When Smith ended his preseason holdout, signing a one-year contract that calls for a $700,000 base salary and incentives that could drive the final number past $1 million, Viking vice president Jeff Diamond said, "We know he's a good football player and can help us win, but the question is: Can he be an elite player?" The answer depends at least partly on whether Smith can avoid the health problems—chicken pox, inner-ear infection and knee surgery—that have plagued him since the Vikings drafted him in the first round out of Ohio State in 1993. A two-time track All-America, Smith was limited largely to special teams and third-down situations in his first two seasons with the Vikings. But despite the training camp holdout, he beat out Amp Lee and Scottie Graham for the starting job in '95.
The early returns are encouraging. Smith rushed for 66 yards on just 12 carries and scored a touchdown in the opener against Chicago. "If they give me the ball 15 or 20 times a game, I can do some great things," he said.
Take his first-quarter touchdown against the Lions. Diving over the top, Smith seemed to be stopped. But suddenly he flopped over backward on top of the pile and reached over his head to plant the ball in the end zone.
"I've never scored a touchdown upside down and backward," Smith said. "That was something new."
Kind of like that newfound Viking running attack.
Perhaps most troubling to the Lions was that Smith's success came against a team that had supposedly shored up its line by drafting a defensive end, Luther Elliss, with its first pick and signing a defensive tackle, free-agent Pro Bowler Henry Thomas of the Vikings. They joined 1992 first-round pick [Robert Porcher] and a '92 second-round selection [Tracy Scroggins] on the line. Smith's big day came one week after Pittsburgh rushed for 150 yards in its 23-20 victory, and the Lions have just three sacks in their first two games.
Couple that with the trouble Sanders encountered against a Minnesota defense that gave up 143 yards rushing against Chicago, and there is cause for concern.
"It's not the kind of thing you want," said Lion vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. "It's concerning to watch both sides of the line of scrimmage."
On offense the Lions signed free-agent tackle Zefross Moss of Indianapolis. That allowed them to restructure the line, so they moved Dave Lutz from tackle to right guard and Doug Widell from right guard to left guard. The holdout of Pro Bowl tackle Lomas Brown, who signed only Sept. 7, hasn't helped, but Ford, who has taken a more active leadership role with the team owned by his father, William Clay Ford Sr., doesn't want to hear any excuses.