Both 6-5 Tennessee Titans WR Drew Bennett and 5-10 Bucs CB Dwight Smith went up for this pass, but it was Smith that came down with the ball
For Dwight Smith and his unusual 2003 season, it wasn't so much where he started, but where he ended up.
In a year in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got two touchdown receptions from a defensive tackle – Warren Sapp, returning to his high school roots at tight end – Smith was still the team's most versatile defender. At some point or another during the 16-game season, Smith played all five secondary positions – left and right cornerback, free and strong safety and nickel back – and he started at each of those positions except left cornerback. As injuries decimated Tampa Bay's defensive backfield again and again, Smith was repeatedly the Buccaneers' Band-Aid.
But, as we said, it mattered little where Smith started. What was more important was where he finished, and more often than not that was in the Bucs' end zone, killing an opponent's drive.
Smith, who for the record was the team's free safety when the season started and everyone was healthy, led the Buccaneers with five interceptions, beating his previous career high by one. He was the fourth different player to lead the team in picks over the last four years, following Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. But where those players averaged just under 80 yards on their interceptions in those three seasons, Smith's five picks resulted in just three total return yards.
That's no indictment of Smith, who certainly proved he can take a pick to the house last January, when he became the first player ever to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a single Super Bowl. Rather, it's an indication of where he was doing his thievery. Three of his five interceptions occurred in the end zone, and there's hardly a more valuable place to record a turnover. Those takeaways certainly played a part in the Bucs' ranking first in the NFC and second in the NFL in red zone defense, as did the vicious and perfectly-timed end zone hit he visited upon New York Giants receiver Amani Toomer just before halftime on November 24. Toomer lost the ball and the Giants settled for a short field goal; in all, only 35% of opponent drives that reached the Bucs' red zone resulted in touchdowns.
As injuries overwhelmed the Bucs in December, the defense gave up 63 points to Atlanta and Tennessee, but still finished fourth in the league in scoring defense. Smith, who bounced around the secondary without complaint or waning of effort, credits his teammates with not giving up during a very trying season.
"We were in there and everybody was still fighting hard," said Smith, who like secondary mates Ronde Barber and Jermaine Phillips played every snap of the season finale at Tennessee. "Regardless if we were down 100-0, nobody ever looked to the next guy and wanted to point a finger. We still played hard in every game, and I think that's what we can take from this season into next year.
"I can't complain about our effort all season. Guys played hard and things just didn't go our way. You can't complain about that. We've just got to go back and build for next year."
Smith's final interception came in the second quarter of that 33-13 loss to the Titans. QB Neil O'Donnell, making his first start since 2001 and looking as if he had never stopped playing, tried to break a 3-3 tie with a long pass down the left sideline to 6-5 receiver Drew Bennett. Bennett jumped as he reached the end zone, but Smith matched his elevation and snatched the ball before it could reach its target.
Those types of ball skills are the reason the Bucs chose to switch Smith to free safety after the previous starter at that spot, Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, bolted for Arizona via free agency. It was a good plan – Tampa Bay wanted to get Smith's play-making on the field for every defensive snap after seeing what he provided as a nickel back in 2002 – but it had to be scrapped when Brian Kelly and Tim Wansley were lost for the season with injuries.
Of course, other bumps and bruises to Phillips and John Lynch forced Smith to go back to safety for a portion of the season, but he finished the year with four straight starts at right cornerback. Though he was used in so many ways, Smith was one of just five Buc defenders to start every game in 2003, joining Barber, LB Derrick Brooks, DT Anthony McFarland and DE Simeon Rice. Like every defensive back, Smith was beaten from time to time, but he proved right the Bucs' suspicion that he could be the type of defender that turns games with big plays.
"Everybody around here understands that this is the NFL and every play is not going to go your way," said Smith. "We had a lot of plays this season that didn't go our way that ended up winning or losing the game for us. We can't let that decide our season. We still have to go back and pick the things out that we did well and hopefully build on them for next year."
Where will Smith line up for the Bucs' next year? With Kelly expected to recover fully from his torn chest muscle, it's likely that the team will take a second crack at making Smith the full-time free safety. He's likely to always be an option at cornerback or in the nickel package, however, and that's a comforting commodity to have. As Smith knows, free agency and the unavoidable aging of players will be a threat to change the lineup every year.
"As far as guys leaving, that's the nature of the business – like Dexter Jackson and Alshermond Singleton last year," said Smith. "That's something you've got to get used to, playing this game. You stay friends, but you're playing in a different jersey now, so you have to move on."
And Smith knows all about moving on.