SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers knew this was coming. But will the reality be too much to overcome?
The nine-game suspension of All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith announced Friday by the NFL will make the Super Bowl path of a team that has played in three straight NFC Championship games all the more treacherous.
San Francisco is already missing its other best defensive player -- All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman -- for at least half the season. Bowman is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in last year's NFC title game in Seattle.
"Nine games? Are you kidding me? That's cruel. That's ridiculous," former 49ers running back Roger Craig said. "I think it's a spinoff from those other cases, like Ray Rice. I think the commissioner had to make a stand. I'm shocked."
The punishment came a day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell outlined a stronger stance toward violations of the league's personal-conduct policy. Smith, 24, in May pleaded no contest to three felony weapons charges and two misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence.
Given Smith's track record, others didn't believe the penalty was out of line, or that it was related to Goodell's admittedly soft two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic abuse.
"I don't think it's too harsh," said former Raiders quarterback and current CBS analyst Rich Gannon. "If you're a repeat offender, there's a precedent that you're going to get disciplined, you're going to be dealt with accordingly."
Smith, the 49ers' premier pass rusher, is eligible to return to action Nov. 10. That would put him back just in time for a late-season crucible in which the 49ers face the rival Seahawks twice in a three-week span, beginning with a Thanksgiving Day game at Levi's Stadium.
Gannon and Craig agree on this much: The 49ers are facing an uphill climb to reach their second Super Bowl in three seasons.
"Nine games for a top player is hard," Craig said.
"It's a huge loss," echoed Gannon. "You're talking about their pass rusher, a guy who can be a real game-changer when he's healthy, he's focused and he's got things on track in his life."
The 49ers were off Friday, having played Thursday night in Houston, the last of their four exhibition games before the Sept. 7 regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys. Smith's teammates were mostly quiet on social media about the suspension, except for offensive lineman Anthony Davis, who in reference to Smith's jersey number, tweeted "#Free99."
Trent Baalke, the 49ers' general manager, issued a statement saying: "Our organization has known this decision would come and we have prepared for it as a team. Aldon has taken responsibility for his actions and has continued to show growth personally and professionally.
"We will continue to support him, but it is time to put this matter behind us and focus on the season ahead."
Efforts by the NFL Players Association on Smith's behalf during the process resulted in Smith being allowed to work out at the 49ers year-round facility in Santa Clara and to attend team meetings. (Violators of the personal conduct policy are typically not allowed to do so.) In exchange, Smith relinquished his right to appeal the suspension.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email: "The appeal process is concluded."
Smith met three weeks ago in New York with Goodell, prior to the Aug. 7 exhibition opener at Baltimore.
Smith missed five games last season -- the 49ers won all five, albeit against lesser competition -- when he voluntarily entered a substance-abuse treatment facility following his Sept. 20, drunken-driving accident in San Jose's Silver Creek neighborhood.
Last month, Smith was sentenced by a Santa Clara County judge to 11 days on a sheriff's work crew, three years probation and 235 hours of community service.
As legal experts noted Friday, Smith was automatically subject to a four-game suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. The number of games Goodell would tack on under the personal conduct policy was the unknown.
"The five games must be for conduct unbecoming," said Leigh Steinberg, the one-time super-agent, noting that recent events involving Rice and others couldn't have helped Smith's case. "The commissioner wanted to send a message and I do think the confluence of these events created an atmosphere in which the NFL held itself under fire from critics who felt it wasn't doing a good job of upholding public norms."
In a letter Thursday to NFL owners, Goodell set forth a stronger policy against domestic violence and sexual assault. He also wrote about other infractions involving weapons and drunken driving.
Since Goodell became commissioner in 2006, most suspensions for personal-conduct violations have ranged between one and eight games. Prior to Smith's ruling, Goodell recently drew widespread criticism for suspending \ Rice only two games after a domestic-violence incident.
Goodell apologized in his letter to owners for not taking a harsher stance with Rice, stating: "I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
Three months ago, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington received a season-long suspension as a repeat offender of the league's substance-abuse policy. Wednesday, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon lost his appeal and was suspended for the season for repeated marijuana violations.
"Players need to realize that it's not a right, it's a privilege to play in the NFL," Gannon said. "I don't feel for any of these guys who get disciplined, whether it's Aldon Smith, Josh Gordon, Justin Blackmon. Follow the rules and you won't have any problems."
Smith didn't face criminal charges for his latest off-field incident, an April arrest at Los Angeles International Airport for allegedly making a fake bomb threat.
According to Craig, the former 49ers star, Smith seems to be turning a corner in his personal life.
"He's learning from all this. He's a good person," Craig said. "He's going to make an impact off the field someday, trust me, and he's going to do it in a positive way."
Another former 49ers player is less sympathetic, and pleased Smith is being held accountable.
In an email, three-time Super Bowl winner and current analyst Randy Cross said: "It's probably best he serve his time, deal with his demons and try not to let everyone down connected with team again -- or it'll be his last strike with the Niners."
If Smith returns as the player he has been all along, including this training camp, he could be a huge difference-maker down the stretch.
"Oh, man, I can't wait to see him light it up," Craig said. "Other teams are going to be tired and he's going to come in with fresh legs and terrorize the league."
Staff writer Daniel Brown contributed to this report.