San Francisco 49ers vs Green Bay Packers playoff game: Justin Smith to play for Niners
Scott Ostler, Scripps Howard News Service
6:00 AM, Jan 11, 2013
1:22 AM, Jan 11, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO - Justin Smith will play for the 49ers on Saturday, which seems like good news for the 49ers and their fans, but could be bad news for Smith's left arm, which hangs by a thread, in a manner of speaking.
The left triceps tendon of the 49ers' super-valuable defensive tackle is partially torn. The tear forced Smith to miss the past 2 1/2 games and caused doubt that he would be available for the playoffs. And this is Justin Smith, a.k.a. Cowboy, a player so tough that he'll be making mauling tackles two weeks after he dies.
Questions arise: By playing, does Smith risk doing further damage that might endanger his career, since one-armed pass rushers are in small demand? Who has the final say-so on whether Smith will play -- Smith, coach Jim Harbaugh, or the team doctor?
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who is tougher than a 50-cent steak, missed the final 10 regular-season games with a torn triceps (the muscle, not the tendon). He returned Sunday to make 13 tackles in the Ravens' wild-card win over the Colts.
For Smith, who gives the final thumbs-up or thumbs-down Saturday?
Tuesday, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Smith: "Well, he's told me he's ready and he's ready to go. And that's enough for me."
Wednesday I asked Harbaugh to clarify who has authority to make that call.
"Yeah," Harbaugh said, "the doctors are always consulted. And the player knows his body the best, but the doctors have final decision. They're not going to just let a guy go out and play if he can't protect himself, or could severely make it worse than what it already is. That's a general rule of thumb.
"I think what Vic also said is that's not something that's in (Fangio's) hands. That's not something that we as coaches pretend to try to be in somebody else's body, or that we have our medical degree, either."
That seems black and white, but is it? Is that the official team or league policy? If so, not everyone is aware. I asked tight end Delanie Walker who has the final say in such matters.
"It's basically us," Walker said. The team doctor "will tell you he don't think you should (play), but if you feel like you think you can, they'd give you the OK. You know your body better than anyone."
Running back Anthony Dixon, on the other hand, said he has seen team trainers remove a player from action by simply taking the player's helmet.
Harbaugh was asked about Smith's arm brace -- what exactly is it supposed to do, and does it guarantee Smith won't rip the triceps completely off the bone?
"At the risk of sounding like I don't know what I'm talking about," Harbaugh said, "I suggest maybe talking to the brace (long pause) manufacturer, or to one of our medical personnel or trainers."
The long pause after the word "brace" made it sound like Harbaugh was suggesting that the media interview Smith's brace. Problem is, we couldn't find Smith, let alone his chatty brace.
Since Harbaugh suggested we take our questions to a team doctor or trainer, a writer asked Harbaugh if one of those folks might be made available to the media. A 49ers' PR man standing nearby shook his head. Strictly against team policy.
You could file that kind of info under "none of the public's business," but the Griffin injury, and the appearance that the Redskins put their rookie star's career at risk by allowing him to play with a serious injury, makes this an ongoing story.
So it's all a mystery, and the impression lingers that at least in some cases, a player makes the decision, regardless of the severity of the injury. (Concussions are a different story. A team must test any player suspected of having a concussion.)
This seems dangerous, since the typical NFL player's mentality is to keep playing until they haul him off the field with a forklift.
So Justin Smith will suit up Saturday, and he will play. Harbaugh was asked if he knows that for sure, and he answered with an old down-home saying:
"God willing and the creek don't rise, he's going to play."
God could not be reached for comment.
(Contact Scott Ostler at sostler(at)sfchronicle.com; Twitter: (at)scottostler)