When Aldon Smith is eligible to play another regular-season NFL game again, he’ll be 27. The next chance he gets to play a full 16-game season, he’ll be 28.
He won’t be a kid anymore. He won’t have the benefit of the doubt that youth gives players, or of having lots of time left to make up for his mistakes. Ray Rice is 28. He probably will never play in the NFL again.
Smith probably won’t, either.
The second-chance argument won’t fly, at least not in NFL terms. Smith is way beyond that now. The one-year suspension handed down by the NFL late Tuesday, stemming from a DUI arrest in August, means he will miss major chunks of four straight seasons, in the prime of his career. That includes the five games of leave given him by the 49ers after another DUI in 2013.
At that time, he was less than a week from his 24th birthday, and it was easy to see how, even if he didn’t find sobriety and recovery on his first try, he had a long career ahead to find it and take on the sport at his best, instead of with more issues to resolve.
Smith last played a full 16-game season in 2012, the year the 49ers went to the Super Bowl. He was a big reason they went. He was 23.
The Raiders’ turnaround was in at least some part due to his presence, to them taking a chance on him when the 49ers finally cut bait after his arrest. He’s 26 now.
Yes, his age at all these stages of his career are important to note. The number keeps going up, and as it goes up, his chances that another team will trust him again goes down.
It’s not his fault, of course, and that has to be made crystal-clear. This is not the place to scold him for weakness or poor discipline or lousy priorities or blown opportunities at the riches and glory of NFL stardom. Aldon Smith can’t handle his addictions. With DUIs, other lives are put in danger with that, not just his own.
That screams out that he can’t control this, not as easily as total strangers can lecture him about it.
But none of that matters. It won’t be a matter of whether teams believe in his character when he’s eligible to play again in November 2016. It will be whether he’s clean, and can stay clean.
And, more important to them, how good a player he is when he gets back. He was good when he joined the Raiders. To assume he’ll still be good a year from now is as dangerous as assuming he’ll even be ready to return then.
Yes, at a certain cold, callous level, it’s a waste of immense talent. It’s much more of a shame, though. Smith’s life is hanging in the balance, and that’s his first priority. But another big chunk of his very limited NFL career, one which can end on any one play even when he’s fully healthy inside and out, is disappearing.
Rice’s last NFL game took place when he was 26. He’s been eligible to play since a year ago next week, when he won his appeal of the NFL’s post-elevator video suspension. He hasn’t even gotten a workout with an NFL team since.
To be fair, running backs are considered a dime a dozen these days, and elite pass rushers are as valued as quarterbacks in some cases. Even with his pace slowed greatly the last two seasons in San Francisco and Oakland, he still has 47 1/2 sacks in 59 career games. It’s possible that some team will think of that next November, when Smith is reinstated (if he is).
But if Aldon Smith isn’t sure how much can change about your NFL future between 26 and 28, he can just ask Rice.