Vikings head coach Brad Childress isn't making a commitment either way when it comes to possibly bringing running back Onterrio Smith into the Vikings fold once again.
Smith, the team's leading rusher in 2004 with 544 yards on 124 carries despite serving a four-game suspension was suspended for the entire 2005 season after receiving his third strike against the NFL's substance abuse policy. In the spring of 2005, he was also stopped by airport police and found to have a drug-masking device known as the "Original Whizzinator," which was one incident in a string of embarrassing off-the-field episodes for the Vikings in 2005
With Michael Bennett and Moe Williams both unrestricted free agents and young running backs Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason the only current Vikings with any real game experience expected to return to the team in 2005, it isn't as easy as it would seem to give up on Smith.
"Our running backs coach will end up getting involved in that and try to feel out where he's coming from. I'll have a meeting face to face with him and we'll just see how we go," Childress said. "Obviously, he has tremendous ability. Just like with all of these guys, it's a matter of what standard of performance can you expect and what kind of standard of behavior can you expect from those guys. It's a trust factor. Come back and do everything and you're the guy, if we and your teammates expect you to be the guy, then can we trust you? That ends up being huge."
Smith told reporters after his first four-game suspension that it wouldn't happen again, that he wasn't about to lose more money because of a suspension. Then, less than a year later, he was being suspended for a full season. Were it not for the suspension, Smith might have become a free agent this March, but he didn't accrue another season in the league; if he returns to the Vikings, he would still be playing under his rookie fourth-round contract that he signed in 2003.
He went on to become the Vikings' second leading rusher in his rookie season, when he amassed 579 yards on 107 carries. He has also shown some versatility out of the backfield – an important factor for Childress' running backs – catching 15 passes in 2003 and 36 in 2004, tops among Minnesota's backs that year.
When Viking Update asked Childress what he would be looking for in his feature back, he replied: "He's got to be multi-dimensional. You want a guy that can run between the tackles as well as being able to catch the ball. Does he need to be Brian Westbrookish? That's one flavor. … You want a guy that's well-rounded. People can gang up on you if the guy is one-dimensional when that guy's in the game, so it kind of serves you to have somebody that is multi-faceted."
Smith is that type of running back, if only the team could trust him to stay out of trouble. To this point, he hasn't proven that ability.
Pro Bowl center Matt Birk hasn't had any of Smith's well-publicized off-the-field problems, but he has struggled with injuries the last two seasons. The reasons for their absences were far different, but like Smith, Birk missed four games in 2004 and the entire 2005 season.
Birk has had three surgeries to repair sports hernias in the last 18 months, plus a season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip in September. Still, Childress said he expects to go into the season with Birk as the starting center on his depth chart.
Last year, as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Childress lost Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb midway through the season to a sports hernia.
"I probably know more about sports hernias than I want to know after this past year in terms of how many muscles attach to that area, which ones you need and don't need. I got know (Birk) too out at some of those Pro Bowls – great guy," Childress said in addition to giving him the vote of confidence.
Running Back's Status up in the Air
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