Ever since Aldon Smith signed with the Raiders just before the start of the season, the prospect of a league-imposed suspension was a cloud over him.
After nine games of mostly solid play and good behavior, that ban finally came down with Smith kicked out of the league for the next year. Now the Raiders must plan for Sunday’s game at Detroit and the rest of the season without one of their key defensive players.
“Everybody was pretty surprised,” safety Charles Woodson said. “After he signed, nobody even gave it much thought about there even being a possibility of him being suspended. So, I’m pretty shocked much like everybody else.”
The NFL imposed the suspension Tuesday, banning Smith for one calendar year without pay for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. After getting the news, Smith went through the locker room giving emotional goodbyes to the teammates he hopes to rejoin next November.
Smith was coming off one of his best games in Oakland’s 30-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday when he had one sack and three quarterback hurries.
Coach Jack Del Rio said the team would treat Smith’s suspension like an injury and not dwell on his absence.
“The bottom line is, we move on, we go with the ‘next man up’ mentality and carry on with our business,” Del Rio said.
Despite having only 3 1/2 sacks in his nine games with Oakland, Smith will be difficult to replace. He was a key part of Oakland’s pass rush on the other side of edge rusher Khalil Mack, and was stout setting the edge against the run.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith is second on the Raiders with 36 quarterback pressures, seven behind Mack. Next highest on that list with 15 is rookie Mario Edwards Jr., who benefited from the extra attention paid to Smith.
“It’s always great when you have someone like him outside who draws double teams and triple teams and helps free you up sometimes,” Edwards said. “We’re definitely going to miss him a lot in the pass rushing game.”
Edwards was already forced to increase his role when starter Justin Tuck went down with a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last month. Edwards could play more of an edge rushing role with Smith out, or Oakland also could put Benson Mayowa at that spot or promote Shelby Harris from the practice squad as an extra pass rusher.
Del Rio would not divulge how he planned to replace Smith.
“We just have to treat this like an injury and keep going,” defensive tackle Dan Williams said. “I’m sure our coaches are going to do a great job of scheming and coming up with things to help make up for his absence.”
As well as his impact on the field, the Raiders will miss Smith in the locker room. In his two-plus months with the team, Smith became popular.
“It’s been tough,” Mack said. “It’s been tough for everybody. On the bright side of it, we’ll be more than happy to get him back next year. But right now the grind continues. He’ll be mad if we let that ball drop.”
The Niners released Smith on Aug. 7 following his fifth run-in with the law a night earlier on an off day from training camp. The franchise parted ways with one of football’s most menacing pass rushers after Santa Clara police accused him of drunken driving, hit and run and vandalism.
He missed the first nine games of the 2014 season while serving an NFL suspension for violations of the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. He also missed time during the 2013 season to undergo treatment at an inpatient facility following his DUI arrest on Sept. 20, 2013.
Now he must get his life in order without the structure of a football season. The Raiders are not allowed to have any contact with Smith during his suspension.
“As an organization, we’re going to do everything we can to support him,” Del Rio said. “There’s not a lot you can do when you’re basically told that you can’t contact, you can’t be part of the team.”