That was never more evident than last season when, in only six starts, he helped transform a franchise that many had come to dislike into one fans could root for again. Just as it was never more evident than two years earlier, in 2018, when the Washington Football Team fell apart after he was injured.
In 2020, Smith’s comeback from that gruesome 2018 leg injury captured the imagination of the sporting public and, for maybe the first time in his career, turned him into a national figure whose story could, as they say, move the needle. But what he showed last season, with a return to the field few thought possible, was just a summation of his career.
The toughness. The competitiveness. The leadership.
When teammates talk about him, they don’t talk about big throws or flashy runs; they mention everything else. His former college coach, Urban Meyer, raved about his toughness and also called him the “most intelligent player I’ve ever coached.”
All those qualities made Smith a popular player in every locker room.
An anecdote after he suffered his compound leg fracture on Nov. 18, 2018, was telling. At the time, nobody realized how devastating the injury was, but there’s no doubt those in the ambulance headed to the hospital knew — they saw the bone had pierced his skin. Yet, as he headed to the hospital, Smith’s mind was on the game, not himself: How was his backup, Colt McCoy, doing? What was the score?
Considering what we know now, it’s an even bigger example of selflessness than was thought at the time. After the 2018 season — Washington went from a 6-3 mark with a healthy Smith to a 7-9 finish — players to a man said everything changed once Smith was hurt.
They said that even though Washington’s offense wasn’t humming with Smith. At the time, it ranked No. 26 in yards per game and No. 27 in points. Washington was boring and ranked No. 26 in yards per pass attempt.
Smith and then-coach Jay Gruden were still trying to find common ground, about what to do or call at times. Yet, players felt Smith’s impact. He made them feel confident with his presence in the huddle. During tense times he stayed calm. He became known for what he didn’t do — turn the ball over — a trait that contributed to winning games. Quarterback wins and losses can be a misleading stat, but consider this: During his time in Washington, the franchise went 11-5 when he started and 6-27 when he didn’t. This past season, Washington’s young wide receivers mentioned how he would remind them of the routes to run after breaking the huddle, allowing them to play more freely.
Former Washington long-snapper Nick Sundberg recalled being on the sidelines during a game and seeing Washington in a third-and-real-long situation. He worried about being backed up deep in their own territory for the ensuing punt. Punter Tress Way did not share that fear; he told Sundberg Smith would do something. Sure enough, Washington completed a play long enough to set up a far better punting situation. Those little plays weren’t exciting, but they added up.
It’s why Sundberg, discussing Smith this offseason, recalled a game from last season when he and Way were again on the sidelines together. Washington was trailing, but both agreed their team would still win. Sundberg asked Way why he thought that, knowing his answer would be the same. “Because of that man,” Way said, pointing at Smith.
Though Smith’s place in NFL history became secure this season, his career was filled with overcoming obstacles. It’s partly what made him such a strong leader. He went through it all: He knew the pressure of being a high pick, having been selected No. 1 overall in 2005. He knew the burden of failed expectations as he was largely considered a bust for his first three pro years. He knew about dealing with injuries, being benched, losing his job because of an injury and being traded — twice.
Yet he played 16 seasons.
During team meetings, Smith made it a point to sit in a different seat each time so he could get to know another player. Little things.
In San Francisco, he lost his job to Colin Kaepernick while out with an injury in 2012. The 49ers were 6-2-1 with Smith starting. He had thrown 13 touchdowns to five interceptions. But the team stuck with Kaepernick when Smith was healthy. Rather than pout, Smith did what he always did: Show up, work and help his teammates. He even would remind his coaches before games about plays Kaepernick was comfortable running.
In Kansas City, after the Chiefs traded up to select quarterback Patrick Mahomes — his eventual replacement — Smith didn’t change his approach. He showed Mahomes the blueprint for how a quarterback must prepare to succeed in the NFL. Smith said it was more about doing things the right way and leading by example than lecturing someone about what to do. When people chose to pay attention, they could learn.
Washington had become a franchise many had come to dislike, whether because of the ownership, the former team name or the failed expectations that exasperated its fans. But Smith’s comeback and coach Ron Rivera’s cancer diagnosis gave fans something to root for because their recoveries became about more than just football.
Alex Smith details visiting with the Jaguars and possibly playing under Urban Meyer before ultimately deciding to retire.
In the end, though, Smith had nothing left to prove. Despite starting only six games last season, he had crafted a fairy-tale-type script. His return was a key reason Washington overcame a 2-6 start to win the NFC East. It didn’t result in a Super Bowl sendoff à la John Elway, but it did result in a career capped with an exclamation point.
After announcing his retirement, Smith told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap on Outside the Lines about going snowboarding with his kids and how that helped cement his decision.
Smith had nothing left to prove in football; he showed his kids how to overcome adversity and not be deterred from a dream or a goal. Now, he can just hold the two jobs he seems to love the most: father and husband.
It’ll be interesting to see what Smith does next. For sure, he’ll make an impact. It’s what he always has done.
New Orleans Saints sign rookie free agent defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal Jr., son of former All-Pro fullback
METAIRIE, La. — As an All-Pro fullback, Lorenzo Neal made a career out of paving the way for some of the NFL’s great runners for 16 years. Now it’s Neal’s son who is following in his footsteps.
Purdue defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal Jr. signed Sunday as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New Orleans Saints – the same team that drafted his dad in 1993.
Starting my career at the same place as my pops ⚜️⚜️ https://t.co/OXkRQu96k5
— Lorenzo Neal (@loneal_9) May 17, 2021
Neal Jr. (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by the coaches in both 2018 and 2020. But his career was waylaid by a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2019 season. He finished his career with 73 tackles, four sacks and four forced fumbles in 38 games.
Neal Sr. began his career as a tailback with the Saints but was converted to fullback after an ankle injury his rookie year. He spent four seasons in New Orleans before playing for the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens.
Neal was a member of the 2000s all-decade team, a two-time first-team All-Pro selection and a four-time Pro Bowler. He had an 11-year streak of blocking for 1,000-yard rushers, including five with future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.
Neal Sr. also had a big impact on Drew Brees as a supportive teammate early in Brees’ career with the Chargers.
Ex-Austin Peay Governors DB Juantarius Bryant falls victim of Atlanta Falcons tryout hoax
Juantarius Bryant thought he was heading to Georgia this weekend to try out for the Atlanta Falcons during the team’s rookie minicamp. When he arrived in Flowery Branch, though, he learned he had been the victim of a hoax instead.
Bryant, a defensive back from Austin Peay, was never actually contacted by the Falcons but instead by someone texting him from an Atlanta area code pretending to be defensive coordinator Dean Pees. So when Bryant arrived at the team’s facility Wednesday to get ready for his chance to try and accomplish an NFL dream, he was instead turned away.
“I do not know or understand why this has happened,” Bryant wrote in a Twitter message. “But I do know that everything happens for a reason. Yes, this was heart breaking for me, but just another stepping stone that I am not afraid to admit or overcome.
“At the end of the day, this will not make or break me. I will still continue to fight for my dreams because I know it’s what I really want.”
It’s been a rough few days, but I felt the need to clear the air and get this off my chest. Honestly ready to move on from the situation. pic.twitter.com/yUJELOstZW
— Juantarius Bryant (@TheyLoveMyHair_) May 15, 2021
Bryant declined to do a full interview with ESPN when reached Sunday and said he posted something about it publicly on Twitter to let people who have supported him know what was going on because he believed he had a legitimate invite to Falcons camp over the weekend.
“I am ready to move on from the situation and respectfully I do not feel like talking about it over and over again,” Bryant said in an email to ESPN. “Yes, whoever did this to me is very wrong, but I’m moving on from the situation and I forgive them for whatever reason they chose to do it.
“I honestly would not like the person who pulled this stunt on me to be publicly humiliated. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
Bryant, who is from Nashville, initially began his career as a walk-on at Austin Peay and became a first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference defensive back by his senior season in 2019 after making 107 tackles (2.5 for loss). In his career, he played in 43 games for Austin Peay with 242 tackles (8.5 for loss), eight passes defended, three forced fumbles and an interception.
The Falcons declined to comment about the situation to ESPN, but Bryant’s agent, Corey Alexander, tweeted that he has been in touch with the Falcons about what happened. A message left with Alexander seeking further comment was not immediately returned.
Juan has handled this situation with class. I hate the situation and have talked with representatives at the Atlanta Falcons. All parties involved are frustrated but @TheyLoveMyHair_ will get his opportunity soon. https://t.co/dCDSkx4B8C
— Coach Alexander (@coreyralexander) May 16, 2021
COVID-19 protocols limited the number of tryout players a team could have at its rookie minicamps the past two weeks. Atlanta had five players try out for the team this weekend — the maximum the team could have — and signed defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu, who was in training camp with the Detroit Lions last year, on Sunday.
Carolina in his mind? New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson catches a tough break – New York Jets Blog
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
While Jets-Carolina Panthers is being billed as Darnold’s revenge game, the potential impact on Wilson can’t be dismissed. Already facing huge expectations as the No. 2 pick and perceived franchise savior, the 21-year-old rookie and presumptive starter will be under magnified pressure in what amounts to a statement game.
Is that a fair way to look at it? No, but that’s how it will play. The NFL schedule-makers, always lusting for drama, did the Jets no favors by staging Wilson versus Darnold. This is no soft opening, that’s for sure.
Wilson hasn’t commented yet on the matchup, but someone who knows him well believes he will be unfazed by the magnitude of it.
“He looks forward to opportunities like this,” said former NFL quarterback John Beck, Wilson’s longtime personal coach. “Because people kind of snubbed him young, meaning he wasn’t heavily recruited [in high school], he could see these as opportunities to prove something.
“He’s not one of those people who had everybody telling him how good he was. In situations like this, those [players] probably think, ‘Oh, gosh, I may fail and, if I fail, what does that mean?’ I think Zach views that as the opposite.
What you need to know about the New York Jets:
• Jets’ free-agent signings »
• Free-agency coverage » | More NFL »
• Analysis for every Jets draft pick »
• Kiper’s draft grades for every team»
• McShay’s favorite pick for all 32 teams »
• Jets’ 2021 schedule » | All games »
“To him, it’s not him versus Sam Darnold. In Zach’s mind, it’s him taking the stage at his first regular-season game. To him, that’s what this stage is about. Because of that, he wants to play really well in that situation. I think that type of challenge excites him.”
Last month’s Darnold trade wasn’t a clear-cut decision for Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who admitted he considered the possibility of pairing Darnold and Wilson. Despite his struggles in New York, Darnold remains popular within the organization and the fan base. In that sense, it’s probably a good thing the opener is on the road. If the day goes sideways, Wilson won’t have to worry about fan backlash.
2. Two for the show: As expected, Wilson will wear No. 2. There’s certainly not much Jets history associated with that number. The most recognizable player to wear No. 2 was place-kicker Nick Folk, a member of the team from 2010 to 2016. In terms of New York sports history, the all-time No. 2 is a no-brainer — former Yankees star Derek Jeter.
3. Sorry, wrong number: First-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker will wear No. 75, which raises a question: Why is that number still in circulation? The Jets should retire that number because it belonged to the late great Winston Hill, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Other ex-Jets in the Hall of Fame — quarterback Joe Namath (12), wide receiver Don Maynard (13) and running back Curtis Martin (28) — had their numbers retired by the team. Even defensive lineman Joe Klecko (73), not a member of the HOF (even though he should be), had his number retired. Why should Hill, who wore No. 75 with distinction for 14 seasons, be different? By the same token, offensive lineman Kevin Mawae (68), inducted in 2019, also should be afforded that honor. No current player has No. 68.
Vera-Tucker wore No. 75 at USC, so his preference is understandable. Chuma Edoga, another former USC lineman, wore it for the Jets the past two years. No one should wear it again now that Hill has been posthumously honored in Canton.
The Jets, aware of the Hill situation, haven’t ruled out adjustments in the future.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) April 30, 2021
4. Inside the schedule: Every team’s schedule is filled with quirks and trends. Let’s take a closer look at the Jets’ slate:
Positives: They have 13 games at 1 p.m. ET, a franchise record. That’s not great for national exposure, but it makes the coaches happy. Prime-time games cut into the following week’s preparation. … The Jets and Chicago Bears are the only teams without back-to-back road games. … They face only one 2020 playoff team (Tennessee Titans) in their first seven games. … Starting in Week 10, they have six home games in a span of eight weeks, their first such stretch since 1976. … They could benefit from an unbalanced schedule. Due to the 17-game schedule and a London game, the Jets have nine home games, seven true road games and one international game. The Miami Dolphins have the same situation.
Negatives: The bye is Week 6, the earliest it can be. (Three other teams have the early bye.) For the Jets, it comes after their trip to London. That means they have to close the season with 12 straight games, which will be taxing. … Their rest differential is minus-2 days. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the New England Patriots (-15) and Dolphins (-6). (Note: The Jets had a plus-8 differential last season, which did them no good.) … They’re away from home in four of the first six games, which could be a factor now that stadiums are expected to be at full capacity again. … Five of the Jets’ final 10 games are against 2020 playoff teams.
5. Did you know? The Jets play the Patriots in Weeks 2 and 7. If Wilson starts against Mac Jones, who will supplant Cam Newton at some point, it will mark the first time in the history of the Jets-Patriots rivalry that two rookie quarterbacks started. That covers 121 regular-season games. Tom Brady started 36 of them, none as a rookie, which explains a lot.
6. No opt-outs: Before the 2021 NFL draft, Douglas was on the fence when asked how he would evaluate prospects who opted out for 2020. On one hand, he said it would be a “challenge” to grade players based on 2019 tape. But he made sure to note he respected the wishes of those who decided not to play, ostensibly for COVID-19 concerns. (Wink, wink.)
As it turned out, no fewer than 19 teams drafted at least one player who opted out for the entire college season — but not the Jets. Wide receiver Elijah Moore opted out for the final two games at Ole Miss, but he still had eight highly productive games on tape in 2020. Douglas picked players who played, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. He’s all about minimizing risk, and he recognized opt-outs carried more risk than other players.
7. Super sleeper: For obvious reasons, the Jets’ third-day defensive draft picks didn’t get much exposure, but one name to watch is fifth-round pick Jamien Sherwood, the safety/linebacker hybrid. He was a tackling star at Auburn, but his pro evaluation dropped with a disappointing 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds) at his pro day. The Jets see him as an ideal fit as a weakside linebacker in their 4-3 front — a wide-open position — and there’s some thought he could emerge as the starter. He played safety with a linebacker mentality.
8. Looking for gems: The Jets were aggressive in signing undrafted free agents, doling out relatively large guarantees for coveted players. Oregon State cornerback Isaiah Dunn got $185,000 and Ole Miss tight end Kenny Yeboah received $180,000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those were two of the league’s biggest guarantees.
9. Whatever happened to…: Most of the members of the Jets’ previous coaching staff landed jobs in the pro and college ranks. Of the coordinators and position coaches on Adam Gase’s staff, only Gregg Williams (defensive coordinator), Joe Vitt (outside linebackers) and Jim Bob Cooter (running backs) are out of coaching. Vitt, Gase’s father-in-law, could retire. Gase, too, is not coaching; he has two years left on his contract.
10. The last word: “He’s a fantastic guy. I think he’s the leader of men that the Jets need. I think he’s going to be one of the biggest parts of the rebuild phase.” — center Connor McGovern on coach Robert Saleh, via inforum.com in Fargo, North Dakota (his hometown).
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