Chris Carson wasn’t sure which defender was talking smack to him during the Sept. 26 visit by the Dallas Cowboys to Seattle. Given how hard he plays, the Seahawks running back wasn’t used to hearing trash, given his propensity for finding an abrupt way forward between a would-be tackler’s nose and chin.
It might have been LB Aldon Smith. He was the only guy playing as hard as Carson.
That day, Smith had three of the Cowboys’ four sacks of Russell Wilson, four of their eight QB hits, two tackles for loss and a pass defensed.
I don’t know if it was him or not,” Carson told a video conference of reporters Thursday. “But I know he was giving energy to the defense the whole game.
“If that was him, I’m excited to play with him because he brings that spark.”
It’s likely that Seahawks general manager John Schneider knew who it was. Back in the “What’s Your Deal?” glory days of the Seahawks-49ers rivalry, he saw Smith put the Seahawks’ offense through his personal meat-grinder.
So the chance in 2021 to sign Smith, turning 32 in September, despite the gaping, four-year hole in his resume for being one of the NFL’s more notorious dudes, was irresistible.
It took reportedly two in-person meetings to make sure he was worthy of the gamble and controversy, but the Seahawks signed Smith to a one-year deal Thursday, first reported by the NFL Network.
No terms have been disclosed, but this late in free agency, the market is cool, prices are lower, and the Seahawks can write in a trap-door clause: One off-field screw-up, and he’s out of a job.
The risk-reward meter improved in the Seahawks’ favor after Smith, who, against massive league-wide skepticism, returned from NFL-mandated purgatory to have a 16-game season as a starter with the Cowboys. As far as is known, he had no arrests, no failed drug tests and no known lapses into his earlier career as a knucklehead.
He even had a touchdown.
He finished with five sacks, 78 tackles, and that peak day in Seattle, blighted by the outcome, a 38-31 defeat that was secured only after QB Dak Prescott, who passed for 472 yards, threw an interception in the end zone on Dallas’s final play.
Smith didn’t get much help that day from his injury-pickled teammates, who let Wilson make 27 completions in 40 attempts for 315 yards and five touchdowns. That gave Wilson 14 TD passes in the first three games, an NFL record surpassing Patrick Mahomes.
“I think it’s important that you don’t let (Wilson) frustrate you and discourage your rush,” Smith said post-game. “He does a good job keeping plays active. It was something that we prepared for, something we knew going in. It’s just that we’ve got to make more plays next time.”
Now he doesn’t have to worry about Wilson. What Smith will have to explain is how he had no sacks in the season’s second half.
One guess might be that a four-year layoff from the NFL creates a conditioning problem, even though he played 73 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps. But the Seahawks have a solution for that.
He doesn’t need to start.
The Seahawks re-signed their own free agent at rush end, Carlos Dunlap, and hired one of Smith’s San Francisco teammates, Kerry Hyder Jr., at the other end. They also have veteran Benson Mayowa and two-second-year guys, Alton Robinson and Darrell Taylor, the latter having missed his rookie season with injury.
It appears Carroll is deploying his theorem that you can’t have too many pass rushers, probably as an allergic reaction to the play of the defense in the 2020 season’s first half. His nervous chewing of gum on the sidelines reportedly kept Bazooka profitable during the pandemic.
Smith, who starred at the University of Missouri under Gary Pinkel, once the top assistant to Don James at the University of Washington, was the 49ers’ seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft and had 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons. He made first-team All-Pro in 2012 as the 49ers ascended to the Super Bowl.
Thereafter, his off-field behavior seemed to have destroyed his career. His five arrests included three DUI charges as well as the making of a bomb threat in 2014 at an LAX security checkpoint. Charges were dropped but the NFL suspended him for nine games.
On Aug. 7, 2015, the day after he was arrested for DUI, hit and run and vandalism by Santa Clara police, the 49ers said no mas and released him.
An indefinite suspension from the NFL ensued partly because of substance-abuse issues. It lingered for four years. Presumably he passed all drug tests and engaged in sufficient rehab to be reinstated. The Cowboys signed him in May 2020 for up to $2 million, but in March let him enter free agency.
Here was the assessment by Pro Football Focus:
Smith’s return to the NFL is a miraculous comeback story after a four-year absence from 2016-19. While he hasn’t quite been the superstar he was with the 49ers, he’s still generated a 70.0 pass-rush grade while playing at least 40 snaps in every game — a testament to his conditioning. He’s been moved all over the defensive front, and his 50 pressures tell a better story than his four sacks, as he was a solid pass-rusher in his return to the NFL . . . At 31 years old, Smith has proven to just be a different type of human, and one final payday as a veteran will be a great end to his story.
If he can rehab his way out of NFL jail, and trash-talk his way into Carson’s heart, possibilities are limitless.