Aldon Smith entered a rehab facility for treatment of substance abuse problems shortly after the San Francisco 49ers' third game of the season. The 49ers lost that game to the Indianapolis Colts and had a record of 1-2.
The doomsday naysayers were out in force, but since that loss, the 49ers have rattled off five consecutive wins.
However, the 49ers do miss Smith's presence on defense. He was their leading sack master in 2012 with 19.5 sacks. Smith was selected to the Pro Bowl and was also a First-Team All-Pro last season.
In only three games this year, Smith had accumulated 4.5 sacks. Amazingly, Smith still leads the team in that category even though he has missed these last five games.
The San Francisco 49ers defense is tied for 22nd in the league with only 17 sacks on the season. The more alarming issue is the lack of consistent pressure the 49ers have been able to apply on the opposing quarterback.
Against Jacksonville this past Sunday, the 49ers had no sacks and rarely even hit Chad Henne. The lack of pressure is even more of a concern when you consider that the Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the league in allowing sacks.
The 49ers have been able to get away with the lack of pressure against the likes of Sam Bradford, Matt Schaub, Carson Palmer, Jake Locker and Chad Henne. However, against the top quarterbacks and teams in the league, they will not be so lucky.
Consider the fact that the 49ers were comfortably in control in every one of these last five games. With the lead, the 49ers defense knew the opposition was forced to pass and largely abandon their ground game.
Even with their opponents in a pass-first mode, the 49ers defense has still not applied the consistent pressure they will need if they hope to make it to the Super Bowl again.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio does not like to use the blitz, instead preferring to drop seven and sometimes eight men back into coverage. Top quality NFL quarterbacks will burn that strategy if given time to survey the field and throw while under very little duress.
The strategy of rushing only four men is fine when those four can apply that consistent pressure. However, without Smith, the 49ers' pass rush has been unable do that.
In addition to the on-field benefits that Smith brings to the 49ers defense is the issue of a potential suspension upon his return.
Smith has the current DUI charge hanging over his head, but he also has been charged with three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon.
Smith has had prior run-ins with the law on top of these two most recent incidents. It is extremely likely he will be suspended by the NFL when he returns. Expect a four-game suspension, which most likely would have been longer had he not entered the rehab facility.
The sooner Smith is activated, the quicker he can be suspended and serve out the penalty. The 49ers need Smith for the postseason, so it would be a plus if he were able to serve his suspension in the next few weeks.
These are two extremely valid reasons for the 49ers to bring Smith back sooner rather than later. However, there is one extremely important overriding factor that cannot be discounted.
The 49ers must do what is best for Smith as a person.
The 49ers lost sight of this and allowed him to play against the Colts only days after his DUI arrest. They were aware that Smith was going to go into rehab, but had him play anyway.
The loss to the Colts was a bit of karma because the 49ers' management did not do what they should have in that situation. They let football take a position over the health and well-being of a person.
The 49ers received a lot of flack for that blunder, and rightfully so. It was a public relations nightmare for a team that prides itself on doing things the right way.
With that in mind, the 49ers must wait until Smith is healthy and fully ready to emerge from his stint in rehab. When he is ready, then, and only then, should he be allowed back in uniform.
Smith has shown a great deal of immaturity off the football field. His legal troubles are a testament to that. Smith will need to prove to everyone that he has his life in order and has rid himself of the demons that have haunted him.
As much as we all value winning, it is not as important as a man's life. Smith is at a critical juncture in his life, and before he returns, he must be healthy and mentally strong. Neither Smith nor the 49ers can afford a relapse.