- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

Call the cops. Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot was robbed.

Or at least he thinks he was. Pro Bowl selections came out this week, and Smoot wasn’t on the list.

“I think they’ve got the BCS,” Smoot said, referring to college football’s maligned Bowl Championship Series. “They pick the Pro Bowl, too, don’t they?”

Pro Bowl voters might not have picked up on Smoot yet, but he has impressed in his third NFL season. After dealing with trade talks last winter, he is making good on the talent that had many saying he was the best corner in the 2001 draft. Although he lost out on the Pro Bowl, he was named Redskins Player of the Year by the Quarterback Club.

Now Smoot is at a crossroads. No.1 cornerback Champ Bailey remains unsigned for 2004, and there seems to be a growing chance that he might be headed elsewhere, particularly as part of a trade after he is given the franchise tag. If Bailey doesn’t return, his protege could be forced into the top role.

“I’m praying he doesn’t [leave], because I think it will benefit the team to have me and Champ,” Smoot said this week. “But if that time comes, I’ll step up to the plate. I’ll never back down.”

It wouldn’t be an easy task to be No.1. Currently, Bailey often gets the opponent’s top receiver and follows him all over the field; Smoot has that duty at times, particularly with taller targets, but he clearly doesn’t bear the bulk of responsibility.

Smoot might be ready for the next step, though. He certainly has matured. While still a loudmouth in the locker room and partial to the jokes and trash-talking that made him notorious at Mississippi State, he has begun making serious public statements about unity and accountability this season.

It remains to be seen whether Smoot will emerge as a leader in 2004. But after a season in which some in the organization have seen a leadership void among players, Smoot probably won’t have anyone standing in his way if he wants to expand his role as a key Redskin.

“[Being vocal is] something I’m going to be real strong about next year,” Smoot said. “Basically, it’s something I’m trying to grow into. Most definitely I’m a leader. It’s natural. People already listen to me talk, so if I’m saying something that’s benefiting everybody, I think they’ll really grasp it and listen to it.”

The solid play of Smoot and Bailey, who was named to a fourth straight Pro Bowl, has stood out on a defense that has struggled at times under first-year coordinator George Edwards. Trouble areas include stopping the run, rushing the passer and sticking to assignments; the pass defense, though, ranks 13th in the league.

A year ago, Smoot didn’t always play the tightest coverage. His performance and questions about his dedication dampened his trade value, several talent evaluators around the league said while he was being shopped around. But this season Smoot’s dedication has been evident.

“He’s analyzing the game more,” defensive backs coach George Catavolos said.

Of course, Smoot’s dedication was never more clear than when he got on the field Nov.2 at Dallas. After fracturing his sternum Oct.12 against Tampa Bay, Smoot was expected to miss two to four weeks. He still appeared to be in severe pain leading up to the Cowboys game, but he played and wasn’t even forced out of the game when he suffered a hard hit that had him in agony on the sideline.

Playing through pain, according to Bailey, was one way in which Smoot boosted the concentration he might have lacked his first two seasons.

“He knew that coming in this year, he had to improve that,” Bailey said. “But he got that opportunity to really focus on that, because he was hurting and his body wasn’t able to hold up. He fought through it and got through it with a tremendous year.”

In Smoot’s mind, it was time to start figuring out the nuances of the game.

“Some people think they know how to play football, but then you don’t get what really comes with it,” Smoot said. “As a cornerback, all you think you have to do is cover folks. But there are a lot of other aspects to the game. I think I’ve really focused on those other aspects, such as learning offensive coordinators, reading formations, studying my opponent’s strengths as much as his weaknesses. I think I’ve matured as a person.”

Now he might have to take the next step, especially if Bailey leaves.

One thing’s for certain: He doesn’t plan to get robbed again.

“I’m ready for that global warning,” Smoot said. “I’m ready to be that player.”

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