In 2005, Antone Smith was the best high school running back in the United States. This is not something I just plucked out of mid-air, mind you, but where the lofty Rivals ranked him.
Smith was a blazing fast back without elite size (5'8 and 181 pounds, at the time) who had destroyed opposing defenses in Florida. College teams were chomping at the bit to add a pint-sized playmaker like Smith, the Old Spice player of the year, and he had no problem finding a fit at Florida State.
This could have been the start of a great career. Maurice Jones-Drew was helping to further destroy the eternally stupid stereotype that short backs couldn't wreck the NFL, and backs with sub-4.30 40 times are welcome anywhere. Yet it took Smith two years to seize a significant role in the offense, and it took until his 2008 senior season for him to really bust out. That year, he put up 792 yards, 15 touchdowns and 4.5 yards per carry, plus 10 receptions for 101 yards. Those are damn fine numbers, but going into the 2009 NFL Draft, Smith had long since been eclipsed by Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Beanie Wells, LeSean McCoy and even small school projects like Rashad Jennings.
The end result? Smith went undrafted. He bounced around with the Lions, the Vikings and the Texans in the span of a few months, none of them finding his skill set to be as enticing as his speed suggested. Finally, fatefully, he landed in Atlanta in October 2009, replacing D.J. Shockley, of all people. He's been with the team ever since.
That leads us to our next question: What the hell, Falcons?
Let's start by noting that the limited touches for Antone Smith are, at this point, utterly indefensible. The Falcons have seen what he can do on the field now, and he's averaging a ridiculous 29 yards per carry. We've all assumed for a while now that there had to be a hidden, crippling flaw that led to Smith riding the pine on offense, but his underrated special teams value had kept him around. Yet it's clear that Smith is a badass who just needed a shot.
Why did it take so long? Why is he being limited to an absurdly small number of carries now?
Let's look at the three likeliest reasons animating what has to be looked at as a disgrace. This is not an effort to defend the Falcons, per se, but to explore why it took until Smith was 28 years old for him to make an impact.
- He hasn't shown well in pre-season and practice. Smith has never really been a practice standout, which isn't a great secret. Players as useful as Brent Grimes were not notorious for practicing well, but when the games rolled around, they did great things.
For a UDFA like Smith to get opportunities, he'd have to show something that would make the Falcons take carries away from the likes of Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood, Jacquizz Rodgers and so on. If that's not happening in practice, it would need to happen in his (once more, very limited) opportunities in pre-season. Unfortunately, that only happened once. Let's take a quick look at his pre-season numbers:
2013: 13 carries for 38 yards, 2.9 per carry, 6 catches for 63 yards
2012: 23 carries for 72 yards, 3.1 per carry, 8 catches for 92 yards
2011: 17 carries for 124 yards, 7.3 per carry, 4 catches for 78 yards
2010: 32 carries for 124 yards, 3.9 per carry, 4 catches for 13 yards
If there was an opportunity to be had based on pre-season performance, it was in 2011. The problem? The Falcons had just drafted Jacquizz Rodgers, a shiny new toy in his own right, and Jason Snelling was locked in. Most of Smith's carries came against third-stringers, and thus they were largely ignored.
The other three years, he averaged well under four yards per carry on a combined 68 carries. It's far from clear that the coaching staff would have given him the opportunity—and Smith has only fumbled twice on all those pre-season carries, by the way—but certainly he didn't pop off the page in any year except 2011, and there was a lot working against him that year. Couple that with his muffed punt in the 2011 pre-season and you understand why a coaching staff that is generally loath to get young guys involved would skip over Smith.
- The team looks at him as a special teams player. Smith is one of the truly underrated special teams gunners in the NFL today. That game-breaking speed and his willingness to tackle make him mighty effective in the role, and and with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling on the roster, the Falcons likely viewed Smith as an indispensable special teamer. Combine that with that pre-season production and middling practice showings and you can see, again, how a team might lock him into the role and not give much thought otherwise.
- The coaching staff views him as a one-dimensional back. It's no great secret that Smith isn't the world's most effective pass catcher. He's dropped a small handful of passes, he doesn't generally break big gains once he's caught the ball and he doesn't quite have the agility that makes Jacquizz so effective in space. The Falcons, for better or worse, sometimes prize doing two things reasonably well over doing one thing really well. His blocking skills have never been particularly well-established, so I can't reasonably say that held him back, but we all know how much this coaching staff prizes that skill.
Injuries and a desire to switch things up explain Smith's emergence into the offense. Up until the second Buccaneers game, Smith had only one carry for eight yards against the Jets. The Bucs game changed everything.
At 28 years old, Smith finally got the third and fourth regular season carries of his career. He responded by running for 88 yards and a touchdown on those two carries. A week later, it was 11 yards on one carry against the Saints. A week later, it was one carry for 38 yards a touchdown. That's insane, and it's led to two straight weeks of the Falcons assuring fans and reporters that they intend to get Smith more involved in the offense. He's had three touches since that Bucs game.
The Falcons are now out of excuses. This may well be a fluke. It may well be that defenses exposed to Smith more frequently will be able to plan for his speed, drop his yards per carry down about 25 yards or so and neutralize him. At 28 years old, even with a fresh set of legs, it's an open question of how long Smith can be anywhere near this effective. You can acknowledge those question and still note that it's still completely ridiculous to take a back enjoying this kind of per-carry production and limit him to one-to-three touches per game.
Let's be clear: It is ridiculous. It is emblematic of an institutional stubbornness that seems difficult to overcome. It was one thing when Smith was a relative unknown who didn't show enough before the season began. Once he delivered that two-carry, 88 yard performance, the coaching staff should have been figuring out creative ways to get him in the game. Even if you think he's only going to be effective with limited chances, the Falcons have played close games two weeks in a row. You're telling me that 5-10 touches a game are out of the question when Steven Jackson still can't average four yards per carry behind this line?
Fans are angry about this, and they ought to be. There's generally a reason why players like Smith languish deep down on the depth chart, and I think a lot of the hand-wringing in these situations is overblown. In Smith's case, those who have been the loudest the longest have also been right the longest. You don't just pluck legitimate weapons with game-breaking speed out of trees in the NFL. Once you have one, you had better give him his touches, and the Falcons have failed spectacularly to do so. As I said, they're out of excuses, and they need to integrate Smith into the offense now with an eye toward doing so again in 2014.
Your thoughts on Antone Smith, his carries and his situation?