Sean Smith Not Solely Responsible For Team’s Defensive Deficiencies

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 16: Sean Smith
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 16: Sean Smith /

Sean Smith, the Oakland Raiders’ beleaguered cornerback has struggled since coming to the Bay Area – but it’s still way too early to give up on him just yet.

Beleaguered. That’s probably the best word to describe Sean Smith, the Oakland Raiders erstwhile number one cornerback. They made a big splash last offseason when they poached him from rival Kansas City with a four-year deal that cost them a cool $40 million.

Needless to say though, Oakland hasn’t gotten a lot of return on that investment.

There’s no question that Smith had a rough 2016 campaign for the Silver and Black. But not only is it wholly unfair to put the team’s defensive failures all on his shoulders, it’s also way too early to give up on him.

The voices calling for Smith’s head have been loud and boisterous. There’s a large contingent of fans who, not impressed with his work, want to see the team cut bait and move on already. It doesn’t seem entirely likely that the Raiders will just cut Smith – not when doing so will leave $9.5 million in dead money on the books and save the team virtually nothing.

Simply put, that’s not really how GM Reggie McKenzie rolls.

So, for those calling on the team to cut him – well – you’re probably out of luck. If the Raiders do wind up cutting Smith, it likely isn’t going to be at some point after this season when doing so would leave no dead money on the books.

But even beyond the financial aspect, the idea that the Raiders should run Smith out of Oakland on a rail is – not a very good one.

Yes, Smith had a bad 2016. Very bad. But to put the failures of the entire defense on his shoulders is oversimplifying – well – the failures of the defense.

Oakland’s defense – Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin aside – failed on every level. And the failures of one unit snowballed, compounding the failures of the other units.

Do you really believe, that had Oakland been able to establish a consistent and effective pass rush that limited the time an opposing quarterback had to find the open man, that the Raiders’ secondary would have been burned as often as it was?

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Probably not. Every unit has to work together and the failures of one unit can compound the struggles of another.

The failure of the defense was on every level, and Smith, by virtue of his profile and contract, is taking a lot of the heat for those failures.

Not that he didn’t have his share of struggles. Because he did. Who can forget seeing Brandin Cooks blow by him for a 98-yard touchdown? But let’s be intellectually honest about this – smaller receivers have always given the six-foot-three, 220 pounds Smith fits.

The trouble he had with Cooks isn’t an isolated incident. It’s one we’ve seen play out numerous times in his career. That didn’t stop him from being a very effective cornerback though.

Some seem to be reveling in the fact that Smith has been running with the second team in training camp – and has even been trying his hand at the nickel linebacker spot in certain sets. They point to this as proof positive that Smith is on his way out of the East Bay.

But one thing to remember is that it’s training camp. It’s the time of year when everything is fluid, virtually nothing is set in stone, and the coaches are trying to create some real competition as they seek to get the best of the best on their roster at every position.

Simply put., this is the time of year for coaches to experiment with players, find new wrinkles that work, and also see what they have in their youngsters.

To his credit, Smith isn’t backing down and is fighting for his spot, believing that 2016 was an aberration in an otherwise, very solid career.

"“With careers of seven-, eight-plus (years), there is always going to be that one year that everyone looks at like, ‘Oh, man. Did he lose it? What’s going on?’ The coaches have said I’m flying around. I’ve got speed still. I feel great. That one year doesn’t define me. I know I’m way better than that. And I know what people are used to (from me), and I get it. Everyone wants the Sean of old. No problem. …Two-one is back.”"

Yes, Smith had what most would consider a down year. But there are two things that are important to bear in mind when assessing that down year.

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The first is that it was Smith’s first year in a new scheme doing different things than he’d grown used to. In a perfect world, of course, he’d hit the field, wouldn’t miss a beat, and be every bit as effective as he was in his previous stop. Some seem to believe that by virtue of his big contract, that Smith should have been perfect from day one.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect world and some things do take time to adjust to. When asked about his struggle to adapt to the Jack Del Rio / Ken Norton Jr. defense, Smith was candid.

"“It wasn’t what I was used to. I was watching the film, and that just wasn’t me.”"

The second point that is often overlooked and/or downplayed – though, it shouldn’t be – is the injury Smith suffered in late October against the Buccaneers. While making a play on a ball, Smith suffered a significant injury to his shoulder.

Smith would have surgery to repair the damage and would ultimately miss a pair of games because of it. But he came back and played the final seven games of the regular season and the playoff loss to Houston.

But it seemed relatively obvious that Smith wasn’t quite right after the injury. And yet, he continued to show up for work every day.

Which begs the question – why are some fans so willing to cite his injuries as a reason for Amari Cooper‘s drop in production over the second half of the season, but Smith doesn’t get the same consideration?

Could it be because Smith is bearing an undue amount of the blame for the defensive failures of the Silver and Black in 2016? It seems entirely possible – if not likely.

But to his credit, Smith is doing his best to put the negativity behind him and focus on getting ready for the coming campaign.

"“I’m healthy. My shoulder is better. I’m just having fun. Last year is last year. That year doesn’t define me — not one bit. My game speaks for itself. I’ve put it all behind me. I’m going to have fun, move forward.”"

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Sean Smith has become a popular whipping boy for a lot of fans still angry about Oakland’s defensive failures in 2016. And while he does deserve some criticism and needs to step it up this season, to pin the lack of success for Oakland’s secondary all on him is not just unfair, it’s ignorant.

No man is an island and Oakland’s defensive deficiencies in 2016 were across the board. And though some seem to act like it, they weren’t limited to the guy with the number 21 on his jersey.