Jets' Smith puts head injuries, uncertainty behind
Eric Smith thought he was just being clumsy when he reached into the back of his refrigerator and knocked over a few things. The New York Jets safety then pulled his arm back and rattled some jars and bottles again. Smith's concussed brain was telling him it was more than just him lacking grace. "My memory was fine," Smith recalled Friday. "I could learn the game plan for the week and remember it just fine, but it turned out my motor skills were being affected. I went and got a second opinion and they found out my hand-eye coordination was messed up." Smith was experiencing the effects of the first of at least two concussions he suffered last season. "It was a little scary, but once I took time off and sat out, everything came back to normal and was fine," he said. "My main concern was getting back to where I wasn't having any problems and getting back to my old self, not having to worry about me getting concussions over and over." Healthy and having a solid season after winning over coach Rex Ryan in the offseason, Smith will start Sunday against Carolina in place of the demoted Kerry Rhodes. "I'm looking forward to getting out there and I'm excited, as usual," he said. "It'll be nice to get a chance to be out there for a few more plays." Being out on the field at all this year wasn't a certainty, especially early last season. His first concussion came in Week 4, when he plowed into Arizona's Anquan Boldin, sending the receiver to the hospital with a helmet-to-helmet hit for which he was fined and suspended a game. Smith contends it was an unintentional hit that was made worse when Rhodes knocked into Boldin from behind and caused his head to lower into Smith's. After sitting out a game, Smith suffered another concussion at Oakland. He was cleared to play the following week against Kansas City, but took a glancing blow to the head and left the game. He became a frustrated spectator for the next six weeks. "It was tough because I wanted to be out there and play," said Smith, who underwent a battery of tests. "My body felt like I could play, but just not everything was cooperating. When they would say, 'How do you feel?' I would say, 'I've got a headache, but I'm all right.' Then, I'd go out there and I wasn't OK." Smith said players naturally want to always play, no matter the injury, but he's pleased with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's increased emphasis on safety in dealing with concussions. "When you get a concussion or take a hit, there are some times when you don't know what's going on," he said. "You're getting up, looking around and trying to figure things out. This probably helps because it'll save a player from being out there a couple of plays and maybe injuring himself even more." After his own scary moments and periods of serious uncertainty, Smith is ready for his 11th start since being drafted in the third round out of Michigan State in 2006. "He's very smart, has a nose for the ball and he has been a proven starter here," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "Until he was injured, he was a starter then, so we feel comfortable with him." That wasn't always the case, though, for Ryan, who knew little about Smith when he was hired as coach in January. "He came in and was running with the third-string safeties through the minicamps," Ryan said. "When we were going through that first minicamp, I thought that was the right place to put him." Ryan even considered trading Smith, thinking he wouldn't make the team or would be a role player, at best, if he did. "A new coach coming in, they have no ties to anybody, so everybody knew they were going to have to work for their spot," he said. "I definitely thought I was in jeopardy at the start." But he kept opening his coach's eyes by being aggressive, physical and smart. "Let me tell you, it didn't take me long to realize that, and man are we glad we kept him," Ryan said. "You can't wait to find a role for a guy like that." Smith leads the Jets with 15 tackles on special teams, and will continue playing there despite his promotion. He was one of the Jets' few bright spots last Sunday in a loss at New England, when he blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown. Smith also has 18 tackles on defense, an interception and five quarterback hits. "I wouldn't call it redemption," Smith said. "Rex came in and they all had their opinions of people just from watching film. They didn't really get to see how people worked and things like that. I give credit to guys working hard and teaching me the defense, so I can play faster. It just feels pretty good."