What will Justin Smith be able to give the 49ers on Saturday?

What will Justin Smith be able to give the 49ers on Saturday?
January 8, 2013, 10:45 am
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The man who commands the double teams and frees his mates to frolic in the backfields and on the sternums of opponents is the laird of the manor. (AP)

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Not that Jim Harbaugh would necessarily want to see himself wearing another coach’s shoes – he’d find them all too small, we suspect – but he knows Mike Shanahan’s current predicament better than most.

Shanahan is being defenestrated for handling of the Robert Griffin III debacle, which has been reduced from “Should he have known more sooner?” to “What did he know and when did he know it?” to “What the hell was he trying to pull here?” The Redskins lost, Griffin has two partial ligament tears in his knee, and Shanahan is paying for his hesitation . . . or was it culpability in advance of hesitation?

Harbaugh may be facing the same conundrum this week as he tries to determine (a) whether defensive tackle Justin Smith can play in Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff against Green Bay, and (b) if so, how effective can he be for how long?

Unlike the Shanahan/Griffin situation, there is no evidence that either Smith or the team has tried to withhold information from the physicians, and moreover, Smith missed the last two games of the regular season, so this isn’t about hiding an injury as much as it it is trying to rush the healing process just enough to make him serviceable Saturday.

Plus, and we need to be fair about this, Smith is not a quarterback, nor is he particularly catalytic when it comes to celebrity, nor has been asked on national television to validate his ethnicity.

In other words, the Griffin parallels are neither exact nor sufficiently alluring. Yet, since he is the most important 49er player, and by an increasingly wide margin now that we have come to compare the team with and without him, his presence matters, and the level of that presence matters even more.

So Harbaugh, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio just as much, have to deduce, and rather quickly, how much Smith they are getting Saturday evening at the seaside resort that is Candlestick Park, whether it is sufficient to help the team and whether it is doing more damage to an already touchy injury.

Coaches do these calculations all the time. It is one of the inherent cruelties of the sport, this acceptable losses/collateral damage thing, and the more important the player, the more evident it becomes.

And Smith is that man in San Francisco. Not Colin Kaepernick, though as the quarterback he has an ancestral claim on the most-important title. Not Frank Gore. Not even BillyDave Cundakeriff, or whoever the kicker turns out to be. On a team that lives off its defense, the man who commands the double teams and frees his mates to frolic in the backfields and on the sternums of opponents is the laird of the manor.

In other words, Justin Smith. He is not Robert Griffin III, but his value to this team deserves its own Roman numerals. And the calculus of guessing his usefulness Saturday makes that vein behind Jim Harbaugh’s left eye throb like he borrowed it from Mike Shanahan – the last guy to outthink himself and guess badly wrong.