Aldon Smith and the 49ers on Friday received the news they’d been bracing for since last year: The team’s star outside linebacker has been suspended for nine games without pay this season for his long list of legal run-ins. Smith is eligible to return to the playing field Nov. 10, one day after the 49ers’ game at New Orleans.
The National Football League Players Association negotiated on Smith’s behalf, and as a result, he will be allowed to be on hand at the team facility, something the 49ers and general manager Trent Baalke, who has become close to Smith, hoped would be the case. Smith can train at the facility and attend meetings but not practice with teammates or appeal the ruling.
A statement from the NFLPA said: “On Aldon’s behalf, the NFLPA worked with the NFL to craft disciplinary terms that reflect Aldon’s desire to take responsibility for past mistakes and show his commitment to being a dedicated professional by going to work every day to study with his coaches and teammates and train at the facility. The terms of the discipline reflect his desire to show his teammates, employer and fans that he has made real changes to his life since the difficult incidents that are the basis for the NFL’s discipline.”
That discipline was handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who met with Smith on Aug. 7 at the league’s headquarters in New York. In a brief news release, the league said Smith was punished for violating its substance abuse and personal conduct policies.
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Smith, 24, missed five games last season after entering an alcohol rehabilitation center. That followed a September DUI arrest when his pickup truck came to an abrupt halt in the front yard of a San Jose home. A month later, Goodell said the rehab stint would be considered when doling out punishment.
“The issue here is not to discipline players,” Goodell said at the time. “The issue here is to stop the behavior. And Aldon, to your point, has voluntarily said, ‘I need help.’ We are obviously there to support him, and the 49ers did a great job getting him into a facility to try to get that help. And so we all support that. So, yes, it will be a factor, for sure.”
The DUI arrest was the second in 11/2 years for Smith, who was pulled over in Miami Beach after his rookie season. Those charges later were reduced to reckless driving. A police spokeswoman also said Smith was suspected to have been drinking in April when he was arrested for allegedly making a bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport. Smith’s blood-alcohol content was never tested, however, and the bomb-threat charge was dropped.
Smith has said he’s been sober since going to the alcohol rehabilitation facility in September. The suspension also is punishment for gun charges that were filed against Smith in connection to an out-of-control party at his home in June 2012. Smith received superficial stab wounds while trying to break up the party. Sheriff’s deputies found semiautomatic rifles, purchased legally in Arizona but not registered in California or modified to adhere to state laws, in his bedroom.
The 49ers have known Smith would be suspended but had been unsure about the duration.
“Our organization has known this decision would come, and we have prepared for it,” Baalke said in a statement. “Aldon has taken responsibility for his actions and has continued to show growth personally and professionally. We will continue to support him, but it is time to put this matter behind us and focus on the season ahead.”
Smith was the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft and quickly became the most promising pass rusher in franchise history. He set a 49ers rookie record for sacks in a season with 14. The following year, he flirted with the NFL season sack record, ending with 191/2. That beat Hall of Famer Fred Dean’s team record, set in 1983, by two sacks.
Smith has said he feels better this preseason than in the previous three, and that sharpness has shown on the practice field. Smith has been virtually unblockable in drills, and he’s received praise from everyone from left offensive tackle Joe Staley to Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
The 49ers have expected a suspension for months and are better prepared for Smith’s absence than they were last season. They are expected to platoon backups Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier at Smith’s right outside linebacker spot. Rookie Aaron Lynch also is likely to be available at the position.
Skuta and Lemonier filled in last year, and the 49ers went 5-0 during Smith’s absence.
“At this point, really, it’s not that tough because everybody’s getting a lot of reps,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of replacing Smith. “If it was in the middle of the season and it happened without much of a warning, it might be a little tougher. But that’s the way it happened last year. Guys just have to be ready to play.”
The 49ers also will be without their best defensive player from 2013, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, while he continues to recover from a January ACL tear. Bowman is expected back at midseason. Smith is due back in time for a late-season stretch that includes both games against division rival Seattle.