Defensive end Bruce Smith said yesterday that enduring a third straight disappointing season with the Washington Redskins has robbed some of the meaning from his pursuit of Reggie White's NFL career sacks record. Smith is only seven sacks behind White but remained noncommittal about whether he will return next year for what would be his 19th NFL season.
"I want to win," Smith said. "Having one without the other, it's a sense of achievement, but it's not satisfactory. I've won the majority of my career, and that's one of the reasons I'm still in the game. Naturally with winning, a lot of other goals can be achieved, whether they be team-oriented or personal. I think they all go hand in hand."
Redskins officials seem uncertain whether Smith, 39, will be in their plans next season. But as his third year with the Redskins after 15 seasons in Buffalo winds down, Smith said there are more pressing issues at hand. Four games remain, beginning Sunday against the New York Giants at FedEx Field, and the Redskins again have been reduced to trying to salvage some of their dignity. Sitting outside the locker room at Redskins Park yesterday, Smith refused to answer questions about his future.
"My mind-set right now is on the New York Giants and going out and playing as hard as I can and letting the cards fall where they may," Smith said.
But club officials are preparing for yet another offseason roster overhaul and, while the most sweeping changes likely will come on offense, there will be some retooling on defense as well. Cornerback Darrell Green is set to retire after 20 seasons, and sources say the club is likely to release defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. The Redskins probably will try to upgrade at safety. And many in the organization wonder whether Smith will retire or finish his Hall of Fame career elsewhere.
He signed with the Redskins prior to the 2000 season to be closer to his home in Virginia Beach and pursue the Super Bowl title that had eluded him in Buffalo. But the Redskins have a record of 21-23 (including 5-7 this season) and haven't reached the playoffs during his stay.
When Smith reworked his contract just before this season, clearing nearly $2.1 million of salary cap space, agent Leigh Steinberg said he expected Smith to play two seasons of the new three-year deal. But Smith never has committed to playing next season. And while it seems unlikely that Smith would retire so close to White's record of 198 career sacks, the Redskins could face an offseason decision about whether Smith fits in on a defense that they would like to make younger. Club officials declined to comment on their views about Smith's future.
Smith said he thinks the Redskins are headed in the right direction, with owner Daniel Snyder having hired Steve Spurrier to put an end to the team's succession of head-coaching changes. But the Redskins don't know if they will lose defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to a head-coaching opportunity in the offseason, and Smith said he can't answer the question of whether the Redskins will become a championship contender soon enough to benefit him.
"I think there's been frustration among us all, right from the coaches to the players and so forth, right to Mr. Snyder," Smith said. "He's doing everything in his power so far as cash flow-wise, in trying to get the best coaching staff here to provide us with the tools to win. One of the most important things, in all fairness to everyone involved, is that now he's hired a coaching staff that's going to be here for a considerable amount of time. That's the only way your offense, your defense, your team in general is going to be able jell and to prosper, and individual players will be able to step up in that particular system when they're able to be around it more than one year. That's what he's trying to achieve right now."
Smith has five sacks this season, two in a loss at Dallas on Thanksgiving day, and said he counts five to seven others he should have had but missed. He has played in every game even after undergoing two arthroscopic knee surgeries last offseason. He said he speaks to White occasionally, adding that the debate about whether he, White or former NFL great Deacon Jones is the greatest pass-rushing defensive lineman ever boils down to a matter of personal opinion with no clear-cut verdict.
"There's no jealousy," Smith said. "Once you get in this category, you're leaps and bounds above the rest. . . . I just thank God that I'm so blessed to still be able to play this game, still playing the way I'm playing, still having fun. My body is still in relatively good shape. One of the things I kind of regret, though, is I wish I could have maybe had a few more years in Marvin's system or I wish I could have stuck with [former Redskins defensive coordinator] Ray Rhodes's system for a few years to where I could actually develop and mature so far as their scheme of defense is concerned. . . . I just wish I was a little younger, and not have had as many surgeries as I've had."