Justin Smith is 35 years old, ancient for a defensive lineman in the NFL. And though he’s signed through the 2015 season, there’s been speculation that this season might be his last. Some believe that after Sunday’s season finale against the Arizona Cardinals, the 14-year veteran known as “Cowboy” to his teammates might retire.
Smith hasn’t told reporters he’s coming back, or that he’s going. He says he’ll wait to make a decision.
“I haven’t given it a thought,” he recently told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “It will be something to think about after this season.”
Certainly, Smith isn’t playing like an old man.
This has been an injury-free, productive season for Smith, and his teammates still rave about his energy, strength, talent and desire. Pro Football Focus still ranks him among the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.
In 15 games, he has five sacks (second on the team) and has 43 tackles. His real worth, however, is the push he gets against blockers, and the attention offenses have to pay to him. His strong play allows 49ers linebackers to make tackles. He's been the heart of the 49ers defensive success since he first put on the uniform.
San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would love to see Smith return in 2015.
“I still think he’s got a lot of good football left in him,” Fangio told the team’s website. “I think he’ll do the right thing and take some time before he makes any decision and go from there.”
Smith has played fewer snaps this season, a purposeful strategy by Fangio and his staff to help keep him fresh. And, he has frequently sat out practices midweek for the same purpose.
Smith is one of several key veterans who could be playing their final games in a 49ers uniform Sunday. If it is his last, Fangio says he’ll miss seeing Smith on the field.
“I think the one thing that defines him is that he’s just a true warrior in the truest football sense of the word,” Fangio told Taylor Price of 49ers.com. “The guy is as tough as anybody I’ve ever been around, accountable a anybody I’ve been around. He has played through injuries that most people wouldn’t have played through. He doesn’t talk about them.”