Very few players reach a level of iconic stature that makes them immune from the ever poised harpoons of the blogosphere vigilantes. On a great many teams, no players occupy this exalted realm. On teams that do possess such a player, rarely is there more than one.
The superb 49er dynasty of the 1980s had many fine players, but arguably only Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott were beyond reproach. Steve Young, for all his greatness and even after his SB victory in 1994, never reached this hallowed ground. In fact, on those 1990 teams, only defensive tackle Bryant Young achieved this rare status of immunity.
The current 49er team has one such player. Patrick Willis. In three short years, he has zoomed his way up the roster and into the chair vacated by Bryant Young upon his retirement at the conclusion of the 2007 season. Willis has no detractors anywhere in the 49er fan world. None.
Frank Gore is universally admired, but falls a tad short of full immunity. There was even some talk last season whether Gore was a proper fit for the spread offense that seemed to titillate so many fans. That perhaps he should be traded while he still had value.
Equally rare is the player who achieves the antithesis of blog immunity. The player who is 100%, with an “F”, thumbs down. These types of players are rare because their deficiencies don’t lend themselves to keeping a roster spot long enough to acquire pure and heartfelt loathing from the fans. In a contorted sense, you have to be good enough to stay on the roster, but bad enough to make everyone hate you.
The 49ers have just such a player, however. This unfortunate fellow’s name is Mark Roman. Just as there is no debate about Willis’ greatness, so there is no debate about Roman’s awfulness.
In truth, Roman is not awful. He just isn’t very good. And he plays a position, free safety, that is regularly captured by TV cameras that are showing a slo-mo of a completed pass by a 49er opponent. The fateful uniform number, 26, has appeared so often in these replays, representing the 49er defender who was burned on the pass coverage, that the number should be retired and never allowed to be worn again. Indeed, in last year’s heart wrenching, last second loss to the Vikings, there was number 26, captured for the ages, blowing the coverage on the Hail Mary pass in the end zone. Since that was a defining moment in Bret Farve’s career, it is fitting that Roman will be featured also, defining forever the concept of failure.
All of which leads me to suggest today’s important player to watch this coming pre-season. His name is Reggie Smith. Taylor Mays will be getting most of the scrutiny reserved for secondary players, but Smith has the most critical task to succeed at. He is a prototypical, and controversial, Scot McCloughan draft pick. Selected in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft, Smith was a tweener. Maybe a cornerback, maybe a safety (hopefully not neither). His rookie season demonstrated he was not a cornerback. His second season, last year, started with promise as he was moved to safety, but ended quietly with a severe groin injury that rendered him invisible for the rest of the year.
Smith now embarks on his critical 3rd year, just as last year Dashon Goldson embarked on his. We know how Goldson fared (hint: pretty damn good). 49er fans everywhere should be rooting fervently for Smith to fare well, too. If he does, Mark Roman’s career as a 49er is over. If he doesn’t, we will probably see number 26 yet again this coming season in some fatefully disastrous moment.