Washington Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs rummaged through his locker after yesterday's practice to change into his dress clothes. Cornerback Fred Smoot was at the other end of the room, making characteristically loud remarks that generated laughter among teammates.
The 5-foot-11, 174-pound Smoot and 6-0, 204-pound Springs have been a terrific tandem this season, rarely giving up touchdowns for Washington's top-ranked defense. Against the Cincinnati Bengals tomorrow, Washington's secondary faces Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson, who has a rare mix of size, speed and chutzpah -- the 6-1, 192-pound wideout last month sent boxes of Pepto-Bismol to the defensive backs of the Cleveland Browns, an upcoming opponent.
"I'm looking for it. I didn't get mine," said Springs dryly, feigning a search through his stall. "I'm going to be disappointed. I didn't get my box."
Smoot wasn't as light-hearted: "He knows better than to send me some Pepto-Bismol. I ain't the one for that."
Springs and Smoot, who added that they respect Johnson, haven't needed to be the subjects of such antics to feel slighted. When perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey was traded for star tailback Clinton Portis in the offseason, Washington's cornerbacks faced incessant queries about their abilities. Smoot, 24, was viewed as the classic No. 2 cornerback who would be exposed if forced to regularly defend premier wideouts. Springs, 29, was tagged as a former shutdown cornerback injured too often to regain the status he had achieved with Seattle.
However, the duo have answered critics by allowing only three touchdowns to receivers this season as part of a pass defense ranked fifth in the NFL. No wideout has caught more than one touchdown in a game against Washington.
"Knock on wood," Redskins defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker said yesterday.
Smoot, who has noticeably improved his technique this season, has intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles. He has played with shoulder injuries. Springs has produced three sacks, three interceptions, 40 tackles and zero missed games from injury. The Redskins' blitz-heavy defense has been successful because of the ability of the cornerbacks to play one-on-one coverage. And the pair have displayed the versatility assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams requires from cornerbacks: blitzing, defending the run and playing the zone.
The caveat in their performances is that the best wideouts are still to come. After tomorrow, in consecutive weeks, Springs and Smoot face Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Amani Toomer of the New York Giants and Owens again. After games against the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, Washington concludes the regular season against the Minnesota Vikings. Washington's passing defense needs to improve on allowing big plays: 18 receptions have been for 20 yards or more; nine for 33 yards or more.
Thus, Springs and Smoot will leave sweeping statements about redemption until after the season. "We have a whole half of a year to go," Smoot said, echoing Springs, "and we're going to try to prove them [the prognosticators] wrong every time we go out there."
The latest test comes against Johnson, who made the Pro Bowl last season after catching 90 passes for 1,355 yards and 10 touchdowns. With Peter Warrick on the injured reserve, Cincinnati's passing attack will rely on Johnson, who often backs up his gaudy statistics -- 44 catches for 624 yards plus two scores this season -- with bold actions off the field.
Johnson sent packets of Pepto-Bismol to the Browns' training facility days before an Oct. 17 game against Cincinnati's AFC North rival. Johnson's message to Cleveland's secondary was that it would need the antacid relief after trying to cover him. But Johnson's antics backfired when he finished the game with season-lows in catches (three) and receiving yards (37). Johnson, known for post-touchdown celebrations, has since streamlined the shenanigans.
"I'm used to him; Chad knows me," said Smoot who became friends with the receiver after they met at the Senior Bowl before both were selected in the second round of the 2001 draft. "There ain't nothing he can do to shock me."
After the Cleveland game, Johnson shocked people unfamiliar with him with a virtuoso performance against the Denver Broncos and Bailey the next week. Johnson caught seven passes for 149 yards, including a long of 53 yards, to lead the Bengals to a 23-10 victory. Over the past three games, Johnson has caught 21 passes for 290 yards.
Before the regular season, Springs diplomatically predicted that defenses will select Washington's No. 1 cornerback by avoiding him. In that case, Springs has earned the distinction because he has flourished the few times he has been tested.
Although Walker confirmed that offenses haven't thrown as often against Springs, the Redskins coach played down the distinction. Walker added that the success between the cornerbacks comes partly because of their esprit de corps.
"They've really become good friends, which is what we were hoping for," Walker said. "It's real nice to see those guys talking and joking and having fun with each other. And I think that has a lot to do with them playing well. You can tell they take it personal in wanting to establish themselves as one of the best pairs in the league."