Bad, bad shoulder is big, big problem

Jonas Jennings' aching right shoulder is not cooperating with the best-laid plans of the burly left tackle or the 49ers' 2005 season. "Bad shoulder – bad, bad boy," Jennings said with a grimace this week. That means very bad news for the Niners, who will be without their top blind-side protector of rookie quarterback Alex Smith when the No. 1 overall draft pick makes his starting debut Sunday. And even worse, Jennings' "bad boy" shoulder may prevent him from playing again this season.

Jennings has a torn labrum in the shoulder. Try blocking the NFL's best speed-rushing defensive ends with that kind of injury. Try getting push off the line against the league's 300-pound defensive tackles. It's next to impossible.

But Jennings is going to try anyway, even though a MRI exam revealed the damage after Jennings hurt his shoulder in the third quarter of the Niners' 34-31 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 25. Jennings resorted to some "pain management" to finish that game, but he couldn't lift his shoulder the next day.

It's a serious injury that requires surgery to repair. If Jennings had surgery today, it would end his season, and the 49ers would have to play the rest of the year without a key cog in their offensive line, not to mention their top prize in free agency whose acquisition in March came with a hefty $36 million price tag over seven years, including a $12 million signing bonus.

"The MRI don't lie," Jennings said. "It is what it is. I can fake it, I can try to be as heroic as I possibly can. I'm just going to hold off on the surgery – I'm going to wait on it. You can't worry about s--- you can't control. You can only do it when you can do it. You've got to be hell when you're well and try to play through it."

After sitting out last week's disastrous loss to Arizona, Jennings has seen a little progress with his shoulder this week. The labrum is not completely torn, and Jennings may be able to rehab the injury well enough to continue playing this season after a few weeks of rest and healing.

But nobody knows for sure, and Jennings' shoulder still was too weak to test in practice this week. The upcoming bye week comes at a good time for Jennings and his injury, and he plans to return to practice after the bye to see how – and if – the shoulder can hold up. If it doesn't by then, Jennings may be headed toward season-ending surgery.

"I'm going to try to fight through it first, give it another swing," Jennings said. "I don't want to be selfish and cop out and just go under the knife and be done for the year. I don't think it's fair when we got guys out there fighting. I've fought through some things, and this is just one situation where I have to get it strong enough to fight. If I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out swinging. That's just the attitude, the only way I know."

Though Jennings played well during the first three games, the 49ers haven't got much back yet on their big investment at a position where they really need Jennings to pay off. He has been nagged by injuries since August, when he had a finger injury that required surgery.

Without Jennings in the lineup, the 49ers will send out Smith for his starting debut with eighth-year veteran Anthony Clement starting at left tackle. Clement was abused by Arizona right end Bertrand Berry last week, and it won't get any easier this Sunday. Clement will be lined up against Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, a speed-rushing terror who led the NFL with 16 sacks last season and is on pace for similar results this year with four sacks in the Colts' first four games.

The 49ers likely will have to double-team Freeney with tight ends and running backs on practically every passing play to keep Smith upright and in one piece. But even more of a worry is that might be the case the rest of the season if Jennings isn't able to make it back.

"It has crossed my mind," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said of the possibility Jennings won't return. "If that happens, I'll be very disappointed. He had some improvement in it (this week), which is good. If it starts to heal up after the bye week, then that might give him a chance to come back and get ready for the (Oct. 23) Washington game. That might be a little soon, but then again, maybe not. We'll see."

Jennings made it sound like if his shoulder isn't ready to go against the Redskins, surgery will be on the horizon.

"It's all about how it responds and how the treatments go," he said. "All I can do is rehab and rehab and rehab. I guess the more rehab the better. The off week is definitely a positive. I can stay around, get in two, three times a day – whatever I've got to do to get it done. That's the route I'm taking, so I have to commit to it."

How will Jennings and team doctors know if his shoulder can hold up? There's only one way, Jennings said.

"You'll know by just feel, by strength," he said. "There's certain things that you can do and can't do right now. I've got to be able to hold another 300-pound man off me. That's what it's going to be. So, until I get there and actually get to doing some football stuff, that's when we'll find out.

"So, hopefully, we're shooting for maybe the week before the Redskins to get out and see what I've got. If it's not done by then, we probably have to re-evaluate it and do what's right."

And that would present the 49ers with another big, big problem in a season that already has plenty of them.

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