When the Seahawks promoted receiver Kevin Smith off of the practice squad and waived Chris Matthews Tuesday, it was a move coaches felt made the team better, but it also represents something bigger for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll than just upgrading a particular position group.
The way Carroll sees it, you can't build a program around a philosophy of "always compete" if you're not going to live it, and sometimes that means a practice squad receiver beating out somebody on the active roster for a job midway through the season.
"If the central theme is competition, then you've got to do what you say," Carroll said. "We've always tried to stand for that and give guys opportunities to show what they can do and sense when that hunger is right to take advantage of the opportunity and let them excel. That's always been some of it. But really if you say that, then you need to act on it, and that's just another indication I think of it. That's exactly what's going on with that right now. That's why he's up."
For Smith, a former University of Washington standout, a chance to play on Sunday is just the latest step in his journey from going undrafted in 2014, to being completely out of football and working for FedEx last season, to Seattle's practice squad this year and an eventual spot on the 53-man roster.
"It's awesome, it's a blessing, a dream come true," Smith said. "… It means a lot. You're out there for the practice days competing with the No. 1 defense, getting them prepared and seeing the offense get prepared. Really, it's just a dream come true that come Sunday, you get to play in that first game."
After going undrafted out of Washington last year, Smith spent time in the offseason with Arizona, Jacksonville and Seattle, but after the Seahawks released him at the end of training camp, he kept waiting for his next chance, but it never came. Instead, he spent last fall and winter working for FedEx at home in Los Angeles, "unloading and loading trucks, sorting shipments." But while holding down that job, Smith stayed in shape, kept in touch with fellow undrafted Husky turned Seahawk Jermaine Kearse, and even cold-called scouts from six or seven NFL teams that he had met during his Pro Day at Washington, "just trying to get my foot in one of those doors… Nothing really happened there, but at least I made an effort."
The Seahawks eventually brought Smith back in February, and a slimmed down, quicker and very driven Smith made an impression in camp and in preseason games. Even after missing out on a roster spot, Smith continued to impress his coaches in practice every week as a member of the practice squad.
"Kevin has paid his dues," receivers coach Dave Canales said. "He played offense and defense on the practice squad. Probably the hardest thing for a guy to do is to be in a position where you're challenged to get better every week without having a gameday as a payoff. He stayed focused the whole time, he stayed in it."
Perhaps most impressive, Canales noted, has been Smith's mental preparation despite not playing in games. Each week, assistant wide receivers coach Nate Carroll puts together a test for his receivers based on the information covered in meeting that week, and according to Canales, "Kevin regularly scores just as well as Doug (Baldwin), just as good as Jermaine."
That work ethic has helped Smith master all of Seattle's receiver positions, a big reason, along with his special teams play, why he got the call this week.
"He has worked really hard. He has really improved," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "The thing that he does best for us is that he's so versatile. We can play him at a lot of positions. We could put him at any of our three positions out there and he could get it done. He catches the ball well. We call him 'One-a-day' out there at practice—he's like one of our vitamins, because about every day he ends up with a big play or a touchdown out there, so we really like having him out there."
Hard work and good play on the practice field eventually paid off for Smith, and for Carroll and the Seahawks, rewarding that effort was an important part of what the team represents.
"We wanted to give Kevin a chance to play… "We thought it was time to give him a chance."
It was an "important week" for the team to get back to the practice field as the Seahawks returned to another Competition Wednesday to prepare for the San Francisco 49ers coming to town.