Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, during a press conference that announced his contract extension through the 2014 season, was asked about the continued maturation and development of his starting right tackle Andre Smith. Now if this conversation took place two years ago, one might misinterpret Lewis' reaction as a severe reaction after having spicy Mexican for lunch, when in fact he's just trying to find the voice in his head that dictates civility.
Not so much this year.
"Last year Andre really grew into the player we drafted and expected to have," Lewis said on Tuesday. "Unfortunately it got delayed and sideways (during his rookie season) for different reasons with the holdout and an immediate injury and so forth. He really has taken a lot of steps in maturity."
"You just saw the personality come out of a guy that was picked where he was picked in the draft. The total man – all the qualities of a first-round pick, particularly a high first-round pick – they began to emerge throughout last year. He's kind of picked up where he's left off. He's had a really good, productive offseason. That's a great positive step for him."
This is years in development. Now Lewis hasn't always been one to hide his overall feelings for Andre Smith. Lewis even attacked Alabama's coaching staff through Peter King, saying that he didn't think Alabama was up-front with Lewis during the predraft process (such as his work ethic). He reached the 370-pound range at one point.
In early August of 2010, Lewis was up-front about Smith, irritated that the offensive lineman, who underwent offseason surgery to strengthen the foot that he fractured during training camp his rookie year, remained on the sidelines nearly six months after the procedure.
"Andre’s going to figure out how to become a pro and do things the way it’s asked to do all the time. Hopefully he continues to do it in a timely fashion. Because otherwise, I’m not going to go through this year in and year out."
Either he heard about Lewis' comments, or the head coach was equally blunt to Smith, but he reacted and Lewis took notice of the steps his young offensive tackle was taking within a few months.
"I think as the back of my shirt will say, ‘Work to do.’ He’s grown up a lot this year, and hopefully he continues to and work as a player and help make us a better football team -- keep working at it. Today’s another opportunity to get better. I like the positive steps he’s taken. I like how he’s grown up as a man and as a pro, and that’s a good thing. The team wants him to succeed; he has advocates who want to see him succeed."
The progressive light bulb wasn't just flash in his mind; it completely reset his psychological nature, sort of like a visit from the Men in Black. A change in his nutrition. Exercise. Pride. All of it factored. During the NFL lockout last year, Smith, recovering from another surgery, joined his squadmates at player-only workouts noticeably slimmer. He even told offensive tackle and de facto offensive line captain Andrew Whitworth that he's ready, it's time.
He meant it.
By the time training camp rolled around last season, Smith showed up noticeably lighter still, reportedly dropping his weight to 320 pounds by the end of the season. Though he missed two games, it was, without question, his best season. PFF called him one of the most improved players last year. When asked earlier this year about Smith's growth in late February, head coach Marvin Lewis spoke with a sense of pride.
A huge leap. He made a transition mentally to being a pro. He became the guy we hoped we drafted and maybe he wasn't going to show those signs in year one, but we hoped he wasn't hurt and could show them in year two. OK, it took till year three, but he did it and that's what's key.
Smith isn't complacent. He can't be. A fine year by any definition, doesn't rest one's laurels. And much like A.J. Green admitted to Paul Daugherty over the weekend that he has everything to learn still in the NFL, Smith has his own goals.
"I want to be a dominant run blocker. I want to get back to what I was in college," he said. "Disciplined at all times."
"Last year I wasn't in as good as shape as I could have been, but it was the smallest I'd been in the NFL so I was able to maintain it playing the game," Smith said. "This year I want to be in tip-top shape. Put together strength and wind so I can breathe."
And he's off to a good start, against one of the more promising defensive players on this year's roster.