By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- It's a warning teams across the NFL repeatedly refuse to heed: when in doubt, do not, under any circumstances, kick the ball to Brad Smith.
Yet, time and again, Smith somehow gets his hands on the pigskin and something game-changing goes down.
Case in point, rewind to the latter stages of the third quarter of Monday night's matchup between the Jets and Minnesota Vikings at the new Meadowlands Stadium. Despite their statistical dominance, the Jets led only 12-0 and were in the process of getting worked over by Brett Favre on a 10-play, 72-yard drive. Despite a forgettable first half that saw him complete just 3 of 7 passes for 31 yards, Favre must have gotten his sea legs during the intermission, because the 41-year-old quarterback came out with purpose in the third and engineered the type of drive we've seen over and over again for two decades.
Favre started to exploit a tiring Jets defense and eventually capped the 4-minute march with one of his patented rainbow bombs, a 37-yarder to newly acquired Randy Moss that probably traveled twice that far over the field. Whatever air that wasn't forced out of the building by the night's monsoon quickly dissipated with that pass and a large percentage of the Jets faithful started nudging their comrades with that look of "Oh boy, here we go again."
Enter Smith, the modern day version of Kordell Stewart's "Slash," the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive weapon that baffled NFL defenses for much of the late 1990s and early part of the new century. Stewart was primarily a quarterback, but was often used in many capacities. Smith shares several common traits with Stewart in that he can throw, catch and run at a moment's notice, often with something special taking place in the process.
So with the momentum having switched to the men in purple following the Favre-to-Moss hookup, Smith fielded the next kick-off and proceeded to shred the Minnesota special teams for 86 yards. The Jets were again in business, this time at the Vikes' 19. Though the drive stalled before reaching the end zone, as had been the case four other times earlier in the game, Nick Folk trotted out and booted a 31-yard field goal that gave the Jets some margin for error up eight heading into the fourth.
Once again, Smith provided a response. And once again he showed the Jets and their fans just how lucky they are to have him around.
Smith was drafted in the fourth round back in 2006 and since that time has been used in every possible offensive role, though one day, when his speed and agility begin to diminish, he will likely be better suited as a possession receiver. Every time the Jets have needed help or depth out wide Smith's name has been among the first brought up, but every time the team's management has thought differently.
And rightfully so, it seems.
The Jets' special teams under guru Mike Westhoff has been among the best in the NFL for the better part of Smith's days with this franchise. He was a fine complement back when Leon Washington was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. But with Washington injured much of last season, Smith became the team's primary kick returner and the Jets didn't miss a beat. He averaged 31 yards per kick-off return last season, including a 106-yard odyssey against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 that basically allowed the Jets to remain in contention for the wild card.
It's hard to force the Jets to go 80 yards because Smith will routinely take the ball out of the end zone. Though not blessed with sprinter's speed, he has uncanny vision and seems to anticipate holes before they actually open.
So, in other words, he was likely born to do this very thing that he does so well.
Smith is averaging 32.2 yards per return, good enough for sixth in the NFL and the Jets, as a team, are third overall, which has come as a great benefit to now-second year quarterback Mark Sanchez, who has certainly made strides over where he was a year ago but still doesn't need the stress that often accompanies possessions that are born deep in a team's own end.
Though the Jets needed to beef up their receiving corps in the offseason to better serve Sanchez, coach Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum, despite making a million moves to improve this team, did not mess with Smith. On the contrary, if nothing else the coaching staff has actually augmented his role.
Since the beginning of this season it's been common to see Smith all over the field. While today's game features more players used at one position, Smith has become that rare guy who requires the position adapt to him instead of the other way around. He runs the sweep, the reverse and the option, he throws the ball out the Jets' version of the "wildcat," and he finds openings in the coverage as a receiver to keep drives alive.
While Smith may not be the Jets' most valuable player, he's without question their most versatile player. You need something done, put No. 16 on the field and sit back with your favorite beverage because even if he doesn't get the ball, defenses are still going to key on him, which, in turn, is going to open some lane somewhere for someone else.
Smith has morphed into the solution to the long-standing question about the Jets' offense. How can it become more dynamic beyond the usual quest for balance?
Simple. Give the ball to "The Answer" and get the hell out of the way.
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