By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
Fred Smoot's distinctive voice -- a rapid Southern accent laced with quirky slang -- used to echo above all others through the fields and halls of Redskins Park. During his first stint with Washington from 2001 through 2004, Smoot was a verbose, happy-go-lucky character who charmed coaches and teammates with his gift of gab and perpetual smile.
But in two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Smoot said he was a different person. The Mississippi native foundered in the snowy locale, derailing his career with his role in the infamous sex boat incident involving several Vikings during the 2005 season, suffering repeated injuries and surrendering his starting status. Personally, the cornerback suffered too, losing a half brother in a car accident last season and longing to be back in more comfortable surroundings.
Smoot's heart yearned for a homecoming; the Redskins longed for an upgrade in their secondary.
That mutual desire brought the sides back in contact in March -- the Vikings released him rather than pay his hefty contract -- and after settling on a $7 million signing bonus, Smoot came home again. How long this relationship lasts remains to be seen. Smoot's play has lagged since leaving, he has struggled to stay healthy and must reestablish himself as a starting-caliber cornerback (he entered camp behind Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers on the depth chart).
Smoot, 28, talks as if a long-term, amicable reunion with the Redskins is fait accompli, fawning over the organization, asserting his rebirth, praising coaches and reiterating how foolish he was to have left in the first place.
It all sounds good, and when Smoot turns on the charm -- his rhetoric falling somewhere between a gifted preacher and a used-car salesman -- it's hard not to fall prey. But spinning yarns, telling stories and boasting about his ability always has come naturally. Proving he is not damaged goods will be a more profound chore.
"I just wasn't into it," Smoot said of his two years in Minnesota. "I hated the place. I was in a depression, believe that? Smiling Fred Smoot goes through a depression?
"But it happened, man, it happened. I was down, and that's why I made this happen. I went to [Minnesota's] front office and told them: 'I don't want to be there no more. We need to work something out.' And we made it happen. I got out of there, and now smiling Fred Smoot is back."
In reality, the transaction was not quite so one-sided. Smoot's stock had plummeted with the Vikings less than 24 months after getting an $11 million signing bonus as a free agent.
Smoot, picked 45th overall by Washington in 2001, was implicated as a central figure in the sex boat scandal, during which he and other players were alleged to have engaged in explicit contact with strippers while taking a team cruise on a public lake. Smoot pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, was ordered to do community service and paid an $82,352 fine mandated by the NFL.
A broken collarbone sidetracked his 2005 season, and he missed the end of last season after breaking his jaw in five places in a car accident.
Last November, Smoot also was inactive for a game after missing a week of practice to return home to Mississippi when his half brother, Matthew Taylor, 20, died in a car accident. Smoot's half brother, Mark Taylor, then 18, was in the car at the time but recovered.
"People make a big deal about a lot of other stuff that happened but don't make a big deal out of that," Smoot said. "It happened right after the San Fran game [Nov. 5]. I'm walking out of the game, and I get the call and fly out to Mississippi and end up missing a game for that. And then after that I didn't start no more."
Smoot's play and role had been waning all season -- he intercepted three passes in two seasons in Minnesota -- but he is being counted on to help lift a defense that ranked 31st in the league last season and was deficient at producing sacks and turnovers. Smoot had 16 interceptions in four seasons with the Redskins.
Because Rogers, the ninth overall pick of the 2005 draft, regressed last year, Smoot's presence will push the youngster and provide a serviceable alternative as the No. 2 cornerback if need be. Washington signed free agent cornerbacks David Macklin and Jerametrius Butler this offseason as well and expects to greatly improve its downfield defense.
"It's a competition out there and a challenge every week," Rogers said. "There's not only a challenge between receivers, but a challenge against [cornerbacks] as well. This is something we're looking for and need if we are going to be a number one defense, and rise from the defense we were last year."
Smoot has claimed to have matured since his departure. His trials on and off the field have helped him grow, he said.
"I would hope so," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "I think we all learn from all of those kinds of things, but the thing I see the most is that he feels at home. He's comfortable around us."
The sex boat scandal tarnished Smoot's reputation, and though the veteran is loath to continue discussing it, he maintains publicly that "nothing happened" on the cruise, despite the charges. Smoot said there was no contact with women on the boat -- there was abundant testimony from boat employees to the contrary -- and the fame and riches of the players involved led to the incident being overblown.
"If it was deeper than that, believe me, they would have got down to the nitty-gritty," Smoot said. "So I'm just going to let you rely on the facts, and the facts [are] that we got a disturbing the peace [charge], and that's it. I just think they blew stuff out of proportion."
When asked specifically if he truly believed nothing illicit happened on the boat, and that the Vikings were targeted because of what they do for a living, Smoot said: "That's an everyday cliche for athletes, so I'm not going to use that and say that's the only reason. But it happened, and I moved on, and what don't kill me makes me stronger. So I'm back where I want to be, and I'm happy now."
Steven Tallen, who prosecuted the case, disputed Smoot's claims about the degree of contact between players and women. Tallen pointed to multiple witnesses who reported Smoot used a sexual device on two women at the same time, among other allegations.
Tallen said the incident created significant financial hardship for Al & Alma's, the company whose boat was used for the event, and that the young crew members on board were shocked and embarrassed by what they saw and testified under duress, not wanting to discuss the incident.
"These were all a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids working on summer jobs," Tallen said, "and some of them were children of people who owned the company Al & Alma's, a company that's been around for about 50 years, and there was no reason to believe someone just decided, 'Hey, let's make up a story.' Because none of the kids were eager to be witnesses, and from what I have heard, the incident pretty much wiped out their business for a while, and the entire thing grossed out a lot of people. There was no reason to disbelieve the witnesses. We had to subpoena them all. They were not eager to discuss this.
"And in the end, many of those players assumed guilt. Smoot pled guilty to disturbing [the peace], and that covers a wide range of things. If you say you were disorderly, you don't have to say you were doing things to two women with a [sexual device]. So if he wants to be indignant about it, then it deserves some scrutiny. If he wants to rewrite history, I can't blame him for wishing it would go away. But it would be smart to keep your mouth shut, and maybe it would go away."
Redskins team officials have said the scope of the allegations against Smoot did not deter their pursuit. He was an immediate target, with management confident in their assessment of Smoot's character. In the end, it was a football decision -- a business move -- and with Williams and his staff retooling their defense, Smoot made sense.
The Redskins are minimizing the cover-2 shell this season and using far more man-to-man defenses. Smoot had difficulty adjusting to Minnesota's cover-2 tendencies but relishes locking in on one wide receiver. That will be his chore now, jamming opponents and being stout against the run.
"He is awful proud of that one bench-press rep he got at the [draft] combine," Williams joked. "He says he's paid to cover, not to lift weights, and sometimes in cover-2 you want a little more of those physical corners. He is more than physical enough to play the cover-2 system, but he thrives in what we like to do, and that's the go get 'em, man-to-man out there, fire zones out there, one-on-one. He likes the challenge of being out there one-on-one."
Being able to perform back at FedEx Field, where Smoot enjoyed the best years of his professional life, is a refreshing concept as well. He always was a crowd favorite, with his trash-talking and animated antics. Chants of "Smoooot" often rang out on game days.
The fans in Minnesota never took to him in that manner -- not that Smoot provided much impetus during his brief time there -- and getting away from the Metrodome is one more circumstance for which the veteran is thankful.
"I didn't get along with the people there. I didn't get along with a lot of stuff there," Smoot said. "And when a player's not happy he's not going to perform up to his ability. Everybody knows that. It's proven in free agency every year. Great players go someplace, don't like it, and go someplace else and get right back at it."
Redskins Notes: Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd missed practice with shin splints and probably won't play in the Redskins' preseason game at the Titans tomorrow. . . . Wide receiver James Thrash was limited in practice with a groin injury, but Coach Joe Gibbs said it's not believed to be a major problem. . . . Running back Clinton Portis said there is no timetable for when he could be back at practice, and though his sore knee is responding well to treatment, he does not know much on-field work he would be able to take next week. Gibbs said Portis is doing well and will travel with the team to Tennessee, where he will be examined by orthopedist James Andrews.