Jimmy Smith was frustrated, and head coach John Harbaugh knew it. The Ravens cornerback was sidelined by a sports hernia injury in the middle of the 2012 season, and Smith wasn’t able to contribute to something special that seemed to be building in Baltimore.
He could only watch as the Ravens pounded the Oakland Raiders, won at Pittsburgh and then won at San Diego in overtime — after Ray Rice’s improbable fourth-and-29 conversion — to improve to 9-2 on the season.
“Let me tell you something,” Harbaugh remembers telling the second-year cornerback. “Before the season is over, you are going to be the guy that makes the difference in our season and wins us a championship.”
Fast forward a couple of months, and it was Smith, back after a five-game absence, that broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Michael Crabtree that helped preserve the Ravens’ 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
As the Ravens prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on Jan. 9, much focus is on the fact that Pittsburgh’s Canton-bound quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be playing the final game of his career.
The same could be true of Smith, a mainstay in the Ravens’ secondary for more than a decade and the team’s second-longest tenured player behind punter Sam Koch.
Smith, 33, is in his 11th season with the Ravens, and has played 127 career regular-season games since the Ravens made him their first-round draft pick (No. 27 overall) out of Colorado in 2011. Only six players have been with the franchise longer.
Yet’s Smith promise has so often been curtailed by injuries. He has played every game just twice in his 11 seasons. There was a Lisfranc foot injury in 2014, a torn Achilles in 2017, a knee injury in 2019. Name a body part, and Smith has probably missed a game because of an injury to it. He also faced a four-game suspension in 2018 for a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.
“He’s had to battle some adversity in terms of injuries and things like that,” Harbaugh said, “but when the time comes, he always shows up and plays good football. … Jimmy Smith has been an anchor here in the secondary in Baltimore for many years.”
The Ravens brought Smith back on a one-year contract extension this season, and he figured to be a role player and locker room mentor who could fill in occasionally at cornerback or safety, with the athleticism to play outside and the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) to challenge tight ends.
Then early in training camp, Smith had to be carted from the field after a collision in practice. What appeared to be a potentially career-ending injury turned out to be a more minor ankle injury that cost him only the first two games, though he has since missed four additional games, including one while on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Yet with the Ravens’ secondary decimated by injuries, Smith was pressed into duty for every defensive snap in the Ravens’ 20-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 2, something he had done only one other time in the past four seasons.
Smith finished with four tackles, matching his season high, including a big tackle for loss late in that game that nearly thwarted the Rams’ final drive.
Smith has 13 tackles and three passes defensed this season. For his career, he has totaled 364 tackles, three sacks and 14 interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns.
As he met with the media on Jan. 5 in advance of the regular-season finale, Smith acknowledged that he has thought about the end of his career. “Then again,” he added, “I get out there last week and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, man, I can probably still play.'”
“It’s tough, because I’m a football player,” he said. “I love it. Like, this is my life, and sometimes just even thinking about not playing, I’m like, ‘Ugh. I don’t want do anything else.'”
Smith, though, sounded conflicted as he spoke of “the grind” and the desire to spend more time with his growing children.
“They’re like, ‘Daddy, you’re going to work again? You’re going to work again?” he said. “And it’s like, I’ve been doing this my entire life. I don’t know what it’s like to be free. So part of it is … I kind of want to go to the other side and be able to spend that time with my family and do those things.”
Still, if the Ravens were to approach him about returning for a 12th season, Smith said he would be “all ears.”
One thing Smith seemed to rule out was putting on a uniform for any other team.
If he plays in 2022, Smith said, “It definitely is going to be for the Ravens. I don’t see myself picking up to go play for the Browns or something like that for a year, to be away from my family. No disrespect to the Browns, but … I don’t see myself wanting to do that. This is home for me.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox