OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The rise and reset summarizes the career of Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.
One of the most talented players in franchise history, Smith has repeatedly ascended to the cusp of greatness, only to be denied by injury over and over. Often those setbacks have come at critical junctures of seasons for Baltimore, who has qualified for the playoffs just once since Smith defended the last two pass attempts of the final goal-line stand in Super Bowl XLVII. He hasn’t appeared in even a late-season do-or-die scenario since 2013 because of injuries.
Drafted in 2011 to be the next Chris McAlister, Smith missed a combined nine games in his first two seasons and didn’t become a full-time starter until 2013, allowing him to shed the premature label of being a first-round bust. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound defensive back appeared on his way to his first Pro Bowl in 2014 before a Lisfranc injury to his left foot ended his season and hindered him for much of the following campaign. The climb to the top tier of cornerbacks began again in 2016 before a high ankle sprain in Week 14 cost him the remainder of the season.
Then came last year’s torn Achilles tendon in Week 13 after he’d overcome pain in the heel throughout the season to again look like one of the top corners in the league.
“It sucks. I’m not going to act like it doesn’t,” said Smith, who turns 30 this week and returned to practice less than seven months after the injury and subsequent surgery. “It seems like I’m constantly trying to fight just to get back to even instead of training and excelling [and getting] better and progressing even more. It’s always getting back even, getting back to just being healthy. It’s really just keeping a strong mental [attitude]. Coming in, I obviously read things about me; I can hear it and feel it.
“Obviously, I want to be on the field. It hurts.”
Head coach John Harbaugh has been one of Smith’s biggest supporters, proclaiming he would “make history as a cornerback” when he was only entering his second full season as a starter four years ago. The injuries have not only stunted Smith’s greatness and denied a potential place as one of the team’s all-time greats, but they’ve frequently come at inopportune times for a defense that’s been unable to shed a “good, but not great” label since future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed walked away.
Might the Ravens have held off Tom Brady and New England in the 2014 divisional round instead of squandering two 14-point leads if Smith had been on the field? Does Ben Roethlisberger so easily march Pittsburgh down the field in the 2016 Christmas heartbreaker if Smith was playing right corner instead of Shareece Wright? What about last season when the defense blew late leads against the Steelers and Cincinnati in the final four weeks, once again leaving the Ravens on the outside looking in?
These are the questions you ask when falling excruciatingly short of the postseason in back-to-back years and one of your best players isn’t on the field for the critical moments.
“You kind of hurt for him because he’s played himself into that position year after year, and the injuries have taken their toll,” Harbaugh said. “And then he kills himself to get back. Hopefully, this will be the year where he can stay injury-free the whole time. He’s worked really hard, and he’s really talented and really is conscientious. I’m in his corner. I want to see him do well.”
Last season felt different for Smith, whose toughness had occasionally been questioned in the past by his harshest critics and frustrated fans. His name first appeared on the official injury report in Week 5, but he persevered through heel soreness, regularly missing practice time during the week before showing up to play the best football of his career on Sundays. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks posted a measly 49.2 passer rating when targeting him in 2017 as he matched his career high with three interceptions, recorded nine pass breakups, and scored two defensive touchdowns.
But his left Achilles tendon finally gave out against Detroit on Dec. 3. Baltimore entered that week ranked second in the NFL in pass defense before finishing the season an underwhelming 10th. That type of overall decline has been all too common following a Smith injury, a reason why he was hellbent on staying on the field.
“I did [platelet-rich plasma] shots, I did Prednisone, I did everything I could possibly do, and resting it,” Smith said. “As soon as I would break or run, it would come back immediately. There was nothing really I could do besides trying to rest it, and you can’t really rest during an NFL season. I just played until it went out.”
Adding insult to injury was Smith receiving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Many figure Smith had to be taking something to aid in his efforts to stay on the field, but he attributed the failed test to an unapproved pre-workout supplement earlier this week.
“It’s a mistake that’s easily avoidable,” Smith said. “I wasn’t conscious of it, and I didn’t know, obviously. I would never take a steroid or some PED. I don’t need that type of stuff to play football.”
Smith is back in a familiar position, needing to prove himself all over again while also fighting the stigma of a PED suspension. Coaches and teammates have praised his work ethic throughout the offseason and have been amazed by his quick return to the practice field.
He says the torn Achilles hasn’t been nearly as challenging as his 2014 Lisfranc injury, an ailment that still gives him occasional problems. Few would have predicted Smith already practicing in late July as teammate Eric Weddle quipped that his healing ability rivaled that of Wolverine last month.
“I’m feeling fine, normal,” Smith said. “Just getting back into playing football and the cuts and stuff that you can’t really [simulate off] the field. You can’t really duplicate some of the stuff that you would do in practice. Those kinds of little nuances I have to work on, but other than that I feel totally fine.”
Smith enters a pivotal season as he enters the penultimate year of his current contract and carries a $15.35 million figure on the 2018 salary cap, the second highest on the roster. A scheduled $9.5 million base salary and $15.85 million cap figure next season could prove too risky if Smith fails to return to form or is again stricken by injury in 2018.
The Ravens quietly began preparing for that possibility last year by using their first-round pick on Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who looked the part of a future No. 1 corner as a rookie and has similar attributes. Their cornerback depth is as strong as it’s been in years with reliable veteran Brandon Carr still on the roster as well as young options such as Tavon Young, Maurice Canady, Anthony Averett, and Jaylen Hill.
Even if Baltimore is better equipped to endure his absence than in previous years, Smith has every intention of regaining his pre-injury form and resuming his ascent to a potential Pro Bowl.
“I think I can get there as soon as possible,” Smith said. “I don’t really feel any setback or anything that’s holding me back from doing that.”
You only hope the latest career setback was the final one.