- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

Dan Wilkinson is just 27 years old, a decade younger than defensive linemate Bruce Smith, but he just shakes his head when asked to imagine playing as long and as well as the Washington Redskins' venerable right end.

"Taking double-teams for another 10 years?" Wilkinson said. "I just couldn't imagine it."

Such incredulity accompanies nearly everything Smith has done this season, particularly this week. Monday night yielded a ferocious three-sack performance that keyed the Redskins' huge road win against the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams, and Smith was named his conference's defensive player of the week for the ninth time, a record among active players.

Sixteen years into a Hall of Fame career, Smith doesn't recover from games quite as quickly as he once did. That's what makes Wilkinson so convinced he won't duplicate Smith's feat of longevity, and it's what had Smith watching practice in sweats yesterday and spending the midday break sunk deep into a couch at Redskin Park.

"We didn't actually land at Dulles until 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning," Smith said, recalling Tuesday morning's return flight from St. Louis. "It's going to take until Thursday or Friday until I'm feeling like I'm close to ready to play again. With my age being 37 and being in the league [16] years and playing the number of games I've played, it takes a lot longer."

That's why the open date of Nov. 12 played such a big role for Smith. Coach Norv Turner acknowledged that star defensive ends Smith and Marco Coleman were getting a bit worn out in late October and early November, recording just one sack combined in Weeks 7 through 10 after picking up 13 in Weeks 1 to 6.

That said, it wasn't like Smith was nonexistent during the down weeks. In fact, the Redskins' pass rush continued to produce particularly in the Week 9 loss to the Tennessee Titans. The rush just couldn't quite close the deal, something that finally happened against the pass-happy Rams.

"Sometimes [sacks] fall for you, sometimes they don't," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "People have been writing about our pass rush coming down because of the numbers, but it wasn't. Our best pass-rush game was against Tennessee. We rushed the quarterback great that game. [Monday] we just had a quarterback we tackled instead of [the Titans' Steve] McNair running through some tackles.

"I'm not saying [the open date] didn't help. Anytime especially when you have guys right around the 30-year-old mark, and Bruce is older than that anytime you can give them some time off, that helps. There's no doubt that bye week came at a very good time for us."

Smith now has eight sacks for the season, trailing only Coleman's 9.5 for the team lead. He certainly has justified the five-year, $25 million contract he signed in the offseason, which many observers believed was a case of overpaying for a big name. It's no stretch to say Smith could earn his 12th career trip to the Pro Bowl.

Smith played more than 50 plays against the Rams and is averaging between 45 and 50 a game, according to Trgovac. That's about what the Redskins had targeted for him, Trgovac said, and they've been saved some tough decisions because the fourth-ranked defense has forced opposing offenses off the field.

The adjective "tough" is used because Smith, like Washington's other defensive linemen, hates to come off. Coaches want to keep players like Smith and tackle Dana Stubblefield fresh for the fourth quarter, but those players battle to stay in.

"It's not a problem they are just very competitive guys," Trgovac said. "I'd much rather have that than guys you have to drag their [butt] to get them in there… . It's a good problem to have, but guys get mad sometimes because they don't want you to take them out."

Often Smith's performance argues against him coming out. He continues to double every teammate in the stats for quarterback hurries and hits, Trgovac said. He didn't reveal the exact numbers, which aren't publicized.

"He leads the team in hurries, hits and misses," Trgovac said simply.

Smith is aiming to cut down on the misses in the season's stretch run, though facing quarterbacks like Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb will make it difficult. Smith repeatedly pressured McNabb in the first meeting, forcing a fumble, but he was credited with just one sack and that was after a midweek statistical change.

"We've been close [to a lot of sacks]," Turner said. "That's the issue this week with McNabb. We were close to three or four sacks against [Arizona's Jake] Plummer, against McNabb. Those guys can run out of it. So it changes the way you have to rush."

Washington's final five games are crucial, particularly the next two against division rivals Philadelphia and the New York Giants. If Washington (7-4) can win the NFC East and edge St. Louis (8-3, with the Redskins getting the tiebreaker) for the final playoff bye, that means another week off and perhaps another three sacks for Smith.

"That would be an ideal situation," Smith said, "and that's what we're fighting for."

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