By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
NEW ORLEANS — Defensive lineman Justin Smith is on the cusp of something he has spent the past 12 years chasing: a Super Bowl championship. Just don’t expect him to talk about it in any detail.
Asked this week to remark on how close he is to fulfilling a dream, Smith replied: “I think that’s something you think about after the season. But right now, just getting as familiar as we can with Baltimore and what they do, and how we’re gonna try to beat ‘em.”
That’s Smith, the Missouri native, the man they call “Cowboy.” Why analyze a situation or open up about your feelings when a simple “yup” or “nope” will suffice?
“One thing, he’s not like a science professor,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “Most dudes when you ask a certain thing, they’re gonna give you a breakdown. He’s a straight shooter. He’s gonna tell you what it is, he’s gonna tell you how to get it done. He’s not gonna break it down to you. Hopefully you get it when he’s giving it to you.”
Fortunately, Smith’s teammates are willing to venture where he will not. They will tell you exactly what he does for the 49ers’ defense, and what his steady presence brings to the locker room.
“He means a lot,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “His experience, his ability to draw a double-team for the line — him and Aldon (Smith), the little connection they got up there. … And his experience, his attitude, his work, his leadership, to have other guys follow in the direction that he’s in. He’s a lot to this team.”
Asked how it feels to have Justin Smith in his corner, Aldon Smith replied: “Other than him being a threat and a badass out there, where we all know we got a guy who’s ready to go to war with us? Feels good.”
On the field, Justin Smith affects pretty much every other player on the defense. His ability to tie up blockers was one of the big reasons Aldon Smith was able to set a franchise record with 19½ sacks this season. And the push he gets against offensive linemen, frequently straight up the middle, tends to deform the pocket, which means the defensive backs have to cover their men for one second less.
Justin Smith was a very good player during his seven seasons in Cincinnati. But his abilities weren’t truly showcased until he came to San Francisco and found himself amidst more talented teammates. He has made the Pro Bowl each of the past four seasons. And this year, like last, he was voted All-Pro at two positions, defensive end and defensive tackle.
“He’s a great player,” Jean Francois said. “Hands down, he’s possibly one of the best — I don’t know what they list him as. D-tackle? D-end?”
Told that Smith usually carries a slash on the depth chart, Jean Francois said: “Well, he’s gonna be the best slash player that we have.”
Of course, Smith’s value has always strayed way beyond the field. He is a serious worker in practice, and his weight-room workouts are legendary, as revealed by his barrel chest.
“When I got here, I was like 270, 280 pounds,” Jean Francois noted. “I said, ‘I gotta be like this guy. Every time I walk in the weight room, I gotta make sure I beat him.’ … There’ll be days I go in there, I squat seven plates, and then later that day I try to find out what Justin did. … Even though he’s an older guy, he’s still trying to show that he can hang with you younger guys any time of day.”
Jean Francois, in his fourth NFL season, says it was Smith who taught him to lift through the pain on Monday and Tuesday, which helps the body stay loose later in the week, and later in the season.
Despite being a walking how-to manual on strength and fitness, Smith’s own body betrayed him this season. He tore his triceps against New England in Week 15 and missed two games.
Like Peyton Manning in Indianapolis in 2011, Smith’s value was even more apparent when he wasn’t on the field. The Patriots nearly staged an epic comeback in the second half of that game, and Smith’s injury dovetailed with Aldon Smith’s sack drought; he hasn’t recorded one in five games.
Justin Smith has been wearing a bulky brace on his left arm during practice and games. He doesn’t expect the two-week layoff preceding the Super Bowl to make much of a difference in his recovery.
“That thing is what it is,” he said. “So it’s not gonna heal.”
It would take a lot more than a torn triceps to keep Smith from playing against the Baltimore Ravens — like maybe ebola. This is a guy who doesn’t like to miss regular-season games. He isn’t about to skip the Super Bowl.
“I mean, these don’t come every year, and it’s gonna be tough to keep these type of teams together as well,” Smith said. “So we feel the pressure to get it done, and get it done now.”
Asked if his career could be considered a success without a Super Bowl title, he retreated again.
“I mean, I’d definitely like to win one,” Smith said with a laugh. “Yeah, it’d be good. I’m really not too concerned about … You play as long as you can play, and you’re thankful for the amount you can play and all that.
“I’m not really looking at my career like it’s a legacy or anything.”
Others are, including many of his teammates. Smith is more than an all-pro slash. His work ethic and his passion for the game make him the heartbeat of the 49ers’ defense. And perhaps the ultimate role model during a week in a city that offers an NFL player way too many temptations. “He’s gonna be the common-sense guy,” Jean Francois said. “You know what’s right, you know what’s wrong. You know what you need to do and what you need to not do.”
And if you don’t? Just mimic Justin Smith’s actions. They say a lot more than his words.