If Sir Winston Churchill once said of Russia it "is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," you wonder what he would he would say about Bengals right tackle Andre Smith.
If he saw Smith play so powerfully and well in the first two preseason games he would probably say, "This is his finest hour," because that's what people whom have watched every snap of Smith's five NFL seasons are saying.
Remember four brief weeks ago when he was the biggest question mark of the otherwise seamless Bengals offseason? Now along with rookies Tyler Efiert and Giovani Bernard, Smith is one of their biggest exclamation points and there are whispers about a Pro Bowl season starting to break out.
They won't come from Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander, but he'll give Smith a compliment that's almost just as good. Alexander is now using Smith's film to coach a promising boatload of rookies like Tanner Hawkinson, Reid Fragel and Jason Weaver. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth resting his rehabbing knee much of the preseason, Alexander says Smith has been the club's best lineman.
"I used his tape sometimes, but now I use it more consistently," Alexander says. "I'll say, 'Watch Andre do this.' Right now he's playing exceptionally well. Technique. Effort. There have been a lot of examples of dominance in the games and the practices. Ever since we've been here, he's been really good. He was pretty good last year. He has made a nice jump this year."
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played every spot on the Cincinnati offensive line for a decade and a few times in the same game, has been one of those waiting for Smith to break out and he's seen it this month. The best month, he says, Smith has had as a pro.
During Saturday night's victory over Tennessee, Lapham cackled with delight describing how Smith, right guard Kevin Zeitler and tight end Jermaine Gresham consistently drove the Titans more than five yards off the line in a devastating display of running the ball. The Bengals are leading the NFL in rushing during this phony fall of preseason, but Smith's strength has been genuine.
"He seems pretty at peace. He's playing, not thinking too much," Lapham says. "There's no hesitation, no uncertainty. He's playing at a really high level."
Smith says his long, strange journey in free agency this past spring didn't ignite anything inside him. Rated as one of the top 10 players out there by most everyone with wireless, Smith watched a wave of tackles rated lower sign before he inked his three-year, $18 million deal with the Bengals about 15 minutes before they took North Carolina's Bernard with their first pick in the second round and Florida State tackle Menelik Watson still on the board.
"Some teams did call. There weren't no calls. I had a better situation in Cincinnati," said Smith, disputing the notion that snubs have motivated him. "I just want to be true to myself. I'm excited. I want to work hard, have a great year and many great years to come."
Smith fanned flames in and outside Paul Brown Stadium when a week after signing he chose not to attend the voluntary practices and mandatory minicamp, telling the club it was "personal reasons," and he hasn't elaborated.
There were concerns in Bengaldom that a repeat of his first two seasons plagued by weight issues and injuries loomed, but Smith is proving just the opposite. He said he came to a conclusion during the offseason.
"Just having fun, getting back to basics," Smith says. "Just play football. Do what I've been doing since I was a little kid. Run around and have fun and dominate."
He has an easy-going, good-guy demeanor, which makes it easy for people to question his passion. One coach admits, "He's a hard read." But here's a guy that showed up as fit as he's ever been despite getting some major money at a game weight around 340-342 pounds and takes great pride in his ability to control a game at his spot.
"He looked in great shape right when he showed up," Alexander says. "He looks light on his feet kick, playing with intensity. You saw it in spurts. Now you see it routinely. He's intense on the film. It's a nice sign. It's all coming together for him."
Lapham believes that fitness has allowed Smith to improve his pass blocking, always his top priority since he's been a superb run blocker ever since he came out of Alabama as the sixth pick in the 2009 draft.
"A conditioned athlete breeds confidence," Lapham says. "When you're not in shape and you know it, that's going to be a factor. He's as good a drive blocker as there is. When he snaps his hips, he moves you. He stuns you. He's got great explosion as he comes off. He's as good a run blocker as there is. If there was any fly in the ointment, it was if they got in a position where they had to throw, could he hold up? He looks to me he's doing a much better job at that now."
Leave it to head coach Marvin Lewis to sum it up. It was Lewis, who along with Bengals president Mike Brown and Alexander, was Smith's biggest advocate in the club's decision to pursue him in free agency. After Smith played in just 13 games in his first two seasons and watching him play in every game for the first time last year while piling up high grades, the Bengals sensed he was figuring it out well enough to have a shot at breaking into the elite and pushed back at the idea of moving on to a rookie.
"He's picked up where he left off a year ago; that's a positive," Lewis said. "He continues to grow as a player and a leader on the team. He's probably matured. Whatever things he's been dealing with personally, he's been able to get them solved and get here and devote his full attention to football."
Smith is still a hard read, but you can always get him to talk about his Yankees. Except A-Rod and then he'll be his normal cautious self: "People make mistakes. The truth will come out. Only God knows."
Yet he'll also say as the Yanks try to extract themselves from a season of mediocrity, "I'm a Jeter fan. I was long before A-Rod got there. I'm still a Bronx Bomber. I'm not a bandwagon guy."
But you can hear the clattering of Smith's bandwagon starting to fill up.