OWINGS MILLS, MD – How do you replace a legend?
"You don't," says Daryl Smith, who will line up at Ray Lewis' old Mike linebacker position for the Baltimore Ravens this season. "You can never replace a guy like Ray Lewis. The only thing I can do is focus on what I do."
To much of the NFL, Smith is the anonymous face with the most common of surnames taking the place of one of the game's most flamboyant recent stars. He is the unknown man who must fill the biggest void in the defensive huddle, the quiet player who has to keep the locker room focused. Only the most knowledgeable fans have heard his name.
The irony in Daryl Smith succeeding Ray Lewis is that the most important player in Ravens history is being replaced by a man who was another city's most dependable player for nine seasons. The only thing is nobody knows it.
The leading tackler in Jacksonville Jaguars history has never been to a Pro Bowl. He has never done a big national commercial. He doesn't rise to the top of anybody's superstar list. He is a player who has made his 538 tackles in a vacuum. Outside of Florida's northeastern-most corner, he is an unknown despite numbers that would have made him a giant in almost any other market.
Smith's first real attention comes now at age 31, primarily because of a man who is no longer playing football. However, sitting in an office at the Ravens' practice facility, Smith shrugs.
"That's fine by me," he says of his profile. "I've never been a me-person. This is a team sport. It takes all of us together to have great chemistry. We all have to play well as a group."
At one point he waves his hand dismissively.
"I guess I could have gone to Pro Bowls if we had won more games," he says." I can't go back and change things. I can only take what I've learned there and hope I can be better for this team."
Ray Lewis would never have stood for such anonymity. Like him or not, he was the face of the Ravens for their 17 seasons in Baltimore. He snarled and strutted through player introductions, flinging his hands in the air as flames shot from cannons. He bellowed into the huddles. He boomed around the locker room. There was never a doubt the team and the city belonged to him.
As much as Lewis seemed to need the attention as fuel, Smith appears to like the quiet. He was content in Jacksonville, away from the light that burns in some of the NFL's biggest cities. He was that player who always said yes to charity events, who talked to schools and regularly visited hospitals twice a week. It was not the kind of thing that got much publicity. It was just something he did because he wanted to do it.
Over time he forged an identity in Jacksonville. He was the dependable player, the one who would come to your banquet and demand nothing in return. He was a low-key face in a low-key city. And for nine seasons that was fine with everyone. He learned one defensive system – with the same terminology – and he lived it for almost the whole time he was there.
He had his first big injury last year, hurting his groin in the preseason and never getting it right until it was too late. But even though he was 30, he never figured he would leave. Jacksonville was home. Jacksonville was the only place he had ever played. He saw it as the only place he ever would play.Then on New Year's Eve, the team fired general manager Gene Smith, the man who helped draft Smith in 2004. The new general manager, Dave Caldwell, fired coach first-year Mike Mularkey.
If Smith had been healthy in 2012, maybe he could have gotten a big contract. Instead he became a free agent. He calls the decision to leave "50-50," between he and the team. However, the Jaguars weren't looking to build around players over 30 who had spent the previous year hurt, and a part of Smith wondered what else was out there, what new adventure waited.
The Ravens, in need of help after the abrupt retirement of projected middle linebacker Rolando McClain in May, called a month later and Smith visited on the day before the team went to the White House to celebrate Ray Lewis' last Super Bowl title. Smith walked the hallways of the team facility that afternoon, meeting coaches and officials and the feeling was different than the one he had known for years in Florida. It was more intense. The Ravens expected to win. He knew immediately this is where he wanted to be.
When the team went to Washington, he sat in a hotel near the Ravens' facility feeling both excited and anxious. He didn't think much about replacing Ray Lewis, he was more concerned about joining a defense that had been Baltimore's identity for more than a decade – a defense that had just won a Super Bowl and because of it was off meeting Barack Obama.
"It's going to be that much harder to keep those winning ways," he thought to himself.
Shortly after, he signed a one-year contract with the Ravens. He wanted to try winning he said.
Baltimore needs him. So many players are gone from last year's defense including Lewis and star safety Ed Reed. The team needs a reliable player with a strong but not overwhelming personality. Baltimore will be an offense-first team now. It is building around quarterback Joe Flacco. Outside of linebacker Terrell Suggs, the loudest voices in the locker room are going to come from offensive players.
More than his mouth though, the Ravens need a healthy Smith.
He is fast. Ted Monachino, the Ravens' linebackers coach who coached the defensive line in Jacksonville for a time when Smith played there, told the Baltimore Sun that Smith is as quick now as he was five years ago.
"Ahead of the game – a lot like a linebacker we had here for a long time," Monachino said of Smith to the team's website earlier this month.
Baltimore had to get this signing right, especially after the McClain debacle. General manger Ozzie Newsome needed someone confident enough, experienced enough and good enough for such a task. It had to be someone who wouldn't try to be bigger than the legacy left by the Ravens' biggest star ever.
Maybe now people will notice Daryl Smith. Maybe if the Ravens win and the defense is strong, folks will realize how good he has always been. Maybe he gets that Pro Bowl he should have had a long time ago.
And if so, how strange that will be…
It will take replacing the biggest player in Baltimore's recent history for anyone to understand what Jacksonville had lost.
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