SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In a week that should be filled with talk about another Super Bowl run and the pomp and circumstance of finally playing the much-hyped season opener, the San Francisco 49ers once again find themselves dealing with potential embarrassment and legal problems away from the field.
Only days after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down on domestic violence offenses with far harsher penalties, defensive tackle Ray McDonald could become an example. Yet, the 49ers are determined to let the legal process play out before casting judgment.
McDonald faces felony domestic violence charges for an incident during his 30th birthday party with teammates and friends Sunday, when police say his alleged victim suffered “visible injuries.”
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out McDonald playing in the opener Sunday at Dallas, and the defensive lineman is practicing.
Harbaugh said Wednesday the decision “will be based on information and facts.”
“There’s two very strong principles in play. No. 1 is we will not tolerate domestic violence. The second principle is the respect for due process,” Harbaugh said. “It’s something we all know, we all live in America, and we all understand that sometimes patience is required when it comes to due process. … You’re innocent until proven guilty.
General manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh have spent recent days denouncing such behavior and reiterating their stand for zero tolerance when it comes to domestic violence.
All of this after star linebacker Aldon Smith was suspended for nine games Friday for what the NFL called violations of the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies.
So, how ready will this team regroup and be ready for the Cowboys in a raucous road environment?
“Obviously, this isn’t something that any of us are happy about, but it’s the situation we’re in,” Baalke said. “Any time you face adversity, it’s how you deal with it. We’re going to do the best we can to bring a resolution to this and to do the best job we can, of all of us, players, coaches, everyone else, being the best members of this community that we can be. That’s our goal. Always has been, always will be.”
McDonald hasn’t been available to the media this week, but his teammates are standing behind him as the allegations are investigated.
“We never condone anything of this magnitude, but it is what it is and nobody knows, you know, there’s two sides to every story,” linebacker Patrick Willis said. “So we just hope that everything gets situated, and we can get right back out on the field and everybody can be at peace.”
The NFL’s new rules call for a six-week suspension for a first offense and at least a year for a second. San Francisco officials are in communication with the league on the matter.
It’s been a turbulent year since Harbaugh publicly criticized the rival Seahawks in June 2013 for their run of performance-enhancing drug suspensions and said, “You always want to be above reproach, especially when you’re good, because you don’t want people to come back and say, ‘They’re winning because they’re cheating.”’
Since then, cornerback Chris Culliver has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run charges and felony possession of brass knuckles after a March arrest.
In his latest run-in with the law, Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police said Smith was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. No charges were filed.
San Francisco went 5-0 during Smith’s absence last fall to undergo treatment following his Sept. 20 DUI arrest.
“We’re versatile, and we have players who can come in and play,” said linebacker Corey Lemonier, one of the reliable replacements in 2013.
In a season that’s considered Super Bowl championship or bust by the players’ standards after a trio of near misses, this is far from an ideal start. Especially for a defense that has been among the NFL’s most staunch units in recent seasons. All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is already sidelined for at least half the season as he recovers from a terrifying left knee injury during the NFC championship game in Seattle that required surgery.
If San Francisco can beat Tony Romo and Co. on Sunday, everybody will begin to move forward.
“Losing those guys you can look across the board and find every reason to run the other way or make excuses as to why you may not be as good or why we can’t be as good, but at the end of the day, you’re only as good as the guys that are out there on the field anyway,” Willis said. “All these guys have our support, injured, situations, whatever they may be. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to win ballgames.”
Notes: RT Anthony Davis (hamstring) and WR Michael Crabtree (calf) worked out in the weight room at the start of practice and didn’t participate.