June 7, 2015

2001: Antowain Smith Signs with Patriots

On June 7, 2001 the New England Patriots took a step toward improving their running game by signing RB Antowain Smith to a one-year contract. The 29-year old, who started college late and was thus a comparative latecomer to the NFL, had spent the previous four years with the Buffalo Bills.

Smith didn’t play football until he was a high school senior, but excelled when he did, achieving both all-district and all-conference honors. After working for two years to support the grandparents who raised him, he moved on to Eastern Mississippi and then the University of Houston, where he ran for 1847 yards and 19 touchdowns in two seasons.

Smith was chosen by the Bills in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft and backed up RB Thurman Thomas as a rookie but still managed to rush for 840 yards. He followed up with 1124 yards in ’98 as he became the starting tailback. However, injuries, which would become a recurring problem, dropped Smith’s production to 614 yards in 1999, although he performed well in the postseason loss at Tennessee (14 carries for 79 yards and two TDs). In 2000 he appeared in 11 games, starting only three of them, as he found himself out of favor with offensive coordinator Joe Pendry.

With a new front office and coaching staff taking over, the Bills released Smith. He joined a New England squad that had yet to suitably replace star RB Curtis Martin, who departed for the Jets following the 1997 season. J.R. Redmond, a third-round draft choice in 2000, had been the latest disappointment. He started five games and ran for 406 yards in an injury-plagued year while Kevin Faulk, better suited to a part-time role, led the club with 570 yards on the ground. The team as a whole dropped to 5-11 in the first season under Head Coach Bill Belichick and was seeking to retool. Smith was the sort of player that New England was rebuilding with – another club’s misfit who nevertheless was also a highly-motivated, team-oriented type and played with passion.

Smith moved into the lineup and became part of a surprising turnaround by the Patriots that culminated in a NFL Championship. While the biggest story was the injury to QB Drew Bledsoe that opened the door for the unsung Tom Brady, Smith helped by having his best season. A slow start gave way to a 94-yard, two-TD performance against the Colts in the third contest and he had three hundred-yard performances in four weeks at midseason. He reached a high of 156 yards on 26 carries against Miami in the next-to-last game and ended up with 287 rushes for 1157 yards (4.0 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. In the playoffs, Smith gained another 204 yards that included 92 on 18 attempts in the Super Bowl upset of the Rams.

Smith spent two more seasons with the Patriots, rushing for 982 yards in 2002 and catching a career-high 31 passes for 243 yards, although he scored only six touchdowns on the ground and, at age 31, appeared to be wearing down. While New England again reached the top in ’03, Smith was less productive and was released in the offseason. His last hundred-yard game for the Patriots was an even 100 on 22 carries against the Colts in the AFC Championship game, and he rushed for 83 yards on 26 attempts in the Super Bowl vs. Carolina, his final game with the club.

Smith played another two years, with Tennessee in 2004 and New Orleans in ’05, and finished up with 6881 rushing yards on 1784 carries (3.9 avg.) and 54 TDs. Never much of a receiver out of the backfield, he had 136 pass receptions for 982 yards (7.2 avg.) and three TDs. Not a breakaway threat, he was a solid power runner who was at his best carrying the ball between the tackles and wearing defenses down. In 2001, most notably, his performance helped to take pressure off of a promising young quarterback, who could typically stick to a conservative passing game, with excellent results.