Smith doesn't get it, probably never will

Anthony Smith trying to maim his teammates aside, the Steelers have much to look forward to in tomorrow's preseason game against the Eagles.

Consider the question posed to Anthony Smith during yesterday's practice: "Are you out of your g--damn mind?" It's not rhetorical but maybe it should be. It's not like Smith was out of character when he leveled another Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver, this time Hines Ward. Feigning disbelief when Smith decides that trying to maim a teammate is a great way to impress the coaches and earn the starting free safety gig is like being surprised that Casey Hampton showed up in Latrobe 25 pounds overweight. At some point it's probably worth posing another question: what did you expect to happen? Yes, teammate and BFF Ryan Clark defended Smith and shrugged it off as "no big deal," and maybe that's true.

But Clark understands how these things work, and sided with his teammate. Fair enough. But in the infamous words of the guy responsible for drafting Smith, Bill Cowher, it is what it is.

What that means for Smith's future is unclear, and while I have no idea what the coaches might be thinking, I'm all for cutting him just so we can all get on with our lives. I haven't been to camp this year so I can only go on what I read; maybe Smith is a model teammate and consummate professional for the other 89 minutes he's on the field at every practice. History suggests otherwise, and the fact that coaches are having to explain, in Dale Lolley's words, "for what seems to be the 20th time why that stuff just can't happen", indicates that Smith has a debilitating learning disability, or, more likely, isn't interested in changing. In which case, I think that makes it even easier for Mike Tomlin to give the "it's just not working out here" speech.

I suspect the front office and coaching staff will exhaust every possiblity before deciding to "Colclough" Smith. One option would be to have the Steelers wideouts dress up as Randy Moss and Jabar Gaffney during practice. It'll guarantee they'll never get touched and will always be open. It's more likely that Smith earns a temporary demotion, presumably learns a lesson, and re-emerges as Ryan Clark's backup.

Some fans have suggested keeping him around and letting him wreak havoc on special teams. Partly because he's a former third-round pick with just two years experience, and also because his hard-hitting style is perfectly suited to the controlled chaos that takes place on the coverage units. I'd counter that Smith has been on teams for two years and they were just as awful as before he showed up. So unless he can punt, that doesn't seem like such an attractive Plan B.

Who knows, maybe this is the time he finally gets it, this will be the turning point in his career. I'm skeptical.

Assuming Smith continues down this career path, the 2006 draft looks even more depressing. Behold the magnificence that is Cowher's legacy (well, other than finally winning a Super Bowl):

(1, 25) Santonio Holmes
(3, 83) Anthony Smith
(3, 95) Willie Reid
(4, 131) Willie Colon
(4, 133) Orien Harris
(5, 164) Omar Jacobs
(5, 167) Charles Davis
(6, 201) Marvin Philip
(7, 240) Cedric Humes

Sheesh. To date, Pittsburgh landed a potential Pro Bowl wideout, an average right tackle, and a turnover prone receiver/returner, and a safety who, as Tomlin described late last season, struggles to keep receivers in front of him. And these are the success stories from the '06 draft; Harris, Jacobs, Davis, Philip and Humes were all released or picked up by other teams off the Steelers' taxi squad.

I mention this not to point fingers at the front office, but just to reiterate the importance of finally building that time machine.
In other, less insane/depressing news, Pittsburgh has its first preseason game tomorrow night. The first teamers will play a couple series, but for me, it's all about watching the young guys. Other than the obvious names -- Ryan Mundy, Roy Smith, Anybody Else Who Can Play Safety Without Purposely Injuring Teammates --I'll be most interested to see rookie linebackers Bruce Davis and Mike Humpal. Davis because of this athleticism, and Humpal because of his potential special teams contributions. Dennis Dixon is another intriguing story, and hopefully he can help ease the pain we felt when Brian St. Pierre wasn't re-signed. I'll also be watching Lawrence Timmons, who has apparently defied all our expecations and could be the player Tomlin envisioned when the team drafted him 15th overall in 2007.

The offensive line will merit some attention, but that story line was beaten to death before free agency started. Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed will also be under the microscope, and I'll go ahead and offer my utterly vapid prediction for both players this season: Mendenhall will be impressive, rushing for 600-800 yards, adding 300 receiving yards, and scoring 7-10 touchdowns. It will immediately fuel speculation that he should be the Steelers starting back in '09. Sweed will look more like Fred Gibson than Plaxico Burress, and the "it looks like we've found the Juan Timmons of wideouts" cries will begin. Unlike Gibson, though, Sweed will become Big Ben's favorite target, it just won't happen this year (or next); typically wide receivers take much longer to make the adjustment from college to the pros than running backs. Luckily, Pittsburgh doesn't need Sweed to put up big numbers anytime soon.

Ultimately, the preseason is about finding out what the new faces can do while preparing the old faces for the five-month grind ahead of them. And for us, the fans, it means we can dispense with the speculation, the hypothesizing, the making stuff up; the 2008 season is here. Finally.Thank you, Jesus.

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