At the end of his fifth NFL season, in his 49th pro game, Musa Smith finally made his first NFL start. And the results for the veteran running back were favorable as he ran for 83 yards and a touchdown, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a 27-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 30.
"It was more like it's about time," Smith, the newest Jet, said today of that start. "It felt good to actually be in that role, get the ball and get into a rhythm of everything. It was great, man."
But just a day after Smith's performance, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti fired head coach Brian Billick and his entire staff.
"Our offensive coordinator, Rick Neuheisel, had already accepted the head coaching position at UCLA, so we thought we were going to get a new offensive coordinator. We came in the next day after the game and the owner and Ozzie Newsome said they had to go in a different direction," Smith said. "We got a new coach and they didn't see me in the plans or whatnot. I think it was one of those things where we had a bad season last year and things needed to change and unfortunately Billick lost his job."
Serving as Willis McGahee's primary backup, Smith compiled personal bests of 264 rushing yards and 27 catches last year. He also contributed on special teams and finished last year healthy for the first time in three seasons.
But the Ravens hired John Harbaugh and Smith remained an unrestricted free agent for months.
"I met the new coach, I met the running backs coach, I met the offensive coordinator and I met the special teams coordinator," Smith said. "I didn't get any word from them. At one point, it seemed like they were interested in me, but they didn't know what to do."
The Jets officially announced the signing of Smith on Tuesday. You can call the Green & White backfield a crowded house now with the likes of veterans Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, Jesse Chatman and Smith. But the 6'0", 232-pound Smith will surely add competition and he has some versatility.
"Musa is a guy that we've looked at and where he brings value and flexibility is on special teams," said Jets head coach Eric Mangini. "He's done a lot on special teams over the course of his career. He's another guy you have some flexibility with, whether you want to play him at running back or whether you want to play him at fullback. And he has added depth to the special teams competition."
To see Smith on the field is a tribute to his dedication. Back in 2004, he broke his leg after being violently horsecollared by Dallas S Roy Williams. That leg injury limited him to just one game in '05 and then he finished the '06 season on IR due to a neck injury. But the 25-year-old Elliottsburg, Pa., native is coming off a season in which he appeared in 16 games for the first time.
"I feel real good. I feel good being out here with the guys and everything," he said after participating in his first Jets OTA practice. "The tempo is a little faster than when it was with Billick in Baltimore but that's good. They have the music playing and it makes you really think and concentrate. It makes you think with all the noise and everything."
When Smith was starring collegiately at Georgia, Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt used to apply similar noise techniques. At UGa, Smith became only the 11th player in school annals to rush for more than 2,000 yards (2,202). He was the Ravens' third-round pick in the 2003 draft.
"I'm physical and quick, a strong power back, but I can do it all," he said when asked to describe his game. "I can pass-block, I can catch the ball, so I'm a mixture of a big back with kind of small feet."
Coming in at this point of the spring as OTAs draw to a close, Smith has set modest goals for himself.
"The first thing is I want to learn the playbook by the time we break and we have to get out of here," he said. "When I come into training camp I want to have a lot of things down pat."
After that first career start, Smith is starting over. While one might look at the Jets' packed backfield and think his chances of making the final 53-man roster appear slim, Mangini reminded those in attendance this morning of his philosophy.
"You're not just competing against the guys at your spot — you're competing against guys at other spots for those last few roster slots," he said.