Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson and Raiders pass rusher Aldon Smith are essentially in limbo as their respective teams battle for a spot in the playoffs.

By Don Banks
November 17, 2015

UPDATE: An ESPN report that Raiders LB Aldon Smith has received a one-year suspension for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy on Tuesday afternoon was confirmed to by a league source. 

With seven weeks remaining in the NFL’s regular season and the stretch run to the playoffs fast approaching, the Jets and Raiders find themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar position: Both clubs are contending for an AFC wild-card berth as we reach mid-November. The Jets are striving to make the postseason for the first time in five years, while the long-downtrodden Raiders are trying to snap a 12-year playoff drought that is tied for the second-longest in the league.

Currently sitting seventh (Jets, 5–4) and ninth (Raiders, 4–5) in the AFC, both clubs will need some help and perhaps a break or two to reach the playoffs in the first year of new head coaching regimes. And those efforts will be helped immensely if New York and Oakland can keep their best players on the field as the stakes grow larger each successive week.

Injuries, however, may not be the only factor that impacts the Jets and Raiders’ playoff chances. Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the NFL’s long and always-eventful regular season was the reality that both clubs could lose one of their key defensive players to a league suspension between now and January: third-year Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson for the Jets, and edge rusher Aldon Smith for the Raiders.

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In essence, Richardson and Smith were in limbo as the season played out, with both of the former first-round picks and University of Missouri stars waiting to hear from the NFL on any potential discipline that could be handed down in connection with their arrests this summer. On Tuesday, Smith received a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and a league source told that Richardson still remains in jeopardy of being suspended during the current season.

“There’s nothing I see involving these that I would say it’s unlikely something would happen in the way of an in-season decision,” the league source said of the two cases before the Smith ruling came down. “I don’t anticipate that this is the kind of thing that would necessarily stretch into next year for a decision.”

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Richardson, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, was arrested in mid-July in St. Charles County, Missouri, and charged with resisting arrest and traffic violations after allegedly being involved in street racing and leading police on a high-speed chase in which he was clocked going 143 miles per hour. Two other men and a 12-year-old family member were found to be in the car, all of whom smelled of marijuana. A legally owned but loaded gun was found under the driver’s seat of Richardson’s 2014 Bentley, but he does not face any drug or child endangerment charges since the prosecutor decided there was not enough evidence to support a case that was beyond reasonable doubt.

Richardson has pled not guilty to five misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest, but while his case continues to work its way through the legal system—and a scheduled Nov. 9 hearing on his case has been delayed for a second time—the NFL could still punish him before the courts do. Twelve days before his arrest, the league office suspended Richardson for the first four games of the 2015 season for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy that involved marijuana use. That suspension was served, with Richardson rejoining the team in time for the Jets’ fifth game of the season, but the league could now tack on further punishment with the arrest violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

Smith was arrested for his third DUI in addition to hit-and-run and vandalism charges on Aug. 6, a day before the 49ers released him after four incident-filled seasons. The Raiders signed him in early September to a one-year, incentive-laden contract believed to be worth up to $8 million, and he quickly joined the Oakland lineup, with team general manager Reggie McKenzie recently saying he has played well enough that the Raiders see Smith being in their long-term plans.

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But Smith, once one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers, is no longer in Oakland’s short-term plans. The August arrest was the fifth of his five-year NFL career, and he received a nine-game suspension from the league at the beginning of the 2014 season, for a combination of a DUI conviction and gun charges. He has pled not guilty to the misdemeanor counts of DUI with a prior conviction, hit-and-run and vandalism. Smith’s scheduled Nov. 4 pre-trial conference has been delayed.

But waiting for the legal system to act is no longer the NFL’s default setting in the post-Ray Rice era, with the league more willing to pre-empt the legal system’s findings with its own ruling if it discovers potential violations of either the personal conduct policy or its substance abuse program, regardless of whether it has any bearing on what happens to the player legally in a criminal case.

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Smith’s impact through his first nine games in Oakland hasn’t been spectacular judged against his heyday-level production in San Francisco, but his 3.5 sacks rank second on the team behind only linebacker Khalil Mack’s five. And he added a playmaking presence to the Raiders’ defensive lineup, with 28 tackles, including three tackles for loss, in addition to his sacks.

Richardson has played just five games since returning from suspension, with the Jets going 2–3 in that span, but his contributions include two sacks to tie for third on the team. Adding him back into the Jets’ stout defensive front has helped New York rank first in the league against the run (88.1 yards per game) and fourth overall in yards allowed (318.4). The removal of Smith from the lineup at this point in the season poses a significant challenge to the Raiders as they fight for playoff contention, and the same goes for any discipline headed Richardson’s way.

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While the league has made it well-known that it intends to lean forward and pursue its own timeline in cases involving violations of its personal conduct policy or substance abuse program, regardless of the legal proceedings, cases like Richardson’s and Smith’s this season highlights that the league can’t get too far ahead of criminal proceedings in conducting its own investigation. In most cases, a league source said, the NFL has to be careful not to interfere with or impede a criminal investigation with any of its own investigative work. In short, the NFL doesn’t want to be beholden to the timeline of a criminal case, but it can’t ignore the legal system’s calendar altogether in any particular case.

Many times the league’s own investigation must deal with the practical ramifications of prosecutors or law enforcement refusing to share information, court records, or granting access to pertinent witnesses, the league source said. The NFL also has to work in concert with the players union when it seeks to interview players who are under disciplinary review, and matters on the personal conduct or substance abuse side of the spectrum are never as straightforward as issues dealing with on-field playing rules infractions.

Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib can be a suspended for a game for poking an opponent in the eye, with the appeal process included, in roughly two days because the league has 100% confidence of the evidence involved. It has the game film and can sit and watch it, then make a rather expedited decision on discipline. From a competitive standpoint, the NFL wants to act quickly in those matters, because the almost immediate discipline handed out acts as a deterrent against the behavior in not letting the accused player have a positive impact in his team’s next game. Case opened, decided and shut. Almost overnight.

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When a criminal case involves a matter that also overlaps into the area of the league’s substance abuse policy—such as with Smith’s third DUI, but not in the case of Richardson’s arrest—there are a different set of considerations that must be factored into the league’s disciplinary decision-making. A player’s participation in that program adds a layer of complication to the disciplinary judgment, in that the expertise of the program’s clinicians, medical directors and advisors are sought, with the program’s confidentiality policy playing a role in the process that produces an eventual penalty decision. In the league’s eyes, there are often separate components of a criminal case and a substance abuse policy violation that can be on parallel tracks, but with one or the other serving to slow down the disciplinary judgment.

A late-season suspension has the potential to make an obvious competitive impact on the league’s playoff races. But the NFL, the league source said, tries to account for competitive issues by ignoring them, attempting to be unaware of the football calendar as it intersects with the disciplinary process. The general rule is don’t put off a decision if it’s ready to be made just because the league could if it so desired.

The Raiders knew Smith could be in line for further league discipline when they signed him on Sept. 11, so there were no guarantees offered that they would get a full season out of him before the NFL ruled on his case. As of the first day of training camp in late July, the Jets were painfully aware that Richardson’s 2015 season could feature a league suspension at both the beginning and end of it.

Now the Raiders will prepare for their final six games without a key contributor, and time will tell if the Jets will have the services of Richardson as the season’s backstretch unfolds. Even as New York and Oakland inserted themselves into the AFC playoff race conversation, both had to be braced for losses that may wind up being felt on the roster and in the standings.

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