MIAMI -- At times he looks every bit the first-round pick that he was, flattening linebackers into moo shu pancakes, giving groups of defenders piggy-back rides to the nearest first-down marker, grinding his way into the end zone.
At other times, Sammie Smith looks as if he's trying to tap-dance on fine china without breaking it. Or acting out the football version to Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." That is, if he hasn't fumbled.
The dichotomy of Sammie Smith is one of the more perplexing mysteries surrounding the Miami Dolphins' successful season, which stands at 9-2, as the Dolphins head to Washington today.
The last time Miami played the Redskins, a 23-21 win on Dec. 20, 1987, Dan Marino threw 50 passes and completed 22 for 393 yards and three touchdowns. With Miami's new balanced offense, that's sure not to happen this time, but it's anybody's guess whether Smith will gain 100 yards or less than none.
When he's good, he's very good. Like when he gained 159 yards in the opener against the New England Patriots, the fourth-best rushing performance by any Dolphin.
When he's bad, coach Don Shula doesn't let him carry much. Like when he carried five times for 9 yards in their 20-3 loss to the New York Giants in September. Or when he rushed six times for minus-3 yards in the 13-10 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders two weeks ago.
Smith bounced back in the 30-13 victory at Cleveland last Sunday with his second-best performance, 96 yards on a season-high 24 carries, including a garbage-time run of 33 yards that also is the longest of his brief career.
He also scored a touchdown, his first in five games and seventh of the season.
"I don't really care what people say about my style of running," Smith said. "I feel like I run hard every chance I get.
"When I or Marc Logan or anybody has a big game is when our offensive line is killing people," Smith said. "Once you get a chance to get going 5 yards and people hit you, that's when you can drag them, whereas if you get hit before you get to the line of scrimmage, then how the hell are you going to drag somebody? You're not even going."
Sometimes Smith steps tentatively by design.
"Some of our blocking schemes are designed so that Sammie has to make a read at the line of scrimmage; that's when it looks like he's tippy-toeing," guard Harry Galbreath said.
"A lot of times you get the ball and you don't see a hole, so you try to wait for something to develop," Smith said. "That's the type of runner I am. I don't like to just run into the back of people and hopefully get my two yards. I'd rather wait for something. If it's there, I'll take it. If not, I'm going to get hit. It's as simple as that."
Despite the fluctuations, Smith has matured since his rookie season, when he rushed for 659 yards and six TDs on 200 carries after missing camp in a contract dispute. Last year he hardly knew the playbook and was hampered by injuries. This year he has been mostly healthy -- except for a nasty poke in the eye a few weeks ago; his eye is still bloodshot -- and he is comfortable.
"You can see a big difference," Galbreath said.
"When Sammie hits a hole he's carrying more people for longer, and that's enabling him to get the extra three-four yards," running backs coach Carl Taseff said.
Smith has 594 yards on 155 carries, 3.8 yards per carry and 54 yards per game. In order to become Miami's first 1,000-yard rusher since Delvin Williams gained 1,258 yards in 1978, Smith needs to average 81.2 yards in the last five games.
"I think it's possible if the game situation calls for me to run the ball 20-24 times, but I don't think it's possible if I'm only going to run eight times a game," Smith said. "It would be nice to reach 1,000 yards, but I'm not really concerned about it. I just want to win."
As long as the team wins and everybody contributes, Smith said he doesn't mind sharing the running load with Logan, who missed the past two games with a knee injury, or Troy Stradford. But he said he wouldn't mind being the workhorse, as he had been at Cleveland.
"I wasn't really tired," Smith said. "I don't even remember breaking a sweat."
Some fans have sweated when they watch Smith carry; his seven fumbles are the most on the team. But he has lost only two, Smith pointed out.
"Honestly, I don't think it's a big deal," he said. "I'm not very conscious of them. Most of them have been on strips as I'm trying to gain more yardage."