It’s hard to find better drama around the NFL than the Detroit Lions running backs. The latest chapter played out on Sunday when Kevin Smith literally walked out of his living and dropped 200 yards on the Carolina Panthers. But to get the full story, you have to go back to the beginning.
Smith was drafted by the Lions in the third round in 2008 out of Central Florida. His rookie season was the Lions “perfect” 0-16 campaign. He was one of the few bright spots, playing all 16 games as a rookie and recording 976 yards rushing, averaging 4.1 yards per carry, and another 286 yards receiving. Getting 1,262 yards from scrimmage in your rookie season is a good way to start a career.
2009 was another solid season for Smith, with 1,162 yards from scrimmage (747 yards rushing and 415 yards receiving), although he missed a couple of games with injuries. In 2010, he played in only six games and finished the season on the injured reserve after knee and thumb surgeries.
The NFL is a harsh game – one injury marred season, and he was gone.
In March, the Lions didn’t tender an offer to Smith, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Lions entered the season with Jahvid Best as the starter, Jerome Harrison as a backup, and looked solid at running back.
Smith worked out for a few teams, and even had an offer from the CFL, but nobody was buying. He never lost faith, and continued to work out every day in preparation for a season that had started without him.
Meanwhile, the Lions started the season strong. Jahvid Best had suffered a concussion in the preseason, but was back on the field for the season opener. The Lions started the season 5-0, and the offense was firing on all cylinders with Matt Stafford healthy, WR Calvin Johnson looking unstoppable in the red zone, and Best racking up the yards.
Then Best suffered a second concussion of the season at the Lions loss to the 49ers in Week Six. With two concussions so close together, it was unclear how long Best would be out and rumors suggested he might miss the rest of the season.
The Lions then attempted to trade RB Jerome Harrison to the Eagles for Ronnie Brown, to fill in for Best. The Eagles physical revealed that Harrison had a brain tumor. The tumor was treatable, but the trade was voided and Harrison was out for the remainder of the season with treatments.
Finally, Smith’s phone rang.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz said, “Honestly, in his case, we hadn’t really planned on signing anybody, but Kevin looked so good, ran well, moved well, was in great shape and been a productive player for us when he’s been on the field. I think one of the silver linings in this was it gave his body time to heal. He really impressed everyone. We sort of know what we have. Again, he’s healthy and obviously in great shape.”
Smith responded with the best game of his career (at least, so far). He had 16 rushes for 140 yards and 2 rushing TDs, another 61 yards receiving and another TD through the air. That’s 201 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs.
“I just got off the sofa five days ago,” Smith said. “I know the offense, but it’s going to take time for me to play fast. It’s more of the audibles, adjustments and line calls that I’m focused on. The general playbook, I got down pretty good.”
“I’ve been away from the game for eight weeks,” Smith added. “Not to know if you will be able to play in this league, and still be young, and still be 24 years old? Not to be able to do something you love, but it be at the hands of 32 teams in the NFL, it humbles you.”
“Second chances, you don’t want to mess that up.”
So far, not only hasn’t he messed it up, but he couldn’t have scripted it much better. It’s a remarkable second chance story, but Smith remains grounded by the experience he had in the NFL this past year.
Given what he’s done in the past, and if he can continue what he’s shown in his short comeback, Smith is deserving of a long term contract and a chance to start and be the featured back. If it doesn’t happen with the Lions at the end of this season, other teams should be paying attention to the skill and commitment he’s shown.
Schwartz added, “Credit to Kevin, he never lost faith, he persevered, his talent never went away and when he was able to get healthy and get another opportunity he took advantage of it.”
Smith added, “But it’s not really redemption because when I’m on the podium, I’m getting this (adulation). When I’m not, it’s, ‘They should cut Kevin Smith.’ I just stick with my game plan and just keep on playing ball.”
“I know how good I am, I know how many yards I ran for.”
Hopefully, the Lions and the rest of the NFL are paying attention now, too.
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