- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

Renaldo Wynn believes Bruce Smith is treating this season as something special.

“I think he came in a little bit of a different guy,” said Wynn, Smith’s fellow Washington Redskins defensive end. “There are a lot of goals he’d like to achieve personally and as a team. This year can be a special year.”

It certainly can. The Redskins are 2-0 for the first time since their 1991 run to the Super Bowl title; their defense is ranked second in the NFL; and Smith is a half-sack closer to Reggie White’s record, now 21/2 sacks shy of tying White at 198.

Along the way, Smith has given a pair of inspirational speeches, and last weekend he rallied his teammates on the field at Atlanta.

But the future Hall of Fame selection insists his increased vocal leadership is nothing out of the ordinary, that he is applying the same rules that governed his behavior for his first 18 NFL seasons.

“My approach is leading by example, only speaking up when absolutely necessary,” Smith said. “That’s the way I’ve been all of my career.”

Regardless, many teammates agree that Smith seems to be doing everything in his power — physically and vocally — to make sure this team maximizes its potential.

“He just realizes the urgency and the amount of ability that we have on this team,” linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. “He’d hate to see us pass up this opportunity.”

Smith’s first speech was to the defense on the eve of the opener, and the unit responded with its best performance in more than a decade by limiting the New York Jets to 158 yards. The day before last week’s 33-31 win at Atlanta, coach Steve Spurrier asked Smith to give a similar speech to the entire team.

Smith did, and on the field the next day he lifted the club when it appeared most down. The Redskins were trailing 17-0 in the second quarter when they committed another turnover in their own territory. But Smith’s two pressures helped force Atlanta to go three-and-out, and he started yelling at his teammates on the way back to the sideline. Atlanta missed its field goal attempt and Washington rallied for a big win.

“This is his moment right now,” linebacker Jessie Armstead said. “It’s time to push this team into the playoffs and run for the championship. He doesn’t have many [chances] left. He realizes that. There are rumors he may retire at the end of the season anyway.”

The speculation that Smith has altered his behavior springs largely from the expectation that he will retire at season’s end. Smith said he already would have retired if the Redskins hadn’t been so aggressive in adding personnel this offseason, and as training camp opened he hinted — but wouldn’t confirm — that this season would be his last.

But at 40, he didn’t play like he was readying for retirement. During camp, Smith beat out Regan Upshaw for the starting right end job, which was explicitly planned for Upshaw when he signed as a free agent in March. And in two games, Smith has played most of the defensive snaps and, according to teammates, been very productive.

Interestingly, Smith apparently hasn’t dwelt on the one motivation for solid play everyone assumed would be his biggest focus.

“The one thing Bruce never talks about is the sack record,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “All Bruce talks about is wanting to win. Every time I mention something about the sack record, he turns that over to something about winning.”

Bailey believes Smith, who played in four losing Super Bowl efforts with the Buffalo Bills, has a different motivation.

“I can feel where he’s coming from — he’s been to all these Super Bowls and never got one,” Bailey said. “I know he wants one before he leaves.”

It’s way too early to mention these Redskins as Super Bowl contenders. But Smith, despite his insistence that he isn’t acting any differently, acknowledged he does think a lot of this team’s chances.

“Yeah, I told the guys [that] Saturday,” Smith said. “I said, ‘We’ve got a [heck] of an opportunity here. We don’t want to let this slip past us. There’s a great deal of parity in this league, and there’s not any one or two or three dominant teams. With the right breaks, guys staying healthy, we could be right where we want to be at the end of the season.’”

Part of what has impressed Smith is quick chemistry. Twenty-six members of the Redskins’ final 2002 53-man roster were replaced by the start of this season. But the players have meshed well and, after some frustrations with coaches last year, are getting along with the staff.

“Everybody in this locker room gets along, and sometimes that’s unusual, because you have 53 different personalities, and then you throw in the mix coaches and so forth,” Smith said. “We laugh and joke, and that’s the most important thing. If you come to work and you don’t enjoy what you do for a living, chances are you’re not going to be very good at it.”

So far, the Redskins have been good, and Smith’s inspiration clearly has been a factor. Now teammates expect his vocal role to continue.

“He better say what he has to say now, or he’ll be sitting at home one day wishing he would have said it,” Armstead said. “Like [former NFL receiver] Cris Carter said the other day, he’d trade everything in just to come out on the field one more time. That’s why you’ve got to give this game everything you’ve got. You never know when it’s over.”

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