Aldon Smith, who rocketed to the top of the NFL during his spectacular rookie season, has been falling ever since. On Friday he fell right off the 49ers’ roster.
Smith, 25, was arrested on suspicion of DUI, hit and run and vandalism Thursday night after allegedly striking a car while he was trying to park at a condominium complex. According to police, when Smith returned to the scene, he “displayed objective symptoms of being under the influence of an alcoholic beverage” and was arrested. Smith, meanwhile, insisted as he was leaving the Santa Clara County main jail Friday morning that it was not a case of DUI and that the “truth will come out.”
It was his fifth run-in with the law – and his third DUI arrest – since January 2012, and it led to his release by the 49ers.
They set precedent in December when they cut defensive end Ray McDonald for what they described as a “pattern of poor decision making” and stuck to it with Smith. Just three days earlier, general manager Trent Baalke had lauded Smith’s performance on the practice field and his efforts to stay out of trouble, and he said the 49ers were hopeful they could sign their top pass rusher to a contract extension.
Coach Jim Tomsula echoed those sentiments on Smith’s turnaround in announcing his release.
“You saw a man fighting and working and trying, and I think, to a man in this building, and you’ve been to practice to watch him, the energy about him,” Tomsula said. “Once again, real life. Everybody has struggles – they’re just in different ways.”
The 49ers had hoped a trio of comebacks by defensive players would lift the team in 2015 and compensate for an offseason exodus of well-known players. That group was composed of linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is returning from a knee injury that wiped out his 2014 season, pass rusher Ahmad Brooks, who was overweight and benched twice last season, and Smith, who was suspended for nine games a year ago.
Smith had 42 sacks in his first 43 games with the 49ers, and he made the Pro Bowl and was named the 49ers’ MVP in 2012 when he finished the regular season with 191/2 sacks. The 49ers believed Smith was poised to recapture that form.
Last year, the 49ers picked up the fifth-year option on Smith’s contract, one that was to pay him $9.75 million this season. But they seemed to hedge their bets when they restructured the one-year deal so that it was no longer fully guaranteed.
Instead, his arrest and release adds to the already long list of rotten-news storylines the team has dealt with since the 2014 season ended.
Smith missed five games in 2013 when, following a DUI arrest in San Jose, he checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center. The NFL suspended him last season after he pleaded no contest to weapons charges stemming from an out-of-control party at his house in 2012 – Smith was stabbed in the abdomen at the party – and his 2013 DUI case.
Last year, the 49ers picked up the fifth-year option on Smith’s contract, one that was to pay him $9.75 million this season. But they seemed to hedge their bets on the troubled outside linebacker earlier this year when they restructured the one-year deal so that it was no longer fully guaranteed.
At the time, Smith’s agent, Doug Hendrickson, said the goal for both the 49ers and Smith was to sign a long-term extension and that restructuring the deal signaled Smith is committed to staying out of trouble and is willing to bet on himself.
“Aldon appreciates and is loyal to what they’ve done for him and how they’ve stood behind him,” Hendrickson said of the 49ers. “He realizes he’s been his own worst enemy.”
Tomsula said the feeling around the team’s facility was sadness, and others offered sympathy to Smith.
Although he won’t be playing football for the San Francisco 49ers, he will be supported and helped, and he will not have to walk this path alone.
49ers coach Jim Tomsula
Charles Haley, who will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday, has taken Smith under his wing in recent years. Haley battled his own demons, including bipolar disorder, during a six-year career with the 49ers. He told reporters in Canton, Ohio, he was ready to leave Canton before the ceremony if Smith needed his help.
“He’s me. When I came in the league, I had a 10-year-old inside me screaming for help, but was afraid to ask,” Haley said.
Tomsula, meanwhile, said the 49ers were determined to help Smith even though he no longer was part of their roster.
“Although he won’t be playing football for the San Francisco 49ers, he will be supported and helped, and he will not have to walk this path alone,” he said. “That comes from our ownership down. He will not have to walk this path alone. We’re not worried about football. It has nothing to do with football.”