Last autumn, for the first time in his 10-year NFL career, Will Smith was not a premier pass rusher for the New Orleans Saints. He was simply “Dad.”
Smith — who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees in a preseason exhibition, subsequently sat out the 2013 campaign, and was recently released by the Saints — spent most game days doing what many American fathers do: Watching football with his children.
His boys, 5 and 8, and daughter, 7, picked winners based on whose uniforms were cooler, and they’d debate the merits of their choices while their bemused father laughed in the background.
“It was fun being able to just watch football games with my kids,” Smith said. About their prediction method, he said, “I thought that was cute. I had never got to experience that before.”
But, as rejuvenating as it all was and as much as he loves his children, Smith isn’t yet ready for that to be a full-time thing. And he’s confident next fall will be more like the ones he had between 2004 and 2012, when he was on the football field and not merely viewing it on the TV in his family living room.
“I’m ahead of schedule of where I need to be,” Smith remarked during a recent telephone interview about rehabilitating the injury that sidelined him. “I can’t play a football game tomorrow, but ... it’s a slow process. I still have a lot of time — two, three months — before things really start back up football-wise.”
Smith — a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State, where he won a BCS title — led New Orleans in sacks in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.
The last of those seasons, the Saints won the lone Super Bowl trophy of their 46-year existence; Smith intercepted a pass in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Smith’s 67½ career sacks trail only Rickey Jackson’s 115, Wayne Martin’s 82.5 and Pat Swilling’s 76.5. Only Jackson (38) and Swilling (24) forced more fumbles for the Saints than did Smith (20).
Smith thus earned a contract that was supposed to pay him a base salary of more than $10 million in 2014 and count almost $14 million against the salary cap.
The only Saint with a pricier base salary and cap number was franchise quarterback Drew Brees.
Having missed 2013 with his torn ACL and set to turn 33 in July, Smith was cut Wednesday by the Saints, whose defense finished ranked fourth without him.
No. 91 had stuck with the Saints through the 2005 season, all of which they played outside of New Orleans, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The one-time Pro Bowler had helped the Saints reach their first NFC Championship game in 2006, coach Sean Payton’s inaugural season.
Smith helped the Saints realize their greatest achievement three years later. And he toiled through the 2012 season, in which the defense surrendered the most yards in NFL history while Payton was suspended for the entire year in the wake of the bounty scandal.
Now, he was gone.
“These were not easy decisions to make,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement about cutting ties with Smith and other defensive veterans. Loomis called Smith one “of the better draft picks we have made” and said he was the kind of player “you hope to acquire.”
The Saints, though, needed to free up salary-cap space, in part to re-sign All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who’s played out his rookie contract.
Smith said he isn’t sour at the situation. He fully understands it.
He explained the valleys (the Katrina season, the bounty scandal, being let go) made the summits (the first season under Payton and the Super Bowl) that much sweeter.
“It was a great run,” Smith said. “Anytime you hit rock bottom ... get back up and reach the pinnacle ... (it) makes the other stuff worth it. You value it that much more. You understand the sacrifice that people make to get to that point.”
However, he insisted he’s determined to either top the pinnacles with another NFL team or go out trying.
When he hasn’t been at home being dad for his children and wife, Racquel, Smith has been working out five days a week, four hours at a time. He’s lifted weights, run and cycled to return to football shape as quickly as possible.
He admitted he’s more comfortable playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme since that’s the position and system in which he’s been for the vast majority of his career. Nonetheless, he’s preparing himself to prove to whichever team might sign him that he can also contribute as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, which he briefly played as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan began installing his scheme in his first year with the Saints.
“I definitely want to play until I don’t have the passion,” said Smith, who added his children would likely continue to go to school in New Orleans if he landed elsewhere in the NFL. “I want to play until I can’t at a high level anymore.”