Being a sports fan in 2010 is much, much different than it was in 2000, and much, much, much different than in 1990. Our access to surging torrents of information, in real time, all the time, everywhere, has shrunken our attention spans and shrunken our perspectives. Not too long ago, our sports information was found only in agate type on page D7, and our sports opinions were informed only by beat writers, columnists, and Jack the Sales Guy who you always see at the coffee pot on Mondays. If you wanted to know which camp bodies the Lions had released—and you wouldn’t know who they were to begin with—you’d have to wait a day, and bring your magnifying glass.
It’s no wonder, then, that this time of year always strikes me as odd; great raging debates are had over who deserves the last few spots on the roster—when the last eight guys on the roster, by rule, can’t even dress for games. Moreover, if there’s anything we should know about these Lions, it’s that being on the final 53 doesn’t mean you’re safe for any length of time. Literally, hundreds of players have worn Honolulu Blue since Martin Mayhew took over as GM; Guy #53 might be out on his tail the instant some other team cuts a slightly more interesting player.
Imagine my surprise when, in the wake of his lackluster performance against Cleveland, people started calling for Kevin Smith’s job. He’s done, they say. He’s hurt, they say. DeDe Dorsey looks really good, they say. What good is he? Why waste a roster spot on Kevin Smith? I’m reminded of a famous quote from Charles Babbage, when asked if his “difference engine” would produce a correct answer when given incorrect inputs:
"I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."
Yes, it’s true, Kevin Smith does not look like his typical self—and yes, it’s true that his “typical self” was just a step short of being a complete feature back. Kevin Smith might be four-to-eight weeks away from being the back that ran 238 times for 976 yards—on the worst team of all time, just two years ago—but a sense of perspective on what that means, please. Smith ran for more yards in the first five games of his rookie year than DeDe Dorsey has in his first four years in the NFL.
It’s true that the Lions won’t carry five tailbacks and Jerome Felton; as I believe Felton’s a lock at least one, and probably two, tailbacks must go. Dorsey is an easy cut. Yes, he’s looked good in preseason, but then so did Tristan Davis; you can sign a DeDe Dorsey during the season if you need to. For that matter, they may be able to re-sign Dorsey himself! Aaron Brown is a great special-teamer, and shows true explosion out of the backfield; he’s more than worth keeping around to see what he becomes. However, he’s far too unreliable in protection to serve as a true #2 tailback. The question then, is do the Lions cut Smith, cut Morris, or carry four?
I’ve championed Maurice Morris for quite a while; I even argued that his running last year obviated the need to “waste” a high draft pick on a co-starter for Kevin Smith. However, Morris isn’t the blocker Smith is, and doesn’t have the vision Smith does. Morris runs hard, and is an underrated athlete—but when Smith’s at his best, he’s a complete tailback; he runs like a slower, stronger Jahvid Best.
As I said during my guest spot on “The Knee Jerks” internet radio show, Jahvid Best is probably the best reason to keep Smith around, because they run in a similar fashion. There’s no need to custom-tailor the offense around each back, or change up the playcalling. When both are healthy, they can simply spell each other, complement each other, sub in and out without skipping a beat. Best will always be more explosive and more dangerous, Smith will always be stronger, and likely the better blocker—but over the next few years, I see them as an excellent complement to each other.
The question, then, is whether or not the Lions want their #2 tailback to simply be a Guy In Case Of Emergency. If all they need is a guy they can run out there when Best is too tired to continue, or (God forbid) hurt, Morris will do just fine. If they intend to have Best be 1A to someone else’s 1B, a cohabitation that would keep Best fresh and explosive for 15+ carries while also keeping a rookie off the field when Stafford needs protection most, then Smith should be that back.
Ultimately, though, every choice is weighed against another. With Jack Williams’ PUP listing, and Amari Spievey’s switch to safety, there are eight cornerbacks and six safeties on the roster. If Kevin Smith is kept, one member of the pile of bodies that is the defensive secondary might be yanked out from underneath the others. Seriously, ask yourself: who will provide the most value to this team? Kevin Smith, or Ko Simpson? Kevin Smith, or Dante Wesley? I know what my thinking is in that situation, but I can’t be so sure of The Grandmaster’s—or even Smith’s.
The Free Press’ Carlos Monarrez quotes Jim Schwartz like so:
"Kevin's a very, very smart football player, and he's going to do the right thing," Schwartz said. "He's got a lot of trust from those things. He just needs -- and it's not so much earning our trust -- he just needs to get his own trust with his knee and everything else.”
“I've known a lot of people to come back from knee injuries and they need to get to the point where it's not even on their agenda anymore; they don't think about it when they're out there. That's a long process. That's not an overnight thing. So he's still working that way."
It sounds like the problem at this point isn’t whether or not his knee is healthy, but whether or not he trusts it yet. That’s good: once Smith regains that confidence and stops thinking about the knee, he’ll be the Kevin Smith that should be that 1B tailback. That’s also bad; he might never regain that confidence—and for a tailback whose value is in running hard and blocking strong, playing hesitantly means not playing at all.