“Put it on me.”
Those were the words uttered by Za’Darius Smith to a police officer on September 29th, 2019. He was pulled over for speeding and he and a few of his teammates were, allegedly, cited for possession of weed.
It’s unclear if Smith even knew that the confiscated blunts were in the vehicle, as they seem to have been a teammate’s. But when asked about them he replied, “I’ll put it on me, yessir.”
Admittedly, it wasn’t the best look at the time, but upon thinking back, it happened to be a prime example of Za’Darius’s unimpeachable character — as a leader. He immediately owned up to his mistake, hell, he owned up to his teammate’s mistakes, too. He took responsibility. He earned his teammate’s love from day one, both on the practice field and far from it.
Some humans are just built different mentally.
A great mystery, in sports at least, is where leaders come from. Are they born or are they made? Either way ‘Z’, as Smith is affectionately known by Packers fans, seems to have been born to lead Green Bay’s fabled football team.
He became a part of this historic franchise, in its 100th season, and was almost immediately voted captain. No franchise has ever won more more World Championships than the Green Bay Packers, and still, following the 2017 and 2018 seasons it desperately needed a change of culture.
As for the liberated, refreshing culture of the 2019 and 2020 Green Bay Packers?
We’ll put it on him — Za’Darius Smith.
The man who walked into his mother’s job and “retired” her following the signing of his four-year $66 million contract. He got paid and the first person he thought of was his mother. Again, his character and loyalty cannot be questioned.
The Packers missed the playoffs for two years in a row before Smith came to Green Bay. They went 13-3 in 2019 and are 4-0 in 2020, since he came to the team. Sure, head coach Matt LaFleur also helped bring a new culture and philosophy to the Packers in 2019 and Aaron Rodgers is now healthy. However we firmly believe that the vibe of this team wouldn’t be nearly as positive or confident without Smith.
Aaron Rodgers’ quote about Smith from October 2019 tells you everything you need to know about how Smith is viewed in the locker room. Per Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal:
“Everybody in this locker room not only respects ‘Z’ as a player, but I think genuinely loves him as a person. Because he has contagious, infectious energy and a great charisma about him where, when he talks, everybody listens. But he does it in a way that’s coming from a positivity and love and a general passion for the game. You add all that up, and in my humble opinion, that’s what makes a great leader.”
Very few teammates in Green Bay have ever received such a glowing compliment from the Packers’ measured, stoic quarterback. What Smith has brought to this team is so obviously immense.
His legacy, after just a short time in Green Bay, is that of a culture and game changer.
Although we could talk forever about ‘Z’s’ immeasurable impact on this team, we figured it would be more productive to look at his literal impact out on the field.
Let’s look at the numbers and how dominant Za’Darius Smith has been:
First 20 Games in Green Bay:
We’ll start by looking at sacks recorded in the first 20 games in Green Bay by some of the best edge rushers in Packers history (defensive ends and outside linebackers).
Za’Darius Smith: 18.5 sacks
Clay Matthews: 17 sacks
Reggie White: 15 sacks
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila: 14.5 sacks
Preston Smith: 12.5 sacks
Sean Jones: 11.5 sacks
Vonnie Holliday: 11 sacks
Tim Harris: 11 sacks
Julius Peppers: 10.5 sacks
That’s everyone with 10+ sacks in their first 20 games with the Green Bay Packers (since sacks have been tracked, that is).
As you can see, ‘Z’ has a healthy lead in the No. 1 spot.
A few other notables:
Bryce Paup: 9 sacks
Nick Perry: 6 sacks
Alphonso Carreker: 6 sacks
Mike Neal: 5.5 sacks
Tony Bennett: 5 sacks
Cullen Jenkins: 5 sacks
Before sacks were tracked:
Willie Davis is the first name that comes to mind, obviously.
I’d love to know how many sacks he had in his first 20 games as a Packer. We’d bet he’d be near the top of this all-time list with his significant impact on this franchise. Some other names that deserve mention are Ezra Johnson, Robert Brown, John Anderson, Mike Douglas and Dave Robinson. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the former Packers that we could mention.
Sacks weren’t officially tracked until the mid-1980s, so we don’t know how these guys would have stacked-up. So it goes.
Beyond the Sacks
Za’Darius Smith isn’t one of those pass rushers that puts up gaudy sack numbers but fails to impact the game when he isn’t sacking the quarterback.
It’s his tackles for loss and quarterback hits that separate him from most of his peers.
In 2019, only Aaron Donald, Shaquil Barrett and Joey Bosa had more tackles for loss. He led the league in quarterback hits (37) and, according to Pro Football Focus, he led the NFL in total pressures (93).
It’s easy to forget that he accomplished this in his first year with the team.
Smith already has a forced-fumble and fumble recovery in 2020 and with how dialed in he is, we are expecting more splash plays in the coming weeks.
Consider this: The Packers’ defense should only get better at stopping the run with Kenny Clark coming back from injury and Kingsley Keke continuing his development. That will lead to more pass attempts to defend as the season rolls along. The same can be said of the Packers’ offense scoring 30+ points a game seemingly every week. The efficiency of Green Bay’s offense will also force opposing offenses to pass more in an attempt to keep up.
Both of those factors could lead to ‘Z’ actually exceeding his impressive 2019 numbers.
Za’Darius Smith is a consistent, yet unpredictable disruptor with an unstoppable motor. He’s thoughtful, funny and always ready to showcase a new sack celebration or inspiring message underneath his jersey. He brought a level of energy and silliness to the defense, a contemplative silliness that brings proper perspective to the task at hand. He’s the leader this team needed.
You could say he’s…
The Right Guy at the Right Time
Following the 2018 season the one wish you’d have as a Packers fan would be that the team would magically land an All-Pro caliber pass rusher.
Well, wish freakin’ granted.
The Packers spent years trying to replace ‘prime’ Clay Matthews on the outside. Yet they failed on numerous draft picks to find their next superstar edge rusher. That’s the other thing that makes ‘Z’ so impactful: he finally filled a hole they desperately needed to plug.
Selfishly, a defense without a clear-cut leader is not nearly as fun to watch than one with a figurehead. That’s obviously our ‘fan’ talking, but we think it’s true. The new-age football ‘experts’ that don’t believe in momentum will have you think that the intangibles of leadership don’t translate to wins and losses. Excuse us for laughing, but come on.
Smith’s impact isn’t just found during a big fourth quarter sack. It’s the quarterback thinking about him all game, it’s the holding penalty he draws, it’s the confidence he gives the defensive coordinator, it’s the dozen things that don’t show up on his stat-line.
He makes all of the players around him better, just as leaders are supposed to do. It’s what Rodgers does on the offensive side of the ball and it’s what Brett Favre and White did in the mid-1990s.
Simply put, a dangerous pass rush makes your entire defense better. It especially makes the defensive backs better because they don’t have to cover for as long. Kevin King is a prime example of benefiting from Smith’s pass rush ability. He went from an unknown in his first couple seasons (while battling injuries) to a burgeoning star with ‘Z’ on the same defense. In our opinion, Smith made King a boatload of money, whether he makes in in Green Bay or elsewhere.
It’s just common sense that an elite pass rusher makes your defensive backs better, although it’s one of those things you only miss when you don’t have it. The Packers didn’t have “it” in the two years leading up to Smith joining the team. In the modern NFL, “it” is a must if your team has Super Bowl aspirations.
How Large His Legacy Can Grow
It’s incredibly early to be talking about ‘Z’ in terms of legacy, but that’s how impactful he’s been.
His two modern contemporaries for this franchise are Reggie White and Clay Matthews. Like White, Smith was signed as a free agent. But like Matthews, he’s officially listed as a pass rushing outside linebacker.
The team went to the playoffs all six seasons that White was in Green Bay. For Matthews, the Packers made the playoffs in his first eight years with the team. We’ll see how Smith’s time with the Packers will compare.
But his real test, in terms of legacy, has more to do with lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
Both White and Matthews helped lead the Packers to the promised land. Matthews was instrumental in the Packers winning Super Bowl XLV in his second season. White helped guide Green Bay to a Super Bowl XXXI victory in his fourth season with the team.
Not only that, both men made huge impacts in the second half of their Super Bowl victories. White had three sacks and Matthews had one of the biggest forced-fumbles in team history.
Will ‘Z’ be able to keep pace with them? That’s the fun part; all we have to do is sit back and watch. However, he’s off to a good start with two sacks in his first two postseason games with the Packers. The bright lights don’t scare him and that’s what a team needs in its leaders.
The original pass rusher that dominated in Green Bay was Willie Davis. All he did was win five World Championships and make 4.5 sacks in his two Super Bowl appearances (both victories).
Smith has quite the lineage to live up to, but he seems to be up to the task. In the 2020 season, he already has 5 sacks in the first four games of the season. Mind you, he’s done this without Kenny Clark (who has been out with injury for most of this season) clogging up the middle and not allowing the quarterback to step up. His other half of the Smith Bros. (Preston Smith) hasn’t really produced this year either, but that hasn’t stopped ‘Z’.
Like Matthews, he gets to the quarterback when he seems like the only rusher that has a chance to get to the quarterback. It’s uncanny. Teams obviously game-plan for him, but his motor and versatility of being able to rush from anywhere overcomes their preparation week after week.
If he can help lead this Packers team to a Super Bowl victory, he’ll be right up there on the pedestal with the pass rushers in franchise history. We’re talking Davis, White, Matthews, Smith. Likewise, he’ll be in the pantheon of free agent signings, too, with White and the incomparable Charles Woodson.
We know that football is a team game, but championships do elevate individual players — especially team captains.
We’ve written before about how Reggie White came to Green Bay and became the necessary counterweight to Brett Favre. Their collaboration and different leadership styles helped that team win a championship. In a similar way, ‘Z’ and his vocal leadership is now that counterweight to Rodgers’ leadership by example.
Will they have similar success together?
God, we hope so. We’ve all had visions of Za’Darius up on that podium with Rodgers like Clay, right? We’ve all pictured him running the Lombardi Trophy around the field like a victorious Reggie, right?
His legacy is on their historic trajectory, with a chance to grow to incredible heights. The man is only 28 years old. For reference, Reggie White was 32 in his first season in Green Bay. That fact never gets old.
Fortunately for all of us, there’s still much to be written about Za’Darius Smith’s time with the Green Bay Packers.
But that won’t stop us from imagining how the story ends.
First, it’s onto the Buccaneers. ‘Z’ is questionable with an injury, but we, like you, hope he plays.