Many see rehab as the end result, because for most people it takes hitting bottom to enter a recovery facility. That was the case for Aldon Smith, who in the span of about three days crashed into a tree, was booked on suspicion of DUI, played an NFL game, and flew to an unknown location to get treatment.
Today the 49ers activated him from the non-football injury list, taking the roster spot of the recently waived Marlon Moore. Before Smith went away, he was a player who made his job look ridiculously easy. Today’s return marks the beginning of Smith’s new life, an existence he will find much more challenging than ever before.
So the 49ers decided to make Smith’s life easier by activating him when no one else is at the facility besides his allies: coaches, teammates, trainers and other team employees.
Jim Harbaugh spoke yesterday about Smith returning to the 49ers’ facility a day after turning himself into Santa Clara County authorities. Harbaugh talked about Smith being day-to-day, and in doing so make it sound like it would be a matter of days before Smith rejoined the team. In hindsight it makes a lot of sense that they’d make it official today, during the bye week, after two days where Harbaugh made himself available to every media outlet in the region.
For the next few days, Smith and the 49ers will enjoy more privacy in Santa Clara than at any other point this season, making this the perfect time for Smith to get back into the rhythm of working out at the facility and getting back up to speed. It also gives Harbaugh and Vic Fangio a sense of what kind of player they’re getting. Since they’ve activated him this quickly, they’re probably confident that Smith is at full strength and ready to start at outside linebacker as early as Nov. 10 against Carolina … not the best news for Cam Newton.
The 49ers have won five in a row and the defense has forced a bunch of turnovers lately, but make no mistake — to get where they want to go, they need Aldon Smith and they need him at his best. Even though he’s played in fewer than half the team’s games, he still leads the 49ers in sacks (4.5). While Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks have more quarterback hits and hurries, no one on the team — or the league, arguably — is better at finishing the job and bringing quarterbacks to the turf than Aldon.
Getting quarterbacks in the grasp and not letting go seems like one of those singular skills, based on equal parts technique, strength, quickness and physical dimensions (Smith’s long arms and strong hands make it very difficult for quarterbacks to get away). But Smith is human, and to say his turmoil has filled his life lately would be like saying Harbaugh is kind of intense on the sideline during games.
To expect that same guy who was capable of racking up four or five sacks in a single game to suddenly reappear, starting today, would be extremely greedy. First, there’s the little issue about staying out of trouble. Second, Smith has two court dates looming in November.
Players have succeeded in the face of ongoing legal turmoil in the past (Kobe Bryant, for example), but Smith was pretty much invisible against Indianapolis. Perhaps he was handled by the Colts’ offensive line, or maybe he was still hung over or otherwise distracted. Who knows, but he’ll be scrutinized on every snap when he returns. Can he handle that kind of pressure without the usual vices? That’s why the 49ers are activating him now, when there’s time to build his confidence and get him back on a football-heavy routine. With his rehab stint complete, idle time is not what’s best for Smith at this point. Maybe not ever.
Another thing the 49ers have on their side is a deeper set of pass rushers than when Smith took his leave of absence. He’s too athletic for one to assume he’ll be out of shape against the Panthers, but if he’s less effective than usual the 49ers can always sub in Corey Lemonier in his spot. Tank Carradine was just activated two days ago, and he registered 11 sacks in 2012 at Florida State.
That would seem to be the smartest move anyway — ease Smith back into the defensive rotation as a part-time player instead of an every-down linebacker. However, if Smith makes an impact right away, the 49ers probably won’t be able to help themselves and he’ll never leave the field. After all, he played all 72 snaps against the Colts less than 24 hours before getting started on his recovery.