Filling the NFL's biggest shoes
Players stepping in for departed superstars know they have to just be themselves
His exit was like most NFL endings. Daryl Smith had no time to say goodbye. Nine years in one city, 679 tackles, and Smith, the heart and soul of the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense, crammed in most of his farewells through texts and phone calls. He did not get his locker boarded up in a symbolic gesture of irreplaceability; it belongs to an offensive lineman now. Time presses on, the Jaguars are getting younger, and Smith, at 31, is getting older.
So he headed to Baltimore and just so happened to arrive the day the Ravens were at the White House celebrating their Super Bowl championship. President Obama told a few jokes that day, and, in a particular one directed at Ray Lewis, he asked the team not to rip up the White House lawn.
Lewis, the whole world knows, is now retired after 17 years in Baltimore, and his farewell tour at the end of 2012 became a rallying cry for the Ravens' championship. His legend is so large that his corner locker was sealed and plans were made to erect a statue in his honor.
On June 5, in an effort to fill that massive void, the Ravens signed Smith to a one-year contract for a bargain price of $1.125 million. The transaction barely made a ripple, which is sort of fitting for a man who has gone much of his NFL career relatively unnoticed, mainly because he played in Jacksonville.
They've noticed in Florida, where roughly 10 players huddled around a TV in the Jaguars' locker room last week, watching Smith in a replay of a meaningless preseason game. It seemed so weird to them, seeing him wearing another team's uniform. Nine years is an NFL lifetime, and Smith's replacement has big shoes to fill.
It's a theme throughout the NFL. Change is a constant, but the 2013 offseason left some jarring vacancies. Baltimore is dealing with two of them with the loss of Lewis and safety Ed Reed, who's now in Houston. Their departures wiped out a combined 28 years of leadership. Chicago is starting the season without Brian Urlacher for the first time in 14 years. Steven Jackson, who ran for more than 1,000 yards eight times in St. Louis, is now an Atlanta Falcon. And in New England, the Patriots are adjusting to life without Wes Welker, who's catching passes from Peyton Manning now instead of Tom Brady.
"It's weird," Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan said. "You ain't got Unc [Lewis] sitting in the corner anymore, you know, keeping us on track. Or you ain't got Reed keeping the DBs a little quiet even though they love to talk. It's a little different.
"We don't think we can replace Ray Lewis. The only thing we can ask is to be the best person you can be."
Be yourself. Play your game. Ignore the pressure. What pressure? Anyone who has replaced a legend has heard all of these things before. They've also heard that legends can't be replaced.
It is the second week of training camp, and Michael Huff is sitting in an office at the Baltimore Ravens' practice facility, showing off his Crocs. He's telling a story about the first time he met linebacker Terrell Suggs, a man who lives like he plays, loud and fun. Suggs saw the Crocs at the Ravens' minicamp earlier this summer and teed off. He told Huff he couldn't understand how a grown man could wear Crocs, couldn't believe he was seeing Crocs, and Huff just laughed. Huff knew then -- he knew before then -- that this is the place he's supposed to be.
Never mind that he's making considerably less than he did last year at Oakland, or that he has been tabbed to replace Reed, a man Huff idolized when he was younger. Huff was so enamored by Reed's game that three years ago, after a regular-season finale game between the Raiders and Ravens, he sought Reed out and asked for his jersey. Reed peeled it off, and Huff framed it.
"In my opinion," Huff said, "Ed Reed is the greatest free safety to play the game."
Of course there's pressure. Huff doesn't care. He wanted to be here seven years ago, coming out of the University of Texas. His agent was talking to the Ravens a lot back then, and for a while it looked as if Huff and Reed might play together in Baltimore. But Oakland had a much higher pick and used it to grab Huff at seventh overall.
Huff would never say if his heart sank the moment he hoisted that silver-and-black jersey. In the NFL, you're taught that parity means there's always hope. But the kid who'd just won a national championship at Texas went 2-14 that rookie season. And in seven years, he'd have five head coaches, 76 losses and numerous position changes. Huff soldiered along, switching to cornerback when injuries hit the Raiders hard, believing that every year would be different.
In March, the Raiders cut him in a salary-cap move, giving Huff a chance at a new beginning. On the flight to Baltimore, it hit him as he was listening to his headphones. "I'm getting ready to sign with the defending Super Bowl champs," he said to himself.
"I'm 30, so in NFL terms, you're getting up there. So this is my chance to win a Super Bowl."
Shortly after he signed, he texted Reed. He told him that he'd do his best to uphold his legacy. That won't be easy. Reed has been to nine Pro Bowls, is a former defensive player of the year and shared leadership duties with Lewis, albeit in a much quieter way.
Reed told him to be himself. Huff is a younger and faster than Reed, and he trains with former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson in the offseason. But he has miles to go before he can even consider any comparisons to the future Hall of Famer.
Huff has been in somewhat of a similar situation before. His rookie season, he replaced Charles Woodson. He knows the expectations are so much different now. He feels them every day, and it inspires him.
"I love it," he said. "His pictures are still on the wall up here, all of the plays he made when he was MVP. Every day, you see it, and you're hungry. I want to get my picture next to his."
Jackson had more of a discerning eye for shoes. When he left for the Falcons back in March, Rams staffers cleaned out his two lockers and found more than 40 pairs of cleats and tennis shoes. They shipped each pair to Atlanta, knowing he probably wouldn't wear most of them because they're all are blue and gold. But maybe it's a reminder for Jackson of where he's been.
Nearly a decade ago, before all the 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Jackson was following a legend himself. He played his first two seasons with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.
Jackson didn't really endear himself to St. Louis fans in those early days, in part because he was young, competitive and brash. He also sat out a training camp one summer and ripped on the unhip music at the dome, music that the older sect quite liked.
But in time, he evolved into one of the team's hardest workers and best leaders. Last year, he took a kid named Daryl Richardson under his wing. Richardson was a rookie, the second-to-last player picked in the draft. Jackson liked that he was humble and receptive.
Richardson emerged as the No. 2 back in 2012, which was somewhat of a surprise considering fellow rookie Isaiah Pead was taken five rounds earlier. Richardson ran for 475 yards on 98 carries, a perfect change of pace to Jackson, who's 40 pounds heavier.
Richardson never got used to the spotlight, maybe because it didn't shine on him much in college at Abilene Christian.
When he won the starting job this summer, the Rams were quick to say he is not Jackson's replacement. He won't carry the ball anywhere near 250 times, a mark Jackson exceeded in seven different seasons.
"It's two players in totally different stages of their careers," Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said. "Jack had been the featured back for pretty much his entire career, whereas this is the first opportunity that Daryl's been given to become that back. So I think it's going to be fun for us to watch how he takes on that role and how he grows."
When he was 2 years old, Jon Bostic developed a rather annoying habit. He'd run at anyone -- strangers, family -- full speed and wouldn't stop. It was cute for a while, until he weighed about 200 pounds. Bostic would wait until someone came around the corner, and then boom, a tackle.
Bostic's dad, John, used to play in the NFL, with the Detroit Lions, so maybe that's how it started. The younger Bostic has seen his dad play one game, on video, of a Thanksgiving matchup with the Green Bay Packers. John separated his shoulder that day. He's a pharmacist now but still lives in danger.
"You've never met him, no?" John said. "He's still the same kid. He'll still have to tackle me, but I have to remind him that I'm not in my early 30s. I can't do that stuff anymore."
Jon Bostic seemingly has no fear. When the family gathered at its home in Florida to watch the draft this past spring and Bostic was picked in the second round by the Chicago Bears, there should have been a nervous pause. Bostic is a middle linebacker, just like Urlacher.
Urlacher was a throwback, a smooth-headed superhero, the toughest guy on the team. Urlacher came after Mike Singletary, who came after Dick Butkus. And now there's Jon Bostic. He had hoped he could play with Urlacher, could learn from him, but when the 35-year-old unrestricted free agent retired, the kid was undaunted.
Chicago is known for its defense, but even more for its linebackers. They're bigger than quarterbacks. Why wouldn't Bostic want to be there?
The Bears loaded up on options to replace Urlacher in the offseason, signing veteran Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams to a one-year deal. Williams was the projected starter heading into training camp, but then he suffered a calf injury, giving the Bears a long look at Bostic and the future. Williams is back, but Bostic is making things interesting.
In the second game of his first preseason, Bostic leveled San Diego receiver Mike Willie, jarring the bar loose for an incompletion. The video of the play on NFL.com is called a "spectacular hit." The league saw it a different way. It fined Bostic $21,000. The ferocious hit reminded Bears fans of Urlacher.
Bostic's dad was in the stands for the game and thought it was clean. He knows he's biased.
"I just don't want it to change the way he plays the game," he said.
"He's still a little kid at heart. That's what I hope he never loses."
The comparisons have followed Danny Amendola since college, when he followed Welker at Texas Tech. Welker is 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds; Amendola is an inch taller and a couple of pounds heavier.
Both men were receivers, both were shunned in the NFL draft. When Welker left for Denver in the offseason, it seemed only natural that his replacement would be Amendola, who no doubt is getting tired of the countless comparisons.
"Not really," Amendola said after a Patriots practice last month. "Wes is a great player. I don't really think too much about it. He has nothing to do with how I play. I've been watching him play for 10, 15 years now, so that's it."
Welker led the league in receptions in three seasons -- 2007, 2009 and 2011. In two of those years, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl. But in New England, anyone, with the exception of maybe Brady, is replaceable. When Welker and the Patriots couldn't agree to a contract last spring, they signed Amendola just hours after Welker signed with Denver.
While the Ravens, Bears and Rams held off on reassigning the numbers of their exiting stars this year, New England spared the sentimentality. It assigned No. 83 to a receiver who wound up failing to make the 53-man roster.
Like Welker did, Amendola has quickly connected with Brady. The quarterback has raved about Amendola's work ethic and enthusiasm. And Amendola has already taken cues from his coach, Bill Belichick, exuding team-first quotes.
"Our whole room is doing a good job of trying to fulfill the role they have," he said. "I surround myself with a lot of positive influences. Don't worry about the things you can't control, and work as hard as you can every day. That's it."
The Ravens were jawing at each other from opposite sidelines during a training camp practice, and it was a great sign. Suggs, uber-conscious of the gap in leadership left by Lewis' retirement, has made a point to raise his voice even higher.
On a hot August day, he chanted "We fight!" to the defense, and quarterback Joe Flacco thought that was funny. "What are you, a little league softball team?" he yelled back. They exchanged friendly verbal jabs, with Suggs inevitably making a comment about Flacco's gigantic new contract. The players, and even the fans in the stands, laughed.
This is their way of moving on without Lewis. As Lewis got older and a step slower, it wasn't necessarily his play on the field that made him so valuable.
"Ray empowered everybody to play above what they normally would play," said Matt Stover, a longtime Ravens kicker who retired in 2011. "And he did that with his passion. So now that legacy is being passed down."
The shift in leadership really started months ago, in the drive to the Super Bowl, when others, most notably Flacco, took charge. Stover, who along with Lewis was one of the original Ravens back in 1996, could feel it when he visited the team facility recently. Suggs was different, Flacco was different, and so was Ray Rice. But the chemistry seemed the same.
The defense has gone through significant change, but some offseason moves might actually make the Ravens better on that side of the ball than they were in 2012. They added linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who came from Denver after a fax-machine snafu in the offseason, and Arthur Brown, a rookie linebacker from Kansas State. They added Smith, who has fit seamlessly in three short months, already taking charge.
"He gets everybody lined up out there," cornerback Corey Graham said. "He's a ballplayer. We're fortunate to have him."
With a lesser supporting cast, the Jaguars, according to ESPN Stats and Information, allowed 4.9 yards a play with Smith on the field from 2011 to 2012. The Ravens allowed 5.0 yards a play in that same span with Lewis on the field.
Without Smith, the Jaguars allowed an average of 5.7 yards per play.
No, he's not Ray Lewis. He's a quiet man with an ordinary name. The most animated Smith gets, generally, is when he flexes his muscles after a big play. He does not give fiery speeches. He is not like an Uncle to his teammates.
For years, the Jaguars called him "Buck," though a couple of people in the organization, when pressed, didn't exactly know why.
"He's not going to do a pregame dance, either," Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "When it comes to that grand personality that Ray Lewis had ... that's not what Daryl is all about."
That's fine with the Ravens. They'll have Suggs and Flacco. They'll call Lewis if they ever need some extra inspiration. Maybe they won't need to call him at all.
"Change is inevitable," Stover said. "It's a changing league. The issue is that Ray didn't leave the team in shambles."