[size=18px]Vikings: Disrupted season keeps Smoot unusually quiet[/size]

Injuries and off-the-field allegations nearly have silenced the talkative cornerback, one of the team's prized offseason signees.

Judd Zulgad, Star Tribune
Last update: December 20, 2005 at 5:29 AM

The smile on Fred Smoot's face, so prevalent only a few months back, has gone missing. So has the bounce that seemed to exist in his every step. Where once there was a steady stream of banter emanating from Smoot's locker area during media access periods, there is now silence.

The $34 million, six-year deal the free agent signed with the Vikings last March might have made him a rich man but it certainly doesn't seem to have made him a happy one.

"Never in my life, ever," said Smoot when asked if he had ever been through a season like this one. "It just didn't go like I expected."

Smoot's confident, mile-a-minute speaking pace that he brought with him from Washington was almost a whisper Monday as he conducted one of his few interviews since being connected with the Vikings' now infamous cruise Oct. 6 on Lake Minnetonka.

Last week that incident resulted in Smoot, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, quarterback Daunte Culpepper and running back Moe Williams being charged with indecent conduct, disorderly conduct, and lewd and lascivious conduct, all misdemeanors. Smoot has maintained his innocence, and David Valentini, an attorney who is representing Smoot, said he expects all four players to plead not guilty.

But Smoot's frustrations go beyond those accusations. On the field, he has battled injuries since last summer. He began training camp on the physically unable to perform list because of a strained neck, and two days after returning was sidelined by a soft tissue contusion of his right knee.

Smoot, who played in only one of four preseason games, was able to start the first eight regular- season games at right cornerback. But even when healthy, things did not always go as expected for a guy who received a $10.8 million signing bonus. Smoot, assigned to cover Carolina's Steve Smith in nearly every situation Oct. 30, saw the Panthers receiver catch 11 passes for a franchise-record 201 receiving yards.

The next week, Smoot suffered a partially fractured right collarbone in the Vikings' 27-14 victory over Detroit that started the team's six-game winning streak. Smoot missed the next four games and has been relegated to playing on passing downs as the nickelback in the two games since his return.

This certainly isn't what Smoot or the Vikings envisioned when he left the Redskins and took over the starting job that had been held by Brian Williams.

"I haven't talked to [Smoot] much about it, but you can see being injured has bothered him," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "It bothered him when he first got here and was hurt. He's such a competitor, and he didn't want to miss any time. I don't think he's missed a lot of time in his career anyway [Smoot missed four games in four seasons with Washington]. He wanted to make a very good impression, especially with the fans. He's a fiery competitor and he wants to be the top dog, which is what you want in a corner."

But right now he is the backup at right corner to Williams, who played well enough during Smoot's absence that he has held onto the starting role.

"He's accepted it," Cottrell said. "I don't think he's really satisfied with it, let's say that. I can't sit here and tell you that he's satisfied with it, no. He wants to be a starter."

Smoot, though, claims he's all right with the nickel role. "I couldn't probably play every down right now," he said. "[It's] not possible."

Smoot, 26, said his first day back at practice should have been Monday and that it was his decision to try to rush back to play against St. Louis on Dec. 11. With his shoulder obviously hurting, he admits he has second-guessed himself. "In a way I do, but I don't know," Smoot said. "I can't take it back now."

Smoot saw extensive time vs. the Rams because of their use of multiple receivers and had his second interception of the season; but he was on the field for only about 20 plays Sunday in the Vikings' 18-3 loss to the run-oriented Steelers. That was better than nothing. "I play at a certain level, and I can't do it on the sideline dressed in regular clothes," he said. "It just can't happen."

Free safety Darren Sharper admires this toughness.

"The thing about Fred is he loves to compete, and he wants to be out there because he loves playing football," Sharper said. "That's the main thing, it's tough for a guy who loves the game as much as he does to not be out there on the field because of injuries."