Midway through last season, long after things had started to unravel for the Browns and a myriad of issues, most of them on offense, were being blamed as the reason, former longtime Cleveland left tackle Doug Dieken stood in the locker room at team headquarters as he sipped a cup of coffee.
Pointing to the nearly-empty locker of defensive end Robaire Smith about 10 feet away, he said, "They really miss him. He's a pro's pro. He's the leader of the defense."
Dieken was the only one saying such a thing at the time. Everybody was focused on the foot laceration, and the drops, of the star wide receiver, Braylon Edwards. Defensive ends, especially in a 3-4 defense where their responsibility is simply to tie up blockers so the linebackers can make plays instead of making plays on their own, don't get such headlines – or really, any headlines.
But now in his 21st year as the color analyst on the Browns Radio Network and his 36th with the club in some capacity, Dieken is the ultimate authority on line play – on both sides of the ball -- in these parts, so when he touches on the subject, you have to pay attention because he's almost always right on target.
And he was again this time.
The Browns did miss Smith last season as he sat out the final 14 games with a torn Achilles tendon. Now, would his presence have totally prevented the stunning disappointment that was the Browns' 4-12 finish of 2008? No, but it – he – would have helped. The Browns played leaderless, unfocused defense, where they were satisfied only with trying to slow teams down instead of realizing the vast shortcomings on the offense and deciding to take the team on their shoulders and carry it.
But that was then and this is now, and Smith, belying the fact this is his 10th season in the NFL and that he will soon be 32 years old, has recovered nicely – and quickly – from what can be a career-ending injury for some players.
"I just listened to my doctors and did what they told me to do," Smith, who originally signed with the Browns in March 2007 as an unrestricted free agent from the Tennessee Titans, said Monday as the club got ready for Thursday night's preseason finale against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
In some ways, Smith may, in fact, be better physically than he was before.
"In basically having the whole year off, it gave my body a chance to rest," he said.
But it's more than that.
"When you rehab, you work muscles that you haven't worked in years – muscles that may have shut down on you a long time ago," Smith said. "You're then asble to use those muscles again."
That's been evident throughout training camp and the preseason. Though a big, stout man who looks much bigger and stouter than his listed measurements of 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds would seem to indicate, Smith is moving pretty well. He actually appears to be faster than he was before the injury.
He really showed off that new-found speed – and agility as well – late in the third quarter of the Browns preseason win over the Tennessee Titans when he raced in on Vince Young, quickly changed his direction slightly and then forced the quarterback to quickly change the direction slightly, and the velocity, of his pass. The result was that instead of it being fired to his receiver, it floated delicately toward outside linebacker Alex Hall, who used his 6-5 frame like a power forward in basketball to pluck the ball out of the air and return it untouched 11 yards for the Browns' final touchdown of the night and a 20-7 lead.
And earlier in the game, in the first half, Smith blocked a field-goal attempt.
When someone congratulated him afterward for getting his fingertips on the kick to knock it down, he laughed and said, "I can't dunk anymore, but I got my whole hand on that one."
Smith is not known as a field-goal blocker – that distinction on the team goes to fellow defensive lineman Shaun Rogers – but again, after that year of rehab and rest, he may now become one.
But as mentioned, Smith's value to this defense and this team goes far beyond what he contributes on the field. It's what he does in the locker room as well.
"He is a pro's pro, definitely," Browns inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "He's very disciplined in his approach and with his attention to detail. You can learn a lot from him. I sure have."
Smith said he learned from his brother, Fernando, who played nine seasons in the NFL.
"It's not anything he sat me down and told me," said Smith, who had another brother, Antonio, who played in the NBA and helped Michigan State to the 1999 Final Four. "It's just what I got from observing him and how he went about his business."
Smith said he's good to hear the "pro's pro" kudos from a teammate and someone in the know like Dieken. But no matter what anyone wants to call him, that's how Smith conducts his life – principled so that he is, in turn, setting a good example for his four children and young players like Jackson.
"Robaire is a tough, hard-nosed guy who works very hard and has a good attitude," Jackson said. "His style of play is aggressive. He plays at a high level."
Which is way Dieken noticed him – and his absence – and saw what it was doing to the Browns last year.
Maybe – just maybe – if the Browns are lucky, Doug Dieken will walk into the locker room halfway through this season, point to Robaire Smith's mostly-full locker and say, "The defense is better because he's back."
And he probably wouldn't be the only one saying it this time.