BETHLEHEM, Pa. – L.J. Smith imagines the day when women will swoon when he really learns to play.
We're talking about mastering the acoustic guitar, Smith's hobby.
"To me, that's the first step. I'm just a fan of the acoustic guitar, like when guys serenade girls," said Smith, who's taking lessons from a friend and intends to build a small studio in the home he's planning to buy next year. "I just always used to think that was the coolest thing. Piano is cool, but it's very hard, so I thought this would be the easiest way to learn how to play an instrument at my age."
In some ways, the idea of mastering a musical instrument well enough to woo a woman could apply to his work as Philadelphia Eagles tight end. Smith, 28, is pretty good, but he remains a step away from greatness.
AccuScore on the Eagles
In terms of average margin of victory the Eagles, were an impressive +2.2 per game which is a good figure for an 8-8 team. If not for two lost fumbles on returns in Week 1 vs the Packers, the Eagles could have found themselves in the playoffs. AccuScore expects the team to improve by one game in 2008 to 9-7. The Eagles acquired Asante Samuel to help boost an oft-injured secondary and they have an easier schedule. In 2007, they played just two games against teams that did not win at least seven games. This year, they have four teams that won under seven in 2007 and just six games against playoff teams.
Except for the seasons in which they had Terrell Owens, the Eagles have lacked a big-play No. 1 receiver. There was talk that they briefly flirted with going after Randy Moss this offseason. Out of curiosity, AccuScore wanted to see how much Randy Moss would have helped the Eagles. AccuScore simulations with Moss have the Eagles scoring two more points per game and winning an average of 9.8 games per simulation. The Eagles would be in a dead-heat with Dallas as leaders of the NFC East with Moss. Their chances of winning the division increase from 15.7 percent to 36.5 percent.
Projected Record: 9-7
Playoff Probability: 46.7%
"I feel like I'm kind of like in a limbo mode right now," said Smith, entering his sixth season. "People look at me and people say, 'Has the ability, has the ability.' People are waiting for me to take that leap into elite status and I feel like I can do it.
"I have all the confidence that I can do it. I'm not there. I'm not mentioned in the same sentence with guys like that, but this year is going to provide me with an opportunity to be there."
Smith has plenty incentive to make the magical leap this year. Despite missing six games last season because of injuries, he's playing on a one-year contract after being designated Philadelphia's franchise player this offseason.
"This is an opportunity I have dreamed about and it's something where you would like to press fast forward and see the end of the season and see what happens," said Smith, Philly's second-round pick in the 2003 NFL draft. "But because anything can happen in this game, injuries, blah, blah, blah, you try not to think about it because the more you think the more cautious you get. You're thinking about Week 4 or Week 9. But I do think about it. I know it's a huge year. Everybody tells me about that and I definitely welcome the whole challenge, the opportunity to put myself up there. Put all this talent and promise together. But it's also kind of nerve racking."
The synopsis of this story is that Smith has the talent to be among the great tight ends of the NFL, right there with the likes of Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten. Moreover, the Eagles are the perfect setting for him or, for that matter, any tight end. The Philadelphia offense, which is a version of the West Coast offense, is tailored for tight ends, particularly when it comes to the red zone. That was evidenced during Tuesday's red zone practice at training camp.
Of the approximately 25 plays that were run inside the 20-yard line, more than half featured the tight end as the primary target, be it Smith, Matt Schobel or Kris Wilson. The three combined for seven touchdowns, including three by Smith. As Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg summed it up succinctly, "The tight end is very important for us all over the field, but especially in the red zone."
When Mornhinweg and Eagles head coach Andy Reid were assistants together in Green Bay, helping the Packers win the Super Bowl in the 1996 season, they turned tight ends such as Mark Chmura into standouts and leaned heavily on star backups such as Keith Jackson.
The reliance on the tight end was also proven last year by the inverse results. The Eagles were sixth in the league in total offense, averaging a stout 358 yards per game. But they ranked 17th in points scored because their red-zone efficiency ranked in the bottom third of the league (No. 24 overall). Smith's missed time and limited effectiveness in games because of injuries factors into the chasm between yards gained and points produced. It also contributed to the Eagles going 8-8 and finishing last in the rugged NFC East.
"We did a great job of getting to the red zone, but we just have to capitalize," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said earlier during camp. "I think it's important that we be able to spread it around, get (Brian) Westbrook involved, get (Lorenzo) Booker involved, get the tight ends more involved in the red zone because now you have linebackers and safeties playing on tight ends and that's creating a mismatch for us."
The bottom line is that the Eagles need Smith, who missed a few days of camp with a calf strain, if the offense is going to operate the way some of the funky grooves roll through Smith's mind. While he's still a novice at the whole music production concept, Smith knows his sound. More importantly, he knows the effect it has on him.
"I'm not really interested in the business. I'm more interested in the structure of music. I'm a big rap fan, but a lot of times I don't even listen to the words. I'm listening to the beat behind it, the structure of the music," said Smith, who often plays James Brown's "Doing It To Death" as he gets ready to play. The song is classic funk with Brown basically freestyling his way over the top of a stripped down beat.
The song toes the line between the calm needed for Smith to play on offense and the energy required to play a game as violent as football.
Or as Brown sings: "In order for me to get down, I gotta get in deep."
"I say that if I had a highlight film, that would be the song in the background. I always picture myself making plays to that," Smith said. "Offensive guys are a little more calm than defensive guys just because they have to get to a spot and react to the ball. That's what they're doing. When I played defense in high school and made tackles, I was always a lot more rowdy, a lot more energetic.
"On offense, there's a lot more things I have to think about. First, I got to think about the cadence, the play, what the defense is giving me. I have so many things to think about, I can't be going on emotion all the time. But you have to kind of find that line of having energy for the game, being excited and having that energy be high, but also not letting it get too high because you don't want your emotions to take control. Especially on offense because you'll forget the cadence and jump offsides."
Be it football or wooing women, there's no room for being jumpy or anxious. Smith knows that all too well as he tries to take the next step in his career.