One play summed up Sean Smith’s 2013 season.
Week nine, against Buffalo. The Chiefs are trailing by seven in the third quarter, and the Bills have driven to their 1-yard line for the potential nail in the coffin. Then, a disaster — for the Bills.
Smith is locked up on receiver Stevie Johnson in the slot. Johnson beats Smith inside with an outside deke and breaks free over the middle … only to see quarterback Jeff Tuel rush the throw under pressure and toss it right to Smith.
One-hundred yards and one Deion Sanders-esque high-step later, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound cornerback is traipsing into the end zone. It was the full Sean Smith package in a singular play — surprising ability mixed with a dash of cockiness and the occasional lapse in focus.
After signing a three-year, $16.5 million contract in free agency, the former Dolphins starter gave the Chiefs their money’s worth, recording 47 tackles, 13 pass-breakups and two interceptions, but still left fans and coaches wanting more.
This year, by all accounts, the 27-year-old — who is playing through an injured groin — has delivered. Through eight games, he is close to matching his number of pass-breakups from last season (he has 10), and he also has an interception.
“(He’s) more consistent, yes,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s his work ethic and how he’s approached things. He comes to work every day. He’s been banged up a little bit, and he’s been able to work through that. He doesn’t let that slow him down.”
Smith, in fact, hasn’t let much slow him down. Despite an arrest for allegedly driving under the influence in June — which resulted in a lengthy demotion — he might be in the midst of his finest professional season.
There are two prime reasons Smith was able to earn his job back and perform at a high level. The first is a combination of work ethic and solid fit in the Chiefs’ scheme. The second is the way he’s wired.
“You know, (in free agency) you do your research, you kind of know what makes him click,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. “You know he’s a prideful professional, and anytime you put a prideful professional in a position like that, he’s going to step and show ya, ‘You know what? I’m the guy.’”
Another thing that was fitting about Smith’s touchdown against the Bills was the Sanders-esque celebration, because to be honest, you would have a hard time finding a player on the Chiefs’ roster who understands the meaning of swagger better than Smith.
Like many of today’s cornerbacks, he embraces the style and attitude that Sanders played with 15 years ago. Last season, once the Chiefs got off to a 3-0 start, he proudly proclaimed “my swag is through the roof right now.” This offseason, he changed his number from 27 to 21 — Sanders’ number — because it looked and felt better on the field.
“At corner,” Smith said with a chuckle, “you only want (to wear) 24 or 21.”
But for all of his occasional bluster, Smith often chooses his words carefully. He is the rare player who might ponder a question for a while — up to five seconds or so — before answering. A six-year pro, he’s been doing this long enough to understand the power of his words.
But when he was asked recently how much of his outward confidence is real, there was no hesitation.
“I guess it’s just part of my personality,” Smith said. “Growing up, I’ve always been pretty good at almost anything I do. You’ve got people to confirm that and tell you that you’re good, so you kind of just take that and run with it and put that with your hard work and preparation.
“Being that way, it doesn’t add pressure … but it keeps you on edge to where, you know, you can’t talk like this and not back it up. I’ve always got to prepare harder and get myself ready because I might have to eat my words one day.”
This attitude came in handy throughout training camp, when the Chiefs demoted Smith to second team behind Ron Parker and Marcus Cooper — two players he started in front of last season — in the wake of his arrest.
“I definitely wish it never happened,” Smith said when asked if he had any regrets about the arrest. “But you learn from it and move on.”
The Chiefs, for their part, have steadily maintained that his demotion was related to on-field play, though it happened immediately after the incident.
“Well I thought he handled it really maturely,” Reid said. “He didn’t complain; he just came out and worked, and he’s carried that through here. That’s important.”
Once the games actually started in the preseason, it did not take Smith long to earn his job back. He intercepted a pass in the Chiefs’ first exhibition game against the Bengals and returned to the first team the following week. And he has continued to play well ever since.
But the way Smith responded to his setback was not a surprise to Chiefs brass.
It’s rare for a big, talented cornerback like Smith to hit the market during his prime, but they did their research before they signed him and came away liking what they saw.
“I thought he was an ideal fit for Bob Sutton’s defense, and what Bob asks his corners to do,” Dorsey said. “In Miami, they had a new defensive coordinator and he didn’t really fit the scheme. They asked him to play off (coverage) the majority of the time, and that’s not who he is. He’s got to walk up and press. He’s got great length. He’s got a good feel for the game.”
Sutton said Smith has benefitted from playing his second year in the system, but his improvement is largely related to the way he’s refined his technique. The Chiefs’ coaches have drilled home the importance of staying on top of routes to take away the deep ball, and Smith has embraced this philosophy.
“I think that’s one thing Sean has done a good job of, starting from camp, right on through: trying to become the best practice player he can possibly be,” Sutton said. “That’s a key for anybody, but I think particularly when you’re in those positions out there where technique matters so much and it happens so quickly, if you’re not really drilling down on attention to detail, you can get in tight positions, fast.”
Dorsey has enjoyed watching Smith start to blossom into the player the Chiefs hoped he would become.
“He enjoys the game of football,” Dorsey said. “I like Sean. He’s a good kid.”
A bonus benefit to Smith’s presence in the secondary this is the impact he’s made on third-round rookie Phillip Gaines, who has started the last two games at cornerback due to injuries.
“He’s been a huge help to me,” Gaines said. “He’s pretty much taught me all the stuff on top of what the coaches taught me. He’s taught me some other little things here and there. I always listen to him. When I need advice, I go to him on the field because he definitely knows what he’s talking about.”
Gaines says Smith’s knowledge of the game still surprises him.
“It’s kind of crazy watching him because he’s always so laid back, but he’s also so good on the field,” Gaines said. “He understands tendencies, he understands what opposing teams are trying to do to him. So it allows him to anticipate things and play a lot faster than a lot of players can.”
Smith says he hasn’t gone out of his way to be a vocal mentor or leader. He’s just tried to be himself.
“At the end of the day, when I step on the field, that’s my resume,” Smith said. “Regardless of what happens, as long as I’m balling in between those lines, my play will take care of everything.”
Perhaps Smith’s defining play of the season will again come in Buffalo, where the Chiefs play on Sunday. And perhaps this time, it will come in a different way — with the mistake eliminated.
“The guy just shook him coming off the line,” Sutton said about last year’s touchdown. “Tamba (Hali) was free rushing off the other side, so the quarterback had to unload the ball quickly. He really wasn’t throwing to Sean’s guy. He threw the ball right there, and we were fortunate.”
When asked recently how many times he’s seen Smith get shook like that this season, Sutton responded by shaking his own head.
“Not many,” Sutton said. “Not many.”