Rookie TE Alex Smith has caught at least one pass in 10 of the Bucs' 11 games this season
For a short while, it seemed like every other Alex Smith reception was going to be followed by a spike and a point-after attempt.
Smith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie tight end, caught two touchdown passes in his first NFL regular-season game, a 24-13 Bucs win at Minnesota. That accounted for half of his receptions on the day and gave Tampa Bay two very memorable rookie debuts, as Smith's TDs were set up by Cadillac Williams' 148 rushing yards.
Three months later, Smith's scoring ratio has gone down quite a bit. He has caught 20 more passes over the past 10 games, none of which ended in the end zone. It's a classic case of the bar being set insanely high, almost like having your shoes sent to the Hall of Fame three games into you pro career (that would be Williams' personal bar).
However, in a less statistically-literal sense – what, he was going to score 20 touchdowns? – Smith has had no problem maintaining the high standards he set early. Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden recently called his 2005 third-round pick the best young tight end in the game, and he has made Smith an integral part of the team's attack.
Finally outfitted with a tight end who has the speed and route-running skills to stretch a defense, Gruden clearly has big plans for the former Stanford star. Smith has 24 catches for 234 yards and those two touchdowns so far, but he hasn't exploited the seams upfield as most expect he will. In other words, forget the bar set by that two-touchdown debut; Smith hasn't yet come close to the output of which he's capable.
"We think he's going to be a guy who is a joker, a guy who can play in any formation and potentially create some matchup problems for defenses, much like you see some of the blue-chip tight ends doing," said Gruden. "That will be a process that I think those doors will open themselves pretty soon."
Here's the good news: Smith will be ready when those doors swing wide. He has been everything the Bucs hoped for this year precisely for the same reason Michael Clayton was such a hit as a rookie in 2004. Both young players understood immediately that their work in the offseason and in training camp would be crucial to gaining an early foothold in the league. Smith, a high school honor student and college Academic All-Pac 10 pick, buckled down from May through August and absorbed the nuances of the Gruden's offense.
"It's something I had to do," he said. "I realized I was going to be out there, and if I wasn't ready then things wouldn't work out the way I wanted them to. A lot of times you see young guys not understand the offense and that slows them down. I think that's one of the main things I wanted to accomplish this offseason and going into camp."
Even though veteran Anthony Becht is in front of him on the depth chart, Smith has started six games because of the Bucs' heavy use of multiple-tight end sets. Becht might be the more accomplished blocker at the moment and Smith the more dangerous receiver, but both hold their own in the other department and work hard at all aspects of their game.
Lately, the Bucs have even worked in a good dose of three-tight end sets, with Dave Moore or Nate Lawrie joining Becht and Smith. Gruden said that set of plays had been buried deep in the playbook for awhile, but he's making good use of it now, even getting long gains in the passing game out of it when Joey Galloway has been single-covered.
"It's crazy, because you have three tight ends on the field and we could all be split out at wide receiver," said Smith. "It's just one of those things where the defense isn't quite prepared. They don't know if we're going to run the ball or throw it 50 yards down the field. It just gives an added dimension to keep the defense on its toes."
And it keeps Smith on the field, which is proving to be a priority for the Bucs' offense. Smith has had at least one reception in 10 of the Bucs' 11 games; only fullback Mike Alstott can top that with a catch in all 11 games. In the last two games, Smith has caught five passes for 57 yards, almost all of them in critical situations. Four of those five receptions resulted in first downs, the most important coming during the Bucs' fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Chicago last Sunday.
On that play, Smith caught a short pass in the left flat on third-and-three. He had a defender on him immediately and he was still two yards shy of the first-down marker, but Smith managed to fight his way around that Bear tackler and dive for a gain of three. It is plays of that variety that have made Smith a favorite target of Chris Simms.
"Alex Smith is a tremendous player," said the Bucs' third-year quarterback. "I think the thing that impresses me about him more than anything is his mental capacity. He's an extremely smart kid, especially being a rookie in this offense. Very little mistakes…very little. It's unreal. I can't even recall one right now. And his physical talent – he's a guy who works hard. He's really fast for somebody his size and he catches the ball with ease."
And, like Clayton and Williams, he could be a huge factor for the Buccaneers down the stretch. More than that, he is almost sure to be part of the team's offensive nucleus for years to come.
"He's physical, he's fast, he's strong and he's in tremendous, tip-top shape," said Gruden. "I think that's going to really help him be a great tight end in this league. Soon we can start getting him out a little bit more and stretching some formations and doing some things that he's really going to thrive at."
So Smith is drawing raves from his quarterback and his coach, he's catching passes in every game and he's making all the right moves within the framework of the Bucs' offense. Does he feel like he's already in a groove, this early in his NFL career? Well, sort of, but that whole spiking the ball in the end zone thing would be a nice feeling to have again.
"It's a groove, but I still feel like it's a work in progress," he said. "I feel like I haven't had one of those breakout games and it's just right around the corner. I'm trying to stay with it, keep working hard because you never really know when that game's going to come.
"It's been awhile since I've gotten back in the end zone. I was thinking it was going to be like that every week. You just have to keep working and another Minnesota game could pop up just like that."