Earlier this year against the Cleveland Browns, Ravens tight end L.J. Smith made the kind of athletic play that perfectly illustrated why the team coveted him as a free agent, and eventually signed him to a $1.5 million deal in the offseason.
He caught a short pass in the flat from Joe Flacco and, like a sports car shifting gears on the open highway, he took off, flashing through a hole in the Browns' defense, streaking up the field for a 26-yard gain.
It felt, at the time, as if it could be Smith's breakout moment in a Ravens uniform. Several of his teammates even razzed him as he made his way back to the sideline, grabbing their hamstrings in jest. Smith, 29, had struggled with a hamstring injury early in the season, but it looked as if he was finally healthy and ready to become a big weapon in the offense.
A month later, the sentiment remains the same. Smith is still healthy and eager to emerge as a big part of the Ravens' attack. But thus far, that one play represents the lone highlight for Smith, who came to the Ravens from the Philadelphia Eagles this year.
One catch, 26 yards. You would think it would be quite the adjustment for a seven-year veteran who, just a few years ago, caught 61 passes for 682 yards. But Smith doesn't see it that way.
"I'm not frustrated," Smith said. "I'm learning every day. I'm learning every day about our offense, about how to look at defenses differently, and I feel like I've learned a lot since I got here. They put a lot on you here in terms of what they want you to know. ... In Philly, I really just had to know what routes to run, but here you have to know a lot more in terms of protections and how to respond to certain coverages. You have to be a lot more of a student of the game."
Smith's quiet start might also be attributed to something few could say they saw coming this year: Todd Heap has been completely healthy. After being used mostly as a blocker last season, Heap is suddenly a downfield threat once again. Despite missing most of the offseason workouts with back issues, Heap has caught nearly as many passes this year through seven games (27) as he did last year through 16 games (35). That hasn't left much room for Smith to get into the game.
"L.J. is doing all the right things," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "But Todd Heap is playing lights-out. Todd Heap is having a Pro Bowl year. He's blocking well, getting open, making catches. And Kelley Washington is playing good. L.J. has got to be ready. He's going to have a huge role these next [nine] weeks. He's practicing well. His numbers are really a product of everybody else playing good."
Smith's career has been a bit of an enigma ever since he was drafted in the second round by the Eagles in 2002. Even though he emerged as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in 2005 and 2006, a series of injuries - groin, knee, shoulder, back - eventually slowed him enough that Philadelphia fans viewed him as a disappointment. Smith says the criticism didn't bother him, but that it was frustrating to feel his body was constantly betraying him.
"They say you are what you eat, right?" Smith said. "You basically get out what you put in? Well, I take care of my body. I really try to. But it just always seems like as soon as I'm about to turn that corner, bang. I think there are a lot of guys that feel like that. I just happen to be one of them. All I can do is keep fighting and keep playing. This is my seventh year, and I've seen a lot of guys come and go for whatever reason. I still feel blessed to be here."
Being fragile and being tough are two completely different things, even though a lot of football fans aren't interested in distinguishing between the two. Smith has played with a sports hernia, he has played when his shoulder was so sore he could barely lift his arm, and he's played when his back was throbbing. In recent years, Heap has endured similar agony just to suit up on Sundays.
"Anybody who has pulled a hamstring knows that it's like having a flat tire," Smith said. "You can't drive a car if you have a flat tire. My hamstring was just in a weird spot. It has nothing to do with toughness. If people thought I wasn't trying to get better or playing through pain, I don't know what to say. You can't play in this league without playing through pain. What people on the outside feel is really not my concern. It's all about how they feel inside that matters to me."
The Ravens seem to be pleased with everything Smith has done so far, even if it hasn't shown up in the stat sheet. Cameron is quick to rave about his ability and insists that he has done everything the team has asked of him.
"He has great hands and a great ability to separate," Cameron said. "He's fast for a tight end. His blocking effort is outstanding. Obviously he's not the biggest guy. But you don't have to be the biggest guy [to block]. I've got great confidence that if something happens to Todd, that he'd do a great job for us. Last year, we didn't have any tight ends. If something happened to Todd, we really didn't have anybody to go to. When L.J. gets his opportunity, he'll do a great job."
Smith also hasn't uttered a peep in protest. You'd think a guy who cites Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" as his favorite show might be up for a bit of kvetching. Not so.
"As long as I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing according to the coaches, then I'm good," Smith said.
1 p.m. Sunday
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Line: Ravens by 3