If Eric Smith had accepted the status quo, he’d be going to Super Bowl LIII as a member of the New England Patriots’ practice squad — a rare chance to have an up-close view of perhaps another chapter in a sports dynasty. He’d be heading home, too, because he grew up in the Atlanta area.
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“Everything would’ve lined up perfectly,” Smith said last week in a phone interview.
Instead of a fabulous homecoming, the big offensive tackle will be watching the game from his apartment in South Florida. With two weeks left in the regular season, Smith voluntarily left the Patriots to join the New York Jets’ 53-man roster. He went from a first-place, playoff-bound team to a last-place team on the verge of firing its coach.
Who does that?
Smith knows how that decision might be perceived, but he has no regrets. He loved his time in New England, but he believed the best opportunity for long-term growth was with the Jets. There also was a slight bump in pay. He made $65,000 from the Jets for the final two weeks; he would’ve made $40,000 on the Patriots’ practice squad. Yes, he has missed out on the trappings of a postseason run, but he says he’s cool with that.
“I know how they approach every game, so I had no doubt they’d make it to the level they’re going to now — the Super Bowl,” Smith said. “I knew all of that could be a possibility. As a young guy, it would’ve been easy to just say, ‘Oh, I’m around Tom Brady every day … [Rob] Gronkowski … all those great players.’ All of that stuff was great, you know what I’m saying? It was a hard decision to leave those guys.
“The day I left, I shook everybody’s hand before the team meeting that day,” he continued. “It was hard, knowing I’d be done in two weeks and knowing what I’d be giving up with the Patriots, just being part of that dynasty they have going on. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m happy with it.”
Smith is an outlier in that he chose to leave the Patriots; it’s not like he was sent packing. That should make him popular in New York. He probably deserves a billboard on the New Jersey Turnpike.
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The Jets were persistent. They tried to sign Smith to their practice squad at the end of the preseason, when he was cut by the Miami Dolphins. (He wound up with the Patriots.) They made another run at him around Week 11. When starting right tackle Brandon Shell went on injured reserve in Week 16, the Jets offered a place on the 53-man roster and a two-year contract (non-guaranteed).
“I’ve always been a believer in that third time is the charm,” Smith said.
The Jets have only two tackles under contract: Shell and left tackle Kelvin Beachum, both of whom will be free agents after the 2019 season. Smith will have a chance to compete for the swing-tackle job. In New England, it would’ve been a tougher climb up the depth chart. Even though left tackle Trent Brown will be a free agent, the Patriots still have Marcus Cannon and first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who will return from injury in 2019. Their interior is rock solid with David Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, as Smith noted.
Smith misses his former linemates and his coaches, the legendary Dante Scarnecchia and assistant Cole Popovich, but he had to make a business decision.
“I don’t regret it,” he said. “On my end, I felt it was a positive thing. The Jets are a young team with a young vibe, new coaches and new players coming in. They’re trying to build and I can make a name for myself.”
Smith will be reunited with new Jets coach Adam Gase, whom he described as a “really chill dude.” But he admittedly didn’t know Gase that well during his time in Miami, as he spent most of the 2017 season on injured reserve. A rookie free agent on IR is on the “back of the back burner,” Smith said. He has a much better feel for the Patriots. After all, he practiced on their scout team for 15 weeks. Peeling back the famous iron curtain that protects the Patriots’ bunker, he described what fueled them this season.
“Being part of the team all year, I heard the naysayers and everybody saying, ‘This is not your year. You’re not performing, blah, blah, blah.’ Me being on the inside and seeing how they avoid all the naysayers and all the negativity, it was really inspiring.
“We ignored everything people had to say, whether it was positive or negative. Coach [Bill] Belichick, he stood in front of us in all those team meetings and he said, ‘Forget the media, forget what everybody has to say. They aren’t here with us, they aren’t working with us and we’re going to continue to do what we do.’ Everybody said it’s not our year, and they’re heading back to the Super Bowl.”
Minus a 6-foot-4, 308-pound lineman who will be rooting for them, one last time.