Posted: 4:50 a.m.
SmithHe is the needle in the haystack. The other side of the coin. The exception rather than the rule. The new instead of the cliché.
Justin Smith is the franchise free agent that didn't go to the media to gripe and then curl up on the couch to sit out. He's been in Cincinnati working out for two days getting ready for next week's voluntary workouts with his one-year deal of $8.6 million and he couldn't be happier about an upcoming season.
"It would be one thing if I didn't want to be there, if I hated the team, hated the organization. That would be a different story," Smith said Wednesday. "I'm excited to be back. I'm on a heck of a team. If I were a free agent, and had an opportunity to come to this team I would think you would jump all over it from the standpoint of having a chance to make the playoffs and get in a Super Bowl."
According to Smith's agent, Jim Steiner, there is a good chance he'll be a free agent again after this season because there haven't been any recent talks about a long-term deal. In his now classic "Show-Me," no-frills style, Smith moves on even after fellow defensive ends with similar numbers (Charles Grant) and inferior numbers (Chris Kelsay) pulled down mega long-term deals.
Smith has seven more career sacks and nearly 200 more tackles after playing in about 20 more games than the Saints' Grant, a few weeks off a shiny new long-term deal guaranteeing him $20 million.
"I'm a one-year-at-a-time guy," said Smith, who has sold his house and plans to rent. "It's their team, their money and they have the right to spend it how they want. I'm just trying to get better and make the Cincinnati Bengals better. You're going to get what you're going to get. Whatever the market is and I'm not trying to go above the market."
Smith's only newsworthy act in this offseason of the Lance Briggs Bark and the Asante Samuel Sulk has been to take his nameplate off his locker back in January when he headed back to the University of Missouri to work out for the last four months.
But equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner fashioned him a new one, and he thinks it matches a new atmosphere brewing in a locker room still stinging from the three-game losing streak that ended the season and knocked the team out of the playoffs.
He hasn't been here for four months, but like he says, "I've been on this team for six years and I played with all these guys last year."
"We've grown up a little bit. We know what we have to do. The window is closing and we have to take advantage of it," Smith said. "I've only been here two days, but I've seen guys like Ahmad (Brooks) and Caleb (Miller), and all these guys, and there's not as much joking and laughing.
"There's a more serious attitude. It's not so much, 'It's still the offseason.' The music isn't always playing and it's not 'Let's go play basketball,' or 'Let's go play golf.' It's all football. I think everyone knows we underachieved and 8-8 isn't acceptable."
Smith is even more adamant that this team can win it all after living through those last three games. He knows the team has been ripped for not improving the defense via free agency, but he's encouraged by the draft and what Brooks can bring to the table in the middle at linebacker.
"We basically blew it and if we can get our act together, who knows what we can do?" Smith asked. "To me the encouraging thing is I thought we played poorly at times and still had an opportunity. That's a pretty good mark of an incredibly talented team. If you can mess up as much as we did, make as many mental mistakes as we did, and still make it almost not once, but twice, that's a pretty good sign. If we can get everything to fall into place like it has been, who knows how far we can go?"
Smith is often asked if he's a prisoner of his draft selection. As the fourth pick in 2001, it seems that some people believe he's also an underachiever because he's never had more than 8.5 sacks in a season. But here's a guy who for the last five years has played in more than 90 percent of the snaps while leading the defensive line in tackles each season and quietly becoming the franchise's fourth-leading sacker.
"I think that would be a good question if I was slacking, or if I wasn't here, or if I wasn't working out or not in shape," Smith said. "During free agency I had a chance to look at my numbers of tackles and sacks and I'm right up there with anybody. I think I caused some pressures. I cause havoc out there. Everybody can get better, but I thought I had a pretty solid year last year."
There's never been any question about Smith's work ethic with his consecutive games streak now at 95 and counting for the longest on the defense. When he went back to his roots this past offseason to the Mizzou weight room to work with the Tigers preparing for the draft, he also went to the videotape.
His parents taped every game from last season and he spent the winter clicking through his 1,042 snaps, which accounted for 97.7 percent of what the Bengals took on defense.
"What I'm looking for isn't very noticeable," he said. "I'm looking at my hands, where I can put them, how I can slap them around and get them to turn their hips. You can improve on everything as far as footwork."
As usual, Smith isn't dancing around the topic. The only headlines he is apparently going to make are in the season. Smith doesn't mind that the Bengals called him "it" in this game of tag.
"It's an option of the (collective bargaining agreement)," Smith said. "You can only control what you can control."