Antowain Smith's teammates call him "Big Back." The New England Patriots are faced with a big decision regarding their 6-foot-2-inch, 232-pound tailback, namely whether or not to bring him back.
Sunday Smith grinded out 83 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in the Patriots' 32-29 Super Bowl win over the Carolina Panthers in his hometown of Houston. Smith did not attend the team's victory parade Tuesday; he stayed behind in Houston. He missed seeing an estimated 1.5 million fans pack the streets of downtown Boston, but, depending on what his employer decides over the next several days, he may have saved himself the inconvenience of an unnecessary trip.
Smith will be 32 March 14, though he has only played seven NFL seasons. This past season he led the Patriots with 642 yards on 182 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per attempt. He scored three rushing touchdowns. After being declared inactive (healthy scratch) at Indianapolis Nov. 30, Smith became New England's featured running back. He had his best game against the Jets Dec. 20, gaining 121 yards on 18 carries, his only 100-yard effort of the regular season. In the Divisional playoff win over Tennessee, against the league's best run defense, Smith gained 69 yards on 16 carries. The next week against the Colts in the AFC title game he ran for 100 yards on 22 carries.
Now, here's the question, and management doesn't have long before it has to answer: Did Smith make a strong enough case to earn almost $3 million?
Under the terms of the contract he and the Patriots agreed to March 1, 2002, Smith is owed a 2004 option payment of $500,000 by Sunday. His base salary for next year is $2.4 million. That's a nice chunk of change for one member of a backfield committee. If he's on the roster next year, Smith also accounts for a nice chunk of the roughly $79 million salary cap -- almost $4 million. The Patriots are not happy in this commitment.
They have three options:
First, they can pick up the option and show Smith the money next year. That's about as probable as Bill Belichick joining in a "Soul Train" line. The Patriots can decline the option, making Smith a free agent, and absorb a $1.35 million acceleration on next year's cap (the 2005 and '06 prorated portions of his $3.375 million signing bonus) and a total hit of $2.025 million (acceleration plus prorated signing bonus for next season).
If New England doesn't exercise the option, it's likely the end of Smith's time here. Smith, who has said he would like to remain in New England, still could return as a free agent, but it's a stretch to think the team would sign him to a deal comfortable for both parties on top of the "dead money" remaining from his old pact. The minimum for a player with season accrued seasons is $660,000.
Restructuring also is a possibility. The Patriots could pay Smith his option bonus and commit $2.9 million, then adjust his base salary in order to lower his cap number. They would do so by guaranteeing part of the $2.4 million base, treating it as a signing bonus, and prorating it over the remaining three years of the five-year, $20 million ($3 million signing bonus included) agreement.
If Smith remains a Patriot, he will be in this position again at this time next year. He's due a $2 million option payment for 2005 and '06, when he's slated to earn $4.4 million and $4.9 million, respectively, in base salary. Option bonuses offer protection against June 1 cuts or worse, training camp cuts. If the Patriots cut ties with Smith, he hits free agency March 3 instead of later in the offseason, when there would be even less of a market for him.
The Patriots will be in the market for a running back during free agency and the draft. They could be looking for an entire backfield.
The Patriots and unrestricted free agent Kevin Faulk have been unable to reach an agreement. According to an industry source, the Patriots made an offer to Faulk similar to the rookie contract he signed in 1999 as a second-round pick out of LSU, which is to say, not flattering. Faulk ran for a career-high 638 yards on 178 carries and caught 48 passes -- second on the team -- for 440 yards. He did not score a touchdown and relinquished the kickoff-return duties to rookie Bethel Johnson.
If the Patriots bring back Smith and/or Faulk, it's unlikely they will re-sign unrestricted free agent Michael Cloud. Cloud was inactive for seven games, including the last four of the regular season and all three postseason games. Perhaps New England re-signs him to compete in camp. Patrick Pass is also an unrestricted free agent, though his primary role in for the Patriots has been on special teams.
Fullback Larry Centers, an unrestricted free agent, is contemplating retirement after 14 seasons and his first Super Bowl title. Fullback Fred McCrary, who suffered a torn hamstring against the Broncos Nov. 3 and was placed on injured reserve Nov. 20, expects to return next season. By March, he could New England's backfield of one.