, are instead a team in chaos, one undergoing a massive rebuild that just got harder with its release of talented but troubled outside linebacker Aldon Smith in the wake of his fifth arrest since 2012. This one was for suspected DUI, vandalism and hit-and-run.

And this came on the team's first day off from training camp.

"Sad day," an emotional rookie coach Jim Tomsula said Friday. "This is a day that doesn’t have anything to do about football.

"It was sadness [among the players]. That's what it was. Sadness for a guy, a person. Guys care about that guy. We care about that guy. Deeply."

Fans have felt much the same over the past 12 months as the 49ers went from a team purportedly peaking to one slipping -- mightily.

Ray McDonald was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence last Labor Day weekend, but the 49ers allowed him to play under the protective umbrella of "due process." It cast a pall over the start of last season. Charges were not filed for that incident, but McDonald was again arrested, this time for sexual assault, in December.

The 49ers released him for what general manager Trent Baalke called a "pattern of poor decision-making" after that arrest ... and after the 49ers were officially eliminated from the playoff race.

But while McDonald was allowed to play early in the season, Smith was serving an NFL-mandated nine-game suspension for general malfeasance or, as the NFL put it, "for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse and the league’s Personal Conduct Policy."

The year before, Smith missed five games while in rehab, but had been allowed to play in a game less than 48 hours after being arrested on suspension of DUI.

Then began the 49ers' offseason from Hades.

Coach Jim Harbaugh, who was as wildly successful on the field as he was polarizing off it, was let go.

Tomsula, who had been only a position coach and never a coordinator in the NFL, was promoted to head coach over many raised eyebrows.

Five players retired -- inside linebackers Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and rookie Chris Borland; five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Justin Smith; right tackle Anthony Davis; and special-teams ace Ray Ventrone.

Six key players from last year left via free agency, including running back Frank Gore, the franchise's all-time leading rusher; left guard Mike Iupati, a three-time Pro Bowler; linebacker Dan Skuta, who started more games than not as Smith's backup; cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox; and receiver Michael Crabtree.

And punter Andy Lee, an all-time great at the position, was traded away.

Fullback Bruce Miller was arrested on suspicion of spousal violence, though it was later reduced to a misdemeanor vandalism charge.

Since 2011, Harbaugh's first year with the 49ers, the team has seen 12 different arrests involving players, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune's NFL arrests database.

All of which brings us back to Smith, who was being targeted by general manager Trent Baalke for a contract extension. Smith's agent was at 49ers practice on Tuesday.

"Aldon's like any young player, he's growing up, he's maturing," Baalke said Tuesday night over dinner with a group of beat writers. "You see that with a lot of these guys. Some of them get themselves in a few more situations that you wish they didn't ... [but I'm] really pleased with the way he's handled things, the way he's working both personally and professionally. I think he's doing an outstanding job.

"We're going to work hard to make sure that he remains here."

The 49ers, though, actually protected themselves this spring in case Smith stepped afoul of the law again by restructuring his $9,754,000 salary into a series of bonuses.

He was due to make $322,150 for each game he was on the 49ers' 53-man roster, maxing out at $5,154,400. Plus, he would have earned a $2 million bonus for playing more than 50 percent of the 49ers' defensive snaps or recording eight sacks. Smith had already earned more than $1.6 million in roster and offseason workout bonuses, though the $1 million base salary was reportedly not guaranteed.

In all, he has made about $1.6 million of his scheduled $9.754 million deal and likely faces another lengthy league suspension. The 49ers, meanwhile, save about $3.25 million against this year's salary cap.

Rookie Eli Harold had been working behind Smith at right outside linebacker. While he has flashed early in camp, you have to wonder if the 49ers believe he is ready.

Or do they simply move veteran Ahmad Brooks over from the left side? Then again, there is still a sexual assault lawsuit, stemming from the McDonald issue in December, hanging over Brooks.

In any event, Smith was counted on to play a 16-game schedule for the first time since 2012. His being released puts a huge crimp in the 49ers' "reloading" plans, as he was supposed to be a pillar in said reload.

But we've already talked about the 49ers and pillars, right?