The curious case of Sean Smith


Sean Smith has taken a downward turn on and off the field since leaving Kansas City. Now he’s a healthy scratch for the Raiders. What’s happening?

Michael Gehlken was the first to ask. It’s something we’d all like to know.

Two players were healthy for the Oakland Raiders on Sunday who did not play despite being active and able: cornerback Sean Smith and quarterback E.J. Manuel.

Smith’s healthy scratch is the latest chapter in an odd book being written about the veteran cornerback. Ever since Smith left as a free agent to sign a big-money deal with the Oakland Raiders, things went south. It’d be easy to make a Raiders joke here, except Smith’s ordeal is rather serious—a curious collection of events and poor play that are impossible to understand from a distance, especially for fans of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Looking back just a few years, Sean Smith was a major player for the Chiefs in the early days of Andy Reid’s success in K.C. Former general manager John Dorsey locked on to Smith early in free agency in 2013 to be the reliable, physical cornerback the Chiefs lacked. Dorsey would let Brandon Flowers walk that offseason in exchange for Smith, a promising corner who never quite put it all together for the Miami Dolphins.

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From there, Smith blossomed into the vision that Dorsey had for him under the coaching of Reid’s staff, specifically Al Harris and Emmitt Thomas. In his three seasons with the Chiefs, Smith became one of the NFL’s most underrated pass defenders, earning high praise from those watching closely and even outlets like Pro Football Focus placed him on their All-NFL team in 2014.

The lone blemish on Smith’s record during his tenure with the Chiefs was a DUI charge that resulted in a short three-game suspension to start the 2015 season. It would be his last with the Chiefs, but there was a very clear difference when Smith was on or not on the field for K.C.

It wasn’t surprising, then, to see the Oakland Raiders outbid everyone for Smith’s services. His reputation preceded him into the open market, and Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders GM, rewarded Smith with a four-year, $40 million deal with $20 million guaranteed. At the time, everyone believed the Raiders woes in the secondary were solved with the additions of Smith and safety Reggie Nelson along with young draft assets like Karl Joseph.

Yet immediately Smith was a different player on the field for the Raiders than any time during his tenure with the Chiefs. Smith gave up three touchdowns in the first two games of the year, and head coach Jack Del Rio was vocal in his disappointment for Smith. Fortunately, Smith slowly regained his form as the season progressed and ended up having a nice year overall.

That said, things have only gone south since then. In July, Smith allegedly assaulted a man—even stomped on his head—and the Raider was charged for felony assault in August. He has since pled not guilty and the legal process has yet to play out on this one, but a suspension could be looming. Even so, Del Rio has already grown tired of Smith’s poor play on the field this season, once again, for the Raiders. It’s now to the point where he’s healthy and yet not playing on a team that could use any positive plays in the secondary.

Perhaps Smith is guilty and the upcoming legal action and potential punishment has gotten in his head. Being distracted would make sense on how Smith could go from reliable to liability. Either way, the Chiefs enjoyed the impact of Smith over three years for a mere $12 million guaranteed. The Raiders are on the hook for several million more and can’t be too thrilled about it.