The Washington Redskins will look to upgrade the right defensive end position this offseason, team sources said yesterday, meaning Bruce Smith’s choice whether to pursue the NFL’s all-time sack record might come as a free agent.
The Redskins will look in free agency and the draft for affordable options to replace Smith, who is six sacks short of Reggie White’s 198. At best, Smith is looking at being a role player in Washington next season, most likely playing on third downs.
Even then, sources said, the club will go with a younger player over Smith if their productivity is projected to be about the same. He will not be retained just so he can capture the sack record as a Redskin.
The Redskins, however, have other offseason priorities and limited salary cap space. A number of positions on offense, such as wide receiver and guard, must be resolved. The most pressing issue on defense probably is at tackle, where Dan Wilkinson is projected to be a post-June1 cut.
Smith, who will be 40 in June, retains a number of qualities that coaches like. And he helped himself out a great deal when he restructured his contract just before this season. Smith’s 2003 salary dropped to around the minimum under the new deal, giving the Redskins little financial incentive to part with him.
Smith’s future will be determined in offseason evaluations to begin a week or two after the Dec. 29 finale against the Dallas Cowboys. Even the public comments of some team officials acknowledge that his status with the club isn’t certain.
“He’s been good,” defensive line coach Ricky Hunley said. “He’s been adequate. But you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to get better. You’ve got to have guys that can be strong at the point [of attack]. And you’re looking for that super speed.”
Smith, in an interview yesterday, still wouldn’t say whether he will play in 2003. But his answers to a variety of peripheral questions indicated a desire to keep playing, especially if it’s in Washington.
Yes, he conceded, White’s record is “important.” Yes, he believes he is still effective. Yes, he has grown close with a number of Redskins players, including two young ones, linebacker LaVar Arrington and offensive tackle Chris Samuels. And, no, the frustrations with the team’s mediocre performance and the past two coaching staffs haven’t overwhelmed his “love” of playing the game.
But Smith stopped short when he recognized where the line of questions was leading. He shifted his attention and began speaking about tomorrow’s game, the penultimate of his 18th NFL season, against the Houston Texans.
“I feel like you’re trying to get to a question,” Smith said with a smile. “But I’m not going to respond to that one right now. I’m getting ready to play the Texans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m trying to get [my sore] ankle right and hopefully get out there and play well.”
With Smith’s future uncertain, a few extra sacks in this season’s final two games would be big. And they’re plausible. He has six already this season, one more than in 2001, and he continues to play about 50 snaps a game (as much as any defensive lineman except Daryl Gardener) because the Redskins don’t have a young player to take his place.
“He’s not an every-down player, but he has had to play that role of an every-down player, because we don’t have that depth at the right end position,” Hunley said.
Tomorrow’s game will be a terrific chance for Smith to get a sack or two, provided he can play on his injured ankle. (The consensus within the team is that he’ll probably play, but the injury is legitimate. He was limping heavily in the locker room yesterday.)
If Smith plays, he will be chasing Texans rookie quarterback David Carr, who has been sacked 70 times this season, just two short of the NFL record Randall Cunningham set in 1986. And Smith will be going against rookie left tackle Chester Pitts, who was drafted to play left guard but was forced out of position when Tony Boselli was unable to heal the shoulder injury that accompanied him in the expansion draft from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Smith downplayed the sack record, emphasizing that the pursuit of victories leads to the accomplishment of individual goals. For instance, he said, good run defense and solid offense would give Washington the lead, which would force the Texans to pass and create the opportunity for more sacks.
“All these things go hand-in-hand,” Smith said.
And he added that he ultimately shoots for a bigger target than just the sack record.
“[The record is] important,” Smith said. “Absolutely. It’s important. But if there’s a discussion about who the best defensive lineman is of all time, or who’s the best sack specialist, I’ve never wanted to place those limitations on myself. I’ve always thought of my career as, if not the best defensive player in history, then one of the best.”
However, Redskins players and coaches for several seasons have felt that the pursuit of the sack record has been Smith’s focus, sometimes to the detriment of other tasks, like stopping the run. For instance, Smith has been known to take wide lanes while trying to get past opposing blockers, allowing opponents to run through the gap he vacates.
That said, Smith still proves himself a tough player who wants to be on the field, who wants to be productive and who gives terrific effort in games. Plus, he draws considerable attention from opponents’ game plans and, overall, has been fairly productive. In the Nov.3 victory at Seattle, for example, his two sacks were huge as Washington held on in a game where its offense generated very little.
Players believe that type of production can continue in 2003.
“I think if coaches take care of him like they did this year, he’s got a lot left,” Arrington said. “You’ve got to take care of guys like that, though. There are a lot of ‘don’t-practice, don’t-play’ coaches, but you’ve got a guy like that, he can turn it on. He’s a professional. He knows how to do it.”
But turning it on sometimes isn’t enough. Smith’s habit of infrequent practices is another factor to be considered this offseason. He often has skipped one or two workouts a week this year, especially in the season’s second half. Although it makes sense for coaches to give him that schedule, it isn’t ideal.
“As you go through practice, you’ve got to get better every practice,” Hunley said. “It’s hard to get better when you practice one day a week.”
Another factor is Smith’s relationship with the coaching staff. Redskins players have had issues with this staff, and those close to Smith acknowledge he has been among those with questions. His frustration hasn’t been as intense as it was last season under Marty Schottenheimer, but the current experience also hasn’t been as positive as he hoped when the coaching switch was made.
Still, of the frustrations of recent years, he said, “It’s supposed to be difficult. Anything worth having in life is not supposed to be easy.”
And he added that he “absolutely” is still having fun.
“The only disappointing thing is that we’re losing,” Smith said. “I love playing this game. There’s no question about that. But I am disappointed that we haven’t been able to put this thing together and win.”
Notes Center Larry Moore and fullback Bryan Johnson returned from bouts with a severe virus that has been making its way through the team. But defensive tackle Daryl Gardener was absent with the virus and defensive tackle Carl Powell had to leave practice early. Coach Steve Spurrier expects Gardener to play but Powell, who seems to have been hit the worst, might be limited.
Kenny Watson is expected to start ahead of rookie Ladell Betts at running back, though both should get ample snaps. Stephen Davis is out at least this week because of his dislocated shoulder.