SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Aldon Smith appreciates these playoffs a little more.
"Any time you take time off away from (football), it makes you miss it," he said last week.
The 49ers defensive end missed five games this season to undergo treatment for alcoholism. He said he is encouraged by the strides he has made off the field that put life — and his work — in perspective.
"We're winning. We're in the playoffs," he said. "What else could I ask for right now?"
Smith said he hasn't had alcohol since his Sept. 20 arrest and subsequent charge of DUI, and isn't craving it. When he rejoined the team Nov. 5, he said he was on the path to lifelong sobriety, and he hasn't changed that stance as he continues to receive outside help.
"I'm just focused on moving forward, getting to where I want to get and accomplishing the things I want to accomplish," said Smith, the seventh overall pick out of Missouri in 2011. "Every time I'm on the practice field, I'm doing something to just get better."
Smith, 24, sought treatment at an out-of-state inpatient rehab facility. He spent New Year's Eve watching his girlfriend host a show on MTV and didn't feel the urge to party.
"New Year's is just another day. I enjoy it like anybody else should enjoy it," he said. "It's another day to be thankful for."
While the 49ers went on a five-game win streak without him, Smith's presence was missed.
"Aldon's always had a good attitude but even more so since he's been back," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It's been amazing just looking at him from a distance and kind of checking out his body language. He's really in good spirits. I'm just happy to see him playing football again."
As a rookie, Smith had 14 sacks. In 2012, he had a franchise-record 191/2 as the 49ers reached the Super Bowl. This season, he finished with 81/2. He was initially worked back in slowly but demonstrated he had stayed in shape while away.
He still had some catching up to do.
"It was good to get away for a little while to collect my thoughts and make me appreciate the game that much more," Smith said. "It's the NFL. Any time you take a break from it, you'll miss a little bit of something that you had."