By all accounts, the 49ers have made things for Aldon Smith as comfortable as possible, both in his decision to enter rehab and upon his return to the team. But suspensions can change the way a team views even its most beloved players
SAN FRANCISCO — Aldon Smith participated in a game last Sunday for the first time since spending a month in a substance-abuse rehab center. He was far from his normally disruptive self, failing to register a sack for the first time this season, four games overall, and finishing with no tackles in the 10-9 loss to the surging Panthers.
The obvious question afterward was whether the substandard performance was due to his limited opportunities (he played only 11 of 66 snaps) or Carolina’s balanced play-calling (31 rushes to 35 pass plays). Both are plausible, but he also could’ve been hamstrung by a sense of anxiousness associated with being away from the team for six weeks after being charged with suspicion of drunk driving.
Retired running back Ricky Williams is familiar with the feeling. He was facing a four-game suspension and $650,000 fine in May 2004 for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Rather than accept the punishment, Williams abruptly retired on the eve of the season. The Dolphins were coming off a 10-win season and looking to take the next step, but with Williams gone they floundered to a 4-12 record that tied for the second-worst in the league.
In need of income to satisfy creditors and baby mamas—not to mention the Dolphins, who were seeking to recoup portions of the signing bonus Williams had received—the gifted runner returned to the NFL in 2005. He didn’t spend much time worrying about whether he would be accepted or if he still had the skill to be one of the game’s top players. But the return was not as seamless or comfortable as he anticipated.
“There was definitely some angst,” he said recently by phone. “But the angst wasn’t mine; it actually belonged to everyone else. I felt there was no reason why I shouldn’t just step in and everything would be normal, but I think a lot of other people tried to imagine what it would be like if they were in that situation, and that was a large majority of what the angst was—other people.”
Some behavioral experts believe the reintegration process can be so uncertain, it’s imperative for teams to manage and monitor it before a player returns from a lengthy suspension or discipline-related absence. Failing to do so could create an environment that contributes to the behavior being repeated, which is why San Francisco’s team officials were so supportive once Smith expressed the need to get help and entered a treatment center—although allowing him to play the weekend before entering rehab was awkwardly, if not poorly handled.
But once he was there CEO Jed York, coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke set the tone for the organization by publicly saying they were keeping in contact with the third-year pro while he was in treatment. It sent the message that they were interested in him as a human being and not just an All-Pro player, even if some still believe their motives were far from altruistic.
While with the Chargers in 2006, retired linebacker Shawne Merriman served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on banned substances. When he returned he noticed a subtle yet distinctive difference from when he came back after missing a game as a rookie because of a knee injury. Teammates were welcoming, but …
“If you’re out suspended like I was, people welcome you back but they’re a little hesitant,” he said by phone. “They don’t kind of fool or joke with you. It’s a whole different reception than if you’ve been out with an injury. I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself to them; it was more important for me to come back and play even better than when I left. That was the only point I wanted to prove—because of what I was suspended for and because I didn’t want to be linked to those things. That made me more anxious.”
He was also bothered by teammates having to answer questions about him during the week, when they should’ve been allowed to prepare for the upcoming game. The guilt of not being there for his team the previous four games was now superseded by a feeling that he had become a distraction.
None of that appeared to accompany Smith’s return. Teammates chanted his name when he entered the locker room, and they told reporters how it was good to have him back. If Smith experienced any anxiety during Sunday’s loss, he didn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he was unhappy at participating in only 11 plays after being on the field for 95 percent of the defensive snaps before taking his indefinite paid leave. “I’m a competitor, and I want to be on the field,” he said afterward. “But whatever works. The season is so long, we’ll see how it goes.”
On Sunday the 49ers play at New Orleans, where last season Smith had 1.5 sacks and a tackle for loss in a 31-21 victory. The staff has yet to say if his workload will increase—coordinator Vic Fangio said the limited reps against Carolina were part of a plan to ease him back into action—but if it doesn’t, the likelihood is that his irritation level will rise, not his anxiety level.