This could’ve blown up in their faces. The 49ers sent Aldon Smith off to rehab, or at least convinced him to take a leave of absence, and they were without him for five games. They had no idea what kind of person Smith would be when he got back, never mind the player.

Aldon Smith the player, after playing only 18% of the snaps in his first game back against Carolina and a so-so effort against New Orleans, had one of his patented “hey everybody, look at how amazing I am” games on national television against Washington. Since then, he has been as good as ever.

San Francisco 49ers Aldon Smith“If you really analyze it, he had a six or seven-week off period there. So, he’s probably not as worn as some of the other guys,” said Vic Fangio.

“We’re thrilled to have him back. Thrilled to have him playing the way he is. His attitude is great.”

I’m going to tread into territory that’s a wee bit dangerous, because I’m not in meetings with the team. I’ve been in the locker room several times this season, but not every single day. Plus, those windows of locker room availability are short and sometimes hectic. But Smith sure seems different now than he was before he went to rehab, and I’m not referring to his shorter hair.

Before, when he’d walk through the locker room around 12:30 pm on a weekday in Santa Clara, he often looked aloof or sometimes even surly. Based on how often he got caught drinking and driving and the fact that he went to rehab, maybe he wasn’t feeling too great all the time.

Smith had a smile on his face throughout his first media session after rejoining the 49ers, and it hasn’t left his face yet. In the past two months, I’ve seen him smile and laugh every time he’s interacted with his teammates. It’s not exaggerating to say it’s like seeing a new person.

“I feel very good for Aldon and he’s carried the water, the biggest share himself. There have been a lot of people that have helped. He’s got a great family, his mother, father, A-plus, plus,” said Jim Harbaugh.

“And he’s handling his business. We all tend to forget that the reason we got smart is because we learned from our mistakes and that’s how you get smart, by learning from your mistakes.  He’s been really good as a teammate.”

I asked Harbaugh about Fangio’s comments regarding Smith’s attitude.

“I’d concur,” he said. “It’s been very good, as a teammate, as a friend. Been a strong guy.”

(Video of the question Tim Kawakami asked Harbaugh about Smith yesterday, followed by the one I asked, can be seen/heard in the video below):

There are a few realities that can’t be ignored. On Wednesday his date in court — where he’ll face both weapons charges and his DUI case — was set for March 13. His recovery process isn’t just ongoing, it’s never-ending. And if he wasn’t one of the best defensive players in the world, someone Justin Smith calls a “freak” and several teammates have called a Hall of Fame-type talent, none of this would matter to the 49ers and they wouldn’t have risked getting criticized pretty heavily for playing him against the Colts less than 72 hours after he crashed into a tree.

Luckily for the 49ers — and, by extension, for Smith — working on one part of his life didn’t make him any less dynamic as an outside linebacker.

“On the field he’s been outstanding.  Teams that want to block Aldon Smith one-on-one are whistling Dixie. That’s the way he’s playing right now,” said Harbaugh.

“Therefore, he’s getting quite a bit of double-team chips, help from the backs and the tight ends, and he’s really playing well.”

In six games against the Seahawks, Smith has four sacks, two quarterback hits and 17 hurries. That’s not the entire story, as Smith scored out as the second-best run defender on the team this season according to Pro Football Focus, (behind Glenn Dorsey, who played well against Seattle this season). The 49ers will need Smith to contain Russell Wilson, set the edge when Wilson hands off to Marshawn Lynch, and keep drawing those double-teams. The 49ers can count on Smith to handle those tasks and much more these days, and that has to make all parties concerned feel pretty good.