INDIANAPOLIS – It’s a cautionary tale that has played out at many different times in many different ways. But it all comes down to some team falling in love with a workout warrior, that one guy who ends up being the star of a show the NFL stages here every year at this time.
Over-valuing what started happening yesterday at Lucas Oil Field once it comes time to make draft picks starting on April 25 typically is the first fork in the road to Bust City, but the NFL Scouting Combine does provide some opportunities to complete an evaluation of a particular player. Danny Smith is one of those who has to depend on the Combine.
You see, Danny Smith is a special teams coach, has been for 19 of these Combines, and he is the guy Mike Tomlin hired to fix the Steelers’. The Combine gives him an opportunity to see players tested for speed and agility and he gets a chance for some one-on-one face time, both very important to a process where there isn’t much game video of those players doing what you’re going to want them to do and some of the time those very players are going to be dreaming about doing something else.
“To be quite honest with you, I’m very honest with them,” said Smith, who has had previous NFL jobs in Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, and Washington, D.C. “I tell them, ‘When you get into pro football, you have starters on offense, starters on defense and starters on special teams. And if you’re not in one of those groups, you’re in trouble.
“Like if I’m talking to a running back, I tell him honestly, ‘I want you to want to be the starting running back. I want to be the head coach, but it ain’t happening. So I’m taking care of my business coaching special teams and if you take care of your business on special teams … then you have a good life.”
Simply by being hired for this particular job for this particular franchise, Smith becomes the most recent man to be in charge of the most notorious unit in franchise history. And that’s notorious, as in the actual definition of the word.
Examples? The only points scored against the Steelers in Super Bowl IX came off a blocked punt. Chuck Noll went for it on fourth-and-too-much in the final minute-plus of Super Bowl X near midfield with a 21-17 lead because he wasn’t confident his punt team could get the ball off. Noll was the last head coach in the NFL to hire a full-time special teams coach. Soon after he did, in 1988 the team had six punts blocked. Six. The Steelers lost a key division game in Cleveland in 1993 because Eric Metcalf returned TWO punts for touchdowns, and they then were eliminated from the playoffs in Kansas City because they got a punt blocked in the final two minutes to give Joe Montana a chance to send the game into overtime. There’s also the 2001 AFC Championship Game, the four touchdowns on kickoffs allowed in 2009, but enough already. It hurts to keep typing this.
Smith is the most recent, the fourth since Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007, to try to be the exorcist. Among Tomlin’s hires, Smith follows Bob Ligashesky, Al Everest, and Amos Jones. Smith knows what he wants in terms of personnel, and this week gives him an opportunity to see what might be available in the draft or among the undrafted rookies to improve units that in 2012 were highly-penalized, allowed two fake punts to be converted in December, and ended up making more negative plays than positive ones over the course of the season.
“You need at least 6-8 core guys, and this team has a great nucleus for those core guys,” said Smith about the offseason roster he inherits here. “Now I don’t know them well enough to place them at this point, but we have about 12 guys right now who have two years of service or fewer. That’s a great core group to start with. I didn’t call them core special teams players because they haven’t earned that yet. It’s not something that’s just given to you at this level. When you get 6-8 who are core guys who are on everything – kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return – they’re your foundation, your leaders, your tone-setters.”
The reality of special teams in the NFL is that it’s difficult to maintain any consistency of performance year to year, because the pool of players who make up the units – normally the guys toward the bottom of the depth chart – are constantly changing. So during his time here, Smith will be studying the events on the floor of Lucas Oil Field with more of a sense of urgency than his offensive and defensive colleagues.
“You get the actual drill-work from the kickers and the punters, but with the rest of the guys what you see at the Combine is just about their movement and their skill-set, what they can and can’t do,” said Smith. “The movement drills are important. Can you stick your foot in the ground and change direction? How does a guy do that? The times aren’t so important as watching the movement. You can always come back and match up all of those times, but when I’m watching those guys, it’s more about: Can he drop his weight? Can he stick his foot in the ground? Can he change direction?
“You can’t measure their toughness until you get them here in the minicamps and training camp, but it really helps to understand their movement so you can get them placed properly, where they can help us. That way, you’re not doing so much switching positions early and wasting time.”
And not that Smith was napping during the workouts for the offensive linemen on Thursday and Friday, but he does pay particular attention to some obvious positions.
“You watch everybody, but generally, it’s the defensive guys because they do that for a living, that ‘go get somebody.’ There’s more defensive carryover, because you have to teach offensive guys how to tackle, while with the return game, it’s more of an offensive thing. With offensive guys, I keep them after practice and actually teach them how to tackle like you do in high school. You have to go back to fundamentals. If I send a guy down there on the kickoff team who has been a running back in college and runs fast and can avoid people and all those things, if he gets down there and misses the tackle, I take that personal because that’s on me. He hasn’t practiced tackling for a living, and I didn’t teach the kid how.”
During the interview sessions, Smith will try to separate the pragmatists from the dreamers, because it is professional football after all.
“‘I’ll do anything. I’ll do anything. I’ll do anything.’ That’s what they tell you at the Combine,” said Smith, “but when they get here and it’s a Wednesday morning during the season and they’ve had a couple of days off and been out at night. Now, will you do anything? Let’s find out.”
Danny Smith's Coaching Career
Smith was the special teams coordinator for the Washington Redskins (2004-2012) and Buffalo Bills (2001-03), coached tight ends for the Detroit Lions (1999-2000) and he split duties as the defensive backs and special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles (1995-98).
Smith spent eight years (1987-94) as an assistant coach for Georgia Tech, where he coached running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs. He was on the staff for the Yellow Jackets’ 1990 team that was named co-NCAA National Champions.
Smith played defensive back for Edinboro State from 1971-1975. His first collegiate coaching position came as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1976. Smith also was an assistant coach at Clemson University (1979), The College of William & Mary (1980-83) and The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina (1984-86).
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Smith attended Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School. He coached at Central Catholic (1977-78), helping tutor future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino.