EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Ignore the healthy knee. Set aside the fresh new start. Even forget the wildly talented quarterback. Steve Smith is sure he'll be back to form this season for one reason alone: He has his No. 12 jersey back.
"Randall Cunningham wouldn't let me have it last year," the one-time Eagle said with a mock pout and a very real laugh. A one-time Giant, too, the 27-year old wide receiver is now a Ram, and has a lightness to him after what can only be called a trying year. In that unfamiliar No. 11 jersey, of course.
"Oh, that messed up things. I definitely have my swag back now," Smith said, still joking, but kind of telling the truth, too.
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Just 28 months removed from a Pro Bowl appearance, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound receiver is in St. Louis on a one-year, show-me deal. Meaning, show the Rams he's still that totally dependable possession receiver who was absurdly tough across the middle and was, for a good while, Eli Manning's security blanket.
Smith's 2010 was derailed first by a torn pectoral muscle and then by an ACL injury to his knee, requiring microfracture surgery. A free agent the next summer, the Giants' medical staff counseled prudence. The Eagles' didn't, offered a bit more money, and Smith left for Philadelphia. His knee slowed him at first, then he suffered a bone bruise late. After a 1,220-yard 2009, he had 124 yards in 2011, on just 11 catches and a whole lot of scout team play.
"I learned a whole other side of football," he said. A star at USC, Smith barely even manned a scout team there his freshman year, making the experience of miming Victor Cruz (the man who would ultimately break Smith's single-season Giants marks) and Santana Moss wholly new. But Smith guilelessly insists "it was a learning year," and yes, if he could've been any hungrier, it made him so.
"In the NFL, it's not what have you done. It's what are you doing right now," he said. "When you get hurt, you lose a little steam. People forget about you and doubt you. I want to remind the coaches here I'm a great player."
The Rams open mandatory minicamp with a slew of receivers, but without one set of totally distinguishable hands just yet. Brandon Lloyd is gone. Danny Amendola is coming off October triceps surgery. Greg Salas and Austin Pettis were mid-round picks last year, Brian Quick and Chris Givens are rookies this year. Brandon Gibson, 24, had 431 yards in 15 games a year ago, 23-year-old Danario Alexander totaled 431 yards in 10 games.
Smith is easily the most accomplished of the group, from the 107-catch 2009 to the Super Bowl ring to the week in Hawaii. But he talks about the young group and its talents glowingly. Givens caught a tough touchdown at practice Friday. Smith said Amendola is looking "good and healthy." And Smith has a positive outlook on his own game in St. Louis: "I fit in well."
New Rams coach Jeff Fisher is from the same high school (Taft, in Los Angeles) as Smith. Fisher's a USC Trojan, too, and Smith said Fisher was easily the top reason he came to St. Louis. The Rams have responded well to Fisher and his manner, as he pushes when he needs to and also lets off the throttle, as he did last Thursday, when he gave his team a day off from OTAs.
With a pedigree that includes only winning programs (even his high school went to consecutive city championship games), Smith said he still struggles to reconcile the Rams he's practicing with went 2-14 last year. Fisher is relentlessly upbeat, the Rams believe in their talent, and then there's Sam Bradford, who Smith simply called "incredible."
"He is so accurate. His accuracy is just amazing. He can really put a ball in the smallest of windows," Smith said. "The competition is up, we're all flying around and I really like our schemes."
And in June, what's not to like? Smith declared himself 100 percent healthy. He said the knee, the bones, the hamstrings, everything feels perfectly normal. He refused to wonder if he pushed himself too fast early last year and said he has no regrets. On the day the Giants were visiting the White House, he volunteered that he was happy his former teammates won their second Super Bowl in five years -- and said he regularly talks to one-time mentee Hakeem Nicks, who broke his foot a few weeks ago.
After Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, the pace of St. Louis agrees with him. There aren't as many reporters at practice, there isn't as much scrutiny and right now, "I can walk around and no one really knows who I am."
Then again, if things go right, that will only be temporary.