San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis – who made seven Pro Bowls in seven seasons before having missing 10 games in 2014 due to toe surgery – unexpectedly announced his retirement Monday. Willis helped the Niners to three consecutive NFC Championship Games from 2011 to 2013, including a Super Bowl berth following the 2012 season.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, losing Willis might be the least of their worries.
“It looks like Justin Smith is going to hang up his cleats as well,” CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “That’s obviously two guys who have anchored that front seven, really, through the entire rise of this franchise and through the (Jim) Harbaugh years – which obviously are as good as it’s been since the (Bill) Walsh and (George) Seifert years. So yeah, we knew this was a team in transition – and I’m not one who necessarily believes in this window-open, window-closing thing. I think it’s generally B.S., but I wrote a column as soon as the season ended basically saying I think the 49ers and Saints, in particular, are in for a real recalibration here, and I think their windows are closing – for various reasons.”
Losing Willis to retirement – at age 30, no less – certainly doesn’t help matters for San Francisco.
“The Willis thing, at age 30, you’re not expecting that,” La Canfora said. “But obviously he’s been dealing with some injuries, and frankly, they had a weird situation at linebacker anyway where you had (Ahmad) Brooks, (NaVorro) Bowman and Willis all with cap figures around $8 or $9 million. And you have (Chris) Borland, who came on as a rookie and clearly needs to play. So if Bowman comes back, I think in their heart of hearts I don’t know that they’re crying over (Willis retiring). You’re surprised, you don’t expect it. But something had to give at linebacker anyway. And I’m guessing Brooks either takes a pay cut or he’s gone.”
The questions in San Francisco aren’t limited to the front seven, either.
“They don’t have any corners under contract,” La Canfora said. “(Perrish) Cox is gone. (Chris) Culliver is going to get $7 or $8 million somewhere else. They probably lose (Mike) Iupati. Frank Gore is gone. (Michael) Crabtree will leave. They’ll try to replace him with Torrey Smith, but if it’s at $9 million a year, good luck with that. Torrey Smith is not a $9-million-a-year receiver. I like him a lot, but he’s just not. It’s a make-or-break year for (Colin) Kaepernick, and that was a team that clearly started to show signs of being in decline last year.
“And let’s face it,” La Canfora continued. “It’s a regime there now where this is a league of opposites. You had Harbaugh there who was sort of the micro-manager who ran everything, who took all the bullets, who was the face of the franchise. He’s gone. And you’ve got ownership basically taking that thing back and saying we’re going to put a coach in control who we can pretty much control and we’re going to call all the shots and we’re going to show how smart we are. In that division, it’s going to be tough. That is a team in transition.”