Football is a young man's game, and in an industry where the average career lasts a little more than three years, the percentage of NFL players who make it past age 30 is low. The number of players past that age who are cut loose by their teams only to have bounce-back seasons elsewhere? That's an even smaller number. Here are three veterans who came into the 2014 season looking to prove a point to their former teams about the durations of their careers -- and have done just that through four weeks of action.
Baltimore Ravens WR Steve Smith
Steve Smith has always played angry. When he was at Santa Monica College, he played angry. When he was at Utah, he played angry. And when he caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns over 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, he played angry. At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Smith has always played with an intense, physical style that makes him look (and play) bigger than he is. After the Panthers let him go this past offseason following one of his worst seasons as a pro, the Ravens picked him up with a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3.5 million guaranteed. When asked at the time about the possibility of a homecoming should the Ravens play the Panthers in the 2014 season, Smith went off, promising that there would be "blood and guts" at Bank of America Stadium.
That didn't quite happen -- the schedule ultimately sent the Panthers to Baltimore this year -- but Smith did a rather nice job of slicing and dicing Carolina's defense on Sunday, catching seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns against his former team. After the game, Smith referred to his performance as "a coaching session" for the Panthers. "They’re going to be coaching. I’m 35 years old, and I ran around them boys like they were school-yard kids."
Little doubt about that. What's more encouraging for the Ravens is that Smith has been running around like that all year, and his new team has been letting him do that as the "X" (primary isolated) receiver on a high number of plays. While Brandon LaFell was Carolina's primary slot receiver in 2013, Smith caught 15.5 percent of his passes there last season. The Ravens have used Smith in the slot on just 8.3 percent of his snaps. It may seem like a minor difference in an era in which primary receivers like Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson and Larry Fitzgerald can line up in the slot on 40-50 percent of their patterns, but it does indicate a change in the way Smith is being used. Only Arizona's Michael Floyd and Atlanta's Julio Jones have more receiving yards than the 163 Smith has totaled on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air. Smith's caught four such passes this season on eight targets, taking two in for touchdowns. That's the same number of deep catches he had all season in 2013 -- on only 13 targets for the entire campaign.
So, it's clear that the Ravens value Smith in a different way. How is he repaying that high regard?
Smith's 61-yard touchdown reception with 13:21 left in the first half of the Panthers game was impressive as a highlight because he hauled in the ball on a tip drill from tight end Owen Daniels, but when you review the tape, Smith's dominance of cornerback Melvin White (who was left covering Smith one-on-one on the boundary due to a blitz on that side) and safety Thomas DeCoud (who came over to help tackle Smith from his overhead perch) made this play work. Smith got separation from White after he released in his out-and-up and had five yards of cushion in a big hurry. When DeCoud tried to take an angle to stop the play, Smith turned back inside and blew right by him. Not that White and DeCoud are burners, but wasn't Smith supposed to have lost this field speed? It appears he's still got a bit in reserve.
Watch Smith on a play-to-play basis, and you see just about everything a great receiver needs to succeed. He sinks into zones perfectly. His route awareness is excellent. When Joe Flacco has to scramble, Smith does a fine job of keeping himself open and adjusting to his quarterback's movement. And yes, he still has the burst to beat defenders in straight-up footraces. After four games with an entirely new offense, Smith seems to have mastered the concepts he's been handed. Don't call it a comeback; he's been here for years ... but, yeah: This is a very impressive comeback.
One thing's for sure -- whatever the issues were with Smith and the Panthers, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano -- whose defense will face Smith on Sunday -- isn't underestimating him at all.
"Steve is a game-wrecker," Pagano said Wednesday. "He’s a competitive, competitive guy, and he’s playing at a high level. He loves to play the game. That’s why he has an organization or team and everybody that’s going to face him [showing] such great respect for him, because he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
San Francisco 49ers SS Antoine Bethea
Sometimes, you try to keep a guy you need, and it just doesn't work out. That's what the Colts faced this offseason, when they tried to make the re-signing of safety Antoine Bethea a priority but were outbid by the 49ers, who needed to replace Donte Whitner. San Francisco brought in the eight-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler with a four-year, $21 million contract and made him a major part of its defense right away.
Though Bethea had been a model of consistency in recent years -- he hasn't missed a game since 2007, and he's had at least 70 solo tackles each season since 2008 -- his overall game had seemed to slip a bit, especially in coverage. In 2013, he allowed 22 catches on 33 targets for 320 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Based on the tape, Bethea appeared to be in the same spot many defensive backs on the wrong side of 30 find themselves: losing his field speed and banking on his game intelligence to make up for that deficit in the short term.
What a difference a year makes. Bethea is coming off a performance against the Eagles in San Francisco's 26-21 win last Sunday that nabbed him the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award, but he's been a revelation all season in Vic Fangio's defense. This season, he's allowed eight catches on 12 targets for 94 yards, no touchdowns and one pick, while fellow safety Eric Reid has given up three touchdowns on just 11 targets.
Against the Eagles, he forced a fumble, picked off quarterback Nick Foles, killed a late-game third-down play with a great blitz and made one of a series of amazing goal-line tackles this season when he stopped LeSean McCoy at the San Francisco one-yard line to kill a possible score on that same drive. It was Bethea's 100th consecutive NFL start, and he was working all day on a bum ankle that limited him in practice.
"It was important to me, man," Bethea said after the game, about that 100th straight start. "That’s something I hold close, dear to my heart. Just being reliable, being able to have my coaches and teammates to rely on me week-in and week-out. That’s something I’ve really held onto in my career so far."
What Bethea can also hold onto is a season in which he's playing as well as any range safety in the game -- and in every possible role asked of him.
The Foles pick was a bit of an easy one -- Foles was hit as he threw a deep pass to Jeremy Maclin, which left Bethea and cornerback Perrish Cox to compete for the duck. The aforementioned blitz forced another errant throw with the Eagles trying to drive for the win in the late fourth quarter.
But it was the tackle of McCoy that seemed to define Bethea's impact on the game and on the 49ers' season. The Eagles had the ball on the 49ers' six-yard line with 2:43 left in the game. At the snap, Patrick Willis cheated to the inside, thinking that McCoy was going to cut there, but Chip Kelly had another idea. He knew that his inside protection had been cut down by injuries, so he was going to try sweeping it outside and hoping that the outside blocking would allow a touchdown. And it would have, but for Bethea's crafty instincts and insane field speed. He took off like a shot and stopped McCoy at the one-yard line.
Two Foles incompletions later, the crisis was averted, and the 49ers walked out of their new stadium with a crucial win.
“I don’t know if anyone noticed or not, but AB came up and made a tackle that was unbelievable," Willis said after the game. "I told him that was one of the best plays I’ve seen in a while. It was just a heck of a play. I saw one thing inside, but they kept it outside. AB just made a heck of a play. The guys did a great job in coverage. Like I said, it was just a great overall team defensive stand.”
No doubt, and Bethea was the point man all the way.
Oakland Raiders LT Donald Penn
Give Donald Penn credit for this: When he talked about his disastrous 2013 season as the Buccaneers' left tackle, he blamed nobody but himself. When I caught up with him in July at Travelle Gaines' gym in Los Angeles, he was working his ass off (quite literally), putting in workouts two and three times a day to try and erase the memory of a 2013 campaign for the Bucs in which he gave up 12 sacks, six quarterback hits and 28 hurries. It was the end of the disastrous Greg Schiano era in Tampa Bay, left guard Carl Nicks was lost for the season to a staph infection, and the offense Penn was in was a walking nightmare. Still, Penn was more than willing to point the finger at himself.
"I feel like I was worrying about a lot of stuff instead of worrying about me -- taking care of my game and Donald Penn," he said. "That could be why my play did go down a little last year, but at the end of the day, I have to worry about me, and doing everything I can to help our team succeed. Last year, I was worried about where this guy was, and what this guy was doing, and it trickled down on the way I played. But I can't do that anymore. Because if I'm at my best, and I'm the best Donald Penn out there, we're going to succeed."
If Penn was to succeed, it would be with the Raiders, who signed him to a two-year, $9.6 million contract with $4.6 million in 2014 and no guaranteed money in 2015. Clearly, the 31-year-old Penn had been given one more shot to get it together in the league, and if things didn't work out with the Raiders, he might be done. Through four games this season, he's been an entirely different player, giving up just one sack and seven hurries, and teaming with rookie left guard Gabe Jackson to form a formidable left side that is often overshadowed by the franchise's general malaise.
Penn's best 2014 game to date most likely came in Oakland's 16-9 Week 3 loss to the Patriots. In that game, Penn went up against defensive end Chandler Jones snap after snap, and he reduced the usually powerful Jones to a relative non-factor. Jones has 2.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries this season, but he was barely able to make a dent against Penn, grabbing just one hurry in 60 defensive plays. This was an example of Penn using his size (6-4, 340) to his advantage, as well as excellent technique, and Jones was stumped as to how to deal with him.
Perhaps the most obvious -- and hilarious -- example of this came with 5:40 left in the fourth quarter. As Derek Carr tried in vain to hit Denarius Moore on a deep pass, Penn took Jones from a wide stance with a perfect kick-step. When Jones tried an inside spin, Penn carried him all the way through, refusing to allow any penetration. And as Carr threw the ball, Penn ended the argument by throwing Jones to the ground as if he were a five-pound bag of flour.
That's some old-man strength against a 6-5, 265-pound pass-rusher who's probably Bill Belichick's best defensive player right now.
Penn is not the traditional left tackle you'd want as a pure pass protector -- he's more a power guy than someone who relies on pure technique. And like most larger tackles, he can be beaten with quick inside moves or a better "dip-and-rip" outside rusher. And there will be questions about his ability to hold this level of consistency through the entire season; Penn gave up nine of his 12 sacks from Weeks 12 through 17 in 2013. But the Raiders needed a veteran who could bring power to their line after letting Jared Veldheer go in free agency and failing miserably in an attempt to bring Rams lineman Rodger Saffold onto the roster. Penn may have looked like a last-ditch try at the time, but this is one Oakland gamble that is clearly paying off.