Smith deserved chance to stay with Jets

Brad Smith and the New York Jets were perfect together.

For five years, Smith was a coach's dream, doing a little of everything, saying little. He wasn't the most talented player on the team, but he was a team player with unusual talents. He deserved the chance to grow old with the Jets.

Smith wanted that in the worst way, but he was displaced by the perfect storm -- the lockout-shortened free-agency period, the new kickoff rule and the Jets' obsession with Nnamdi Asomugha. They never extended a formal offer to Smith, so when the Buffalo Bills ponied up $15 million for four years, it was a no-brainer.

Now here we are, in Week 9, and Smith is preparing to face his old team for the first time. His emotions will be churning Sunday when the Jets visit Ralph Wilson Stadium for the kind of big game the two division rivals haven't played in a long time.

"It'll be unreal," Smith said Tuesday in a phone interview with ESPNNewYork.com.

He also used "fun" and "exciting" and "weird," with nary a mention of redemption. Smith also didn't use the word "bittersweet," but you got the impression it will be bittersweet for him.

And maybe the Jets, too.

They never wanted to lose Smith, a high-character player who would've brought stability to the weekly soap opera in the wide-receiver room, but free agency often gets in the way of the happily-ever-after endings.

"It's crazy," said Smith, who sometimes mixed his tenses when discussing the Jets. "You want to play for the same team for your whole career. I think that's the goal of every player."

Smith said he harbors no bitterness toward the Jets, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2006, but he sounded a bit perplexed as to why he's not a Jet anymore.

Truth is, the Jets considered him an unaffordable luxury. Knowing he'd be difficult to re-sign, they drafted Jeremy Kerley -- a mini-Smith -- in the fifth round. With two other free-agent receivers, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, Smith wasn't a priority.

"In a salary-cap system, teams lose good players and, unfortunately, he's one of the players we lost," Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said, "It was a hard decision, especially with everything he did for us. It's a great example of how sometimes you lose great players."

If there was any shot of re-signing Smith, it went out the window when they got involved with Asomugha, who held them hostage for a few days in free agency. Because of salary-cap concerns, the Jets had to wait for Asomugha's decision before addressing other issues. By the time they got their "no" from Asomugha, Smith was gone.

"It all played into it," Smith said. "They had other free agents they wanted to take care of, other priorities. That was a big thing. I don't think it was one thing. I really can't tell you, man."

So Smith, who compiled more than 3,300 yards as a rusher, receiver and returner, jumped to an AFC East rival -- a former doormat now threatening to steal the division.

"It was difficult at first, to be honest with you, being so used to the Jets," Smith said. "You know where you're going in the morning, you know your way around the building, just simple stuff like that. It was weird, going to a new place.

"It was enemy territory for five years. You're wondering, 'Will the guys accept me here? Do they still see me in green and white?' It was weird, but they accepted me here and I'm enjoying it."

More than anything, Smith enjoys winning, but he's still searching for his niche in Buffalo. He still does his thing in the Wildcat (19 rushes for 84 yards), but he hasn't approached the impact he made in New York.

He sought a bigger role as a receiver, but that has yet to materialize (only five catches). He plays on all the special teams, but he has only five kickoff returns, none longer than 25 yards.

Clearly, he has been hurt by the new kickoff rule, because opposing kickers are booming the ball through the end zone on a regular basis.

"I knew it was going to be a process, as far as getting the ball," Smith said of his role on offense. "I'm still getting up to speed with the system and the details of it. It's a lot different from what we did in New York. It's starting to come along."

You could say Smith misses the Jets more than the Jets miss Smith. After all, they have a dynamic kickoff returner in Joe McKnight, who leads the league. But at the same time, Kerley doesn't run the Wildcat as well as Smith.

It's still early to draw a conclusion. They've been apart for only seven games, Smith and the Jets. Sometimes two parties think they're better off apart, but soon realize they're better together. Maybe this is one of those situations.

On Sunday, they will cross paths for the first time since the break-up. It'll be like teenaged sweethearts meeting up at a high-school reunion. But the mood will turn serious once the game starts. Asked if he'd like to make a game-changing play against his old team, Smith said:

"I would like it. I would. I'm not the type to hold any grudges and I don't want to make it bigger than it is. It's another game.

"But I'm always looking to make a play."