Jimmy Smith is by now used to life in the NFL moving on without him. The Ravens cornerback has suffered injuries to his ankle and midsection, to his foot and back. His last ailment, a season-ending Achilles tendon tear suffered in December, happened to overlap with a four-game NFL suspension. He has spent much of his pro career preparing to play a game he often cannot.
But his four weeks away from the Ravens this season prompted a different reckoning. It is one thing to get hurt or fail a drug test; it is another for the NFL to find evidence of “threatening and emotionally abusive behaviors” toward a former girlfriend that “showed a pattern of improper conduct.” On Thursday, in his first public comments since his second league ban in as many seasons, Smith said that, legally, he could not comment on the four-game suspension levied in late August.
But in his time away from team headquarters, he said, he was able to live a different life, one in need of order. He was a parent, a husband, a fan, a 30-year-old waiting for the Ravens facility to open its doors to him once more.
“You guys all know I've done this different ways, obviously, but it's extremely hard,” Smith said of his frequent absences. “This one was a little bit different in the sense that I'm a lot older now. You get time to kind of recalibrate personally and, I guess, everything. You think about life. But this time, it gave me an opportunity to really sit down and just get that love back, get my body back, get my mind, my personal life, in order.”
In a petition filed last year in a Baltimore County Circuit Court, Micaela Sanchez, the mother of a young child with Smith, alleged that Smith has a “history of substance abuse and illicit drug usage” and “a history of being physically violent” toward her.
Smith denied the allegations in court papers and to The Baltimore Sun in November. The Ravens said in their statement announcing Smith’s suspension that he had since resolved his "custody and support issues" with the ex-girlfriend, whom they did not identify. An attorney for Sanchez did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Smith, who in the Ravens’ statement acknowledged wrongdoing and took full responsibility for his behavior, is now engaged to another woman. In the first week of his suspension, he said Thursday, they had an engagement party. The next week, they learned she was pregnant with their second child together.
Smith otherwise negotiated the monthlong wait for football by watching football, by training for football. At home, he’d study the Ravens’ defensive schemes during game broadcasts and throw a remote if a play went sideways. Other nights, he’d take in a high school or college game in person. In Dallas, he worked with a trainer who revamped his approach to nutrition and strength and conditioning.
At 6 a.m. Monday, his suspension over, the Ravens’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers just hours old, Smith awoke and wondered when the team facility would open. He waited it out, arriving two hours later.
“I was texting him every week, man,” said safety Eric Weddle, who’s close to Smith. “I was counting down the days: There's three weeks, and then there's two weeks, then it was the day before. I was like, ‘Forty-eight hours!' ” Smith’s response, according to Weddle: “Actually, it's 34 hours and 30 minutes before I'm in the building.”
Smith’s absence was supposed to be a problem for the Ravens, who struggled without their top cornerback toward the end of last season. Now his return has caused what players have called a “great problem”: Who plays in the secondary?
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said starter Brandon Carr, the team’s top-rated cornerback, would continue to add to his streak of 164 consecutive starts Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, a mark second only to Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers’ (196 straight).
What that means for the rest of a pass defense that has allowed the NFL’s stingiest passer rating through four weeks will become clear over time. Martindale said Smith looked “fine” at practice Wednesday, his first since his ban ended, and was encouraged that Smith reported no soreness afterward.
But Smith, who has started all 16 games in a season just twice in his seven-plus-year career, was frank about his readiness.
“There's only one way to get in football shape: It's playing football,” he said. “I might run a thousand gassers, but until I get out there and cover somebody, that's when you really get back into the groove.”
Weddle said Thursday that, given recent history, the organization’s decision on Smith’s future in Baltimore “could’ve easily been the other way.” A year after Ray Rice’s 2014 release and suspension for an incident in which he assaulted his then-fiancee, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told season-ticket holders that the organization considered domestic violence “something that’s just unacceptable.”
But the Ravens said in August that they “believe [Smith] is taking the proper steps to improve and that he can change.” Smith is not focused on his contract situation, he said Thursday, but neither he nor the Ravens can afford another slip-up.
Smith is in line for a salary cap hit of $15.85 million next season, behind only quarterback Joe Flacco, but the Ravens would save $9.5 million if they released him. He said he could concern himself only with helping the organization that has stood by him.
“Obviously, us as players, we know Jimmy and know what he went through and know what it means to him,” Weddle said. “As you get older, you appreciate certain things, little things, right? It's the relationships, it's your teammates, it's the team that backed you. I think he's come with a different appreciation to what this game has brought to him.”