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Much of the offseason discussion regarding the Ravens was focused upon Ray Lewis’ well documented discontent with the Ravens’ organization. Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed and Lewis appears to be reinvigorated and he has seemingly re-established his role as the Ravens’ de facto leader.
Other than the pre-game dance which has been at least temporarily shelved, most discussions regarding Lewis are focused on the field of play, just where they should be.
As always, Ray is talking a good game and if words really matter on the field, Lewis will find himself atop or at worst among the best defenders in football again in 2006. Unfortunately they don’t matter, actions do and Lewis will be looked upon to back up those big words in 2006.
But what if he doesn’t? What if Ray really has seen his better days as some have suggested? What if the Ravens’ front office determines that absorbing a $5.5 million cap hit and releasing Ray in 2007 is better than paying him the $6.5 million he is due along with the $9.2 million cap hit that his presence on the roster will deliver?
If his play slips, that is a very real possibility should Ray refuse any overtures to restructure. It could become an even greater possibility if Bart Scott continues progressing along with back up LB Mike Smith.
Mike Smith filled in quite nicely for Lewis during the Ravens first preseason game against the Giants, assuming play calling responsibilities and posting 3 tackles, one for a loss and another for a gain of one. He also added a QB hurry.
In his second game Smith added two more tackles, one to stop Ryan Moats for no gain and another on a fourth quarter sack while adding another QB hurry. In game 3, Smith registered 7 tackles with a sack and 2 QB hurries.
Based upon the coaches’ film review, Smith leads the team in tackles this preseason. His play has also impressed one of the men responsible for Smith being a Raven, Eric DeCosta.
"We’re very pleased with the progress Mike has made from his rookie year, particularly when you consider that he was a seventh round pick."
Smith is a product of Texas Tech, the same school that produced perennial Pro Bowler Zach Thomas who was a fifth round pick of the Dolphins in 1996. Does Smith have what it takes to be the diamond in the rough that fellow Red Raider Thomas turned out to be?
According to Red Raiders Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coach Lyle Setencich, it’s possible but he’ll have to be a student of the game and be willing to go the extra mile in terms of his preparation.
"In comparison to some of the other linebackers that I’ve had such as Derrick Smith who starts for the 49ers, I’ve had five or six make it to that level. For Mike to get to that status he’s got to be the smartest guy football-wise. He has got to understand the game of football because everything that he does he has to anticipate and not react because he’s not a great runner. He’s not the fastest guy in the world. He’s physical and he’s smart. He’ll hit you and play hard and he’ll make a lot of offensive coaches mad."
So far this preseason, Smith’s classroom study has helped him to read and anticipate plays in the way that Setencich suggests.
"There’s a lot of classroom time and a lot of studying because we give a lot of looks and we have a lot of defenses; a lot of stem and movement; a lot of checks, quick formations and passing strengths so you really have to sit down and learn it", explains Smith. "You have to be football smart and I was blessed to have come from a college where we did a lot of stuff like that. I had a defensive coordinator who really sat me down and taught me the game."
Apparently Setencich wasn’t the only one doing the teaching. When the former Golden Bear coach arrived from California in 2004, he saw something in Mike Smith that coaches can only hope for but can never count on.
"He led practice. He led the enthusiasm in practice. He got guys to play hard. He got them lined up. Everything you want in a player as a coach he did."
Setencich who Smith compares favorably to Ravens’ linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald recalls one of earliest encounters with Smith and the Red Raiders defense.
"When we got there our defense wasn’t very good and [Mike] was about the only prideful guy on our defense who wanted to play hard all of the time. In the two or three years that I had him, he probably restructured or reprogrammed our defense with his mentality."
The Ravens in years past have been criticized, sometimes unjustly, for bringing on players of questionable character. Yet recently, particularly since DeCosta has been the Director of College Scouting, character has become a prioritized quality amongst Ravens’ newcomers.
"[Among] the biggest things when I’m looking at players are football toughness, mentality, speed and character", states DeCosta. "We’ve taken some guys over the years that didn’t bring a lot from a character standpoint and it’s been a mistake. Over the last two years I’m very proud of the guys we’ve drafted and I think they are great people and they are very good football players as well. If the guy is a knucklehead, we’re going to pass. I’m just not going to take him! I’m not going to do it. Ozzie is not going to do it. We’re not going to go down that road with these guys. I’m consumed with character, their background, football intelligence, instincts, the ability to make plays, durability, production and obviously talent.
"Character is critical — the make up, the chemistry of the team. In looking at the team last year I don’t think that the chemistry was very good. You can’t obviously change these things overnight but I think if you draft enough good people who work hard and want to be here and buy into the program, I think you can change it."
There is certainly little doubt that Smith is a player of high character and Setencich may have paid his former protege the ultimate compliment comparing his approach to the game to that of the late Pat Tillman.
"He’s got the Pat Tillman look. His personality on the football field is very similar to Pat Tillman’s. I had Pat at Arizona State. They are very similar. The personalities, the passion to play the game hard every time, to give no quarter, to be a tough guy — it’s all there."
Once before a collegiate game against the Oklahoma Sooners, little did Smith know that he would have a pregame encounter with a player who would later become a friend and teammate in Baltimore.
"With Dan Cody, we played them my senior year. We played in Oklahoma and me and Dan got into a little argument that day at the coin toss. We were butting heads and yelling at each other.
"When we were both drafted we ran into each other at the airport and looked at one another and asked, ‘What are the chances of both of us coming to the same team?’ Dan has turned out to be one of my best friends. We hang out a lot. It’s pretty funny though when you see guys you played against and you end up on the same team with them."
Cody has also been singled out for his dedication and his willingness to go the extra mile in order to prepare himself for the season ahead. But Cody is a player who many thought should have been a first round talent — the Ravens war room included. Smith on the other hand is trying to compensate for the lack of NFL speed something acknowledged by one of his biggest fans, Setencich:
"If a guy can overcome [the physical shortcomings] in the NFL, he has the personality and the passion to get him in the right place to do all those other things."
All those other things: toughness, mentality and character.
Ask Ravens teammates about Smith’s toughness. Twice during organized team activities this Spring, Smith was the central figure in skirmishes. Once he tangled with the much larger Tony Pashos and the next day, he battled with Jason Brown so vehemently that it forced Brian Billick to stop practice and make the entire team run gassers.
Watch Smith on the practice field and it doesn’t take long to notice that crazed look of intensity synonymous with retired players such as Mike Singletary, Jack Del Rio and Jack Lambert. The look is piercing — it’s as though Smith is looking through you, into your chest and ready to rip out your heart.
Yet off the field, Smith is a surprisingly pleasant guy who is engaging and personable. He’s an underdog with a super-sized heart and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to improve for the benefit of the team.
He is quintessential Baltimore.
"You know I’m going to do what I do every day and just try to get better whether that’s playing linebacker or special teams and give 100% and play football as long as I can. I love playing this game. I have passion for it and as long as I have passion and enjoy playing I’m going to keep playing."
And hopefully when Ray Lewis is ready to pass the torch or have the torch passing forced upon him in this business called the NFL, Mike Smith will be there willing and able to run with it for a long, long time.
And if the Ravens are lucky he’ll do it like another former Red Raider named Zach.