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After posting 19.5 sacks last season, Aldon Smith came into 2013 as one of the NFL’s most talked about and respected defensive players. However, following a September DUI arrest – which marked his second since joining the league – Smith remained a hot topic of discussion, but for the wrong reasons. The San Francisco 49ers also came under fire for deciding to play Smith in a game against the Indianapolis Colts just two days after his arrest, and only ruled him out after the loss.
Now, with Smith returning from a voluntary six-week leave of absence – in which he sought treatment for alcohol abuse – many expected the Niners to throw their best defensive player back into the starting rotation for this Sunday’s high-profile match-up against the Carolina Panthers, but this time, the organization seems to finally have its priorities in order.
According to an NFL.com report, Smith is expected to play on Sunday, but in a limited role as a situational pass rusher. Smith’s apparent “rustiness” in practice this week was undoubtedly a factor in the decision not to start him, but the decision also shows that the 49ers are sticking to their original plan in having Smith earn his job back, while easing him back into the regular season grind.
From a football standpoint, it certainly makes sense. Not only are the Niners sitting comfortably at 6-2 on the season, but they also have a very talented rookie pass rusher in Corey Lemonier, who has done just fine in filling in for Smith so far this year. While there’s no doubt the 49ers could use more of Smith, they don’t necessarily need him – at least not yet. However, what’s truly admirable about the organization’s handling of Smith is that they have the man’s best interests in mind, rather than just the player’s.
At times, it may seem like NFL teams use their players like disposable commodities by chewing up young educated men and spitting them out as grizzled, beat-down gladiators when they can’t produce on the gridiron anymore. That’s why it’s refreshing to see the 49ers show some consideration and compassion by attending to Smith’s personal needs as he continues to grapple with his own issues.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from my family, friends, organization, teammates and everything,” Smith told reporters, via the team’s website. “It really says a lot, that people care about me outside of the field and that they care about me as a person.”
It’s clear that the 49ers are looking out for Smith and want him to be a part of the organization for many years to come, not just because he is a great talent, but because they think he is a great person. Smith is the first one to admit his mistakes and flaws, but the fact that the franchise has remained behind him and isn’t throwing an ill-prepared player (perhaps mentally, as well as physically) to the wolves right away is nice to see.
“We could all look into our lives and find something we need to work on. I’ve taken my time and I’ve done that and if anything, it’s just to take things one day at a time and build towards that goal.”
Of course, talk is cheap and to prove the skeptics wrong, Smith will have to continue to mature and grow off the field, as well as on it. But 49ers fans have to be encouraged with his attitude and the fact that he is holding himself accountable for his past mistakes. We’ll see how much the Niners use him on Sunday against the Panthers, but if Smith continues to make positive strides, don’t be surprised if you see him back at his normal starting position sooner rather
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