Jilted Spencer likely looking for new suitors
Spencer pretty much suggested that himself when he was packing up his belongings in front of his stall earlier this week in the 49ers locker room, a place he has been since 2004, making him one of just four veteran players who have been with the franchise that long.
The other three – long-snapper Brian Jennings, punter Andy Lee and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga – all remain key players on the roster, and all were key components of San Francisco's remarkable turnaround season which ended in the NFC Championship Game.
As recently as last season, Spencer was as key a player to the 49ers as any of them. He entered 2011 as one of just 12 cornerbacks in the NFL to start all 32 games over the past two seasons and, after Nate Clements was released in late July, Spencer entered training camp in the apparent role as San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback.
How quickly they fall.
Spencer got no vote of confidence from new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio when training camp started, with Fangio refusing to list Spencer among the handful of veterans who he considered likely starters. Then Spencer missed time throughout the summer with a hamstring injury, then saw his starting job at right cornerback given to Tarell Brown – who also battled summer injuries – before the season started.
As the revamped 49ers began their surge to the NFC West title, Spencer slipped further and further out the picture. After a five-tackle performance against Philadelphia in Week 4 – where Spencer played a factor in the Niners' 24-23 upset of the Eagles that propelled the team to bigger things – Spencer was barely heard from the rest of the season.
He didn't play a snap in two of the next three games, was inactive due to a toe injury the next two games after that, then was inactive for three of the team's final six games as the 49ers rolled into the playoffs. Spencer recorded the grand total of one tackle in San Francisco's final 12 games.
Worse yet, just two seasons removed from his career year of 2009, Spencer was inactive during San Francisco's two playoff games during the team's first postseason run since Spencer was drafted by the 49ers in the second round in 2004.
Needless to say, it was not a good feeling when Spencer was forced to watch as Brown emerged as a key starter for one of the NFL's premier defensive units at a position Spencer used to call his – and on a defense where he not long ago was one of its best players.
"Early on, it was kind of like a high school kid taking a girl out all through high school, and then your senior year you see her with another guy," Spencer said. "But as the season went on, you make your peace with it. You keep working at it, and you deal with it."
Spencer had no other choice but to deal with it as rookie Chris Culliver and second-year veteran Tramaine Brock climbed past him on the depth chart and got the call when the Niners needed help at cornerback behind starters Brown and Carlos Rogers, who stepped in quickly as San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback after the Niners signed him as a free agent Aug. 3. Spencer finished the season fifth on the depth chart among the five cornerbacks on the San Francisco roster.
Spencer appeared accepting of his demotion and did not cause any waves. But for a team that always was looking to get better on the back of its defense behind a dominating front seven, it always seemed a bit curious that Spencer didn't get an opportunity to work back onto the field.
Several observers expected at some point Spencer would become a factor again in San Francisco's defensive scheme. But it never happened.
The obvious assumptions were that Spencer had completely fallen out of favor with the new coaching staff, or that he had lost his effectiveness as a player.
Spencer assures everyone it's not the latter.
"As far as performance, yes, I know I can still play at a high level," Spencer said. "I'm not worried about that. I'm very confident in my game. The game hasn't changed. The game is the game and it comes quite easy.
"I'm in shape. I always practiced against the 1s (offensive starters) and things like that. And it wasn't one of those things where when I was active I played bad. I actually played very well. Regardless where I am, I think I'll perform well."
That brought Spencer to the question of where he'll be to perform next season. The 49ers have made it a team practice this season not to discuss personnel issues, but not many expect Spencer will be back in San Francisco next season.
He seems to be among that group.
Spencer is owed $3.2 million in base salary next season in the final year of his six-year, $20.425 million contract with the team. He almost certainly won't be back at that price. In fact, the team appears ready to move on without him.
"My focus is just, you know, sitting down right now with my representation and checking out pretty much what's in front of me," Spencer said. "Outlining some options and things like that and figure out what's best for me down the line."
Despite his lost season in San Francisco, Spencer still has options. He doesn't turn 30 until February. He has a quality resume built during his seven seasons with the 49ers, breaking into the starting lineup as a rookie. If Spencer still is committed to the game, some team likely will give him a shot, particularly because of the premium position he plays.
It already has been suggested that the Houston Texans, who had the NFL's second-ranked defense in 2011, might be interested. Vance Joseph, who coached Spencer when Joseph was San Francisco's secondary coach from 2005-2010, now coaches Houston's secondary, and the Texans are expected to be looking for a veteran cornerback if Jason Allen leaves the team in free agency.
"It doesn't matter where I play," Spencer said. "I don't care if I have to go back to college and play. It doesn't matter for me. For me, it's just ultimately the love of the game. It's one of those things where if I fit into the direction that the organization is going, yes, I would like to honor the last year of my contract. But if it isn't, then I'll have to go a different direction. I think that's something both parties have to figure out, what's best for both sides."
Figuring by what transpired this past season, the Niners are likely to wave good-bye to one their best cornerbacks of the past decade, even if he still has something left to give them.
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