Few things have perplexed me more over the last two seasons than the Atlanta Falcons' refusal to give their explosive running back Antone Smith more opportunities to make plays for them. I had never even heard of this dude until near the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' blowout of the Falcons in Week 11 of the 2013 season. My beloved Bucs were up, 41-13, with 5:33 left in the fourth quarter near the end of a season that had been an absolute fucking disaster. I glanced at the time left on the scoreboard and figured, hell, for once I won't have to be biting my nails the whole game.
This lil' pip-squeak comes out of nowhere the next play and busts off a 50-yard touchdown run on a draw. I swear he made it look like about half of the Buccaneers defense was running in quicksand. And I'm talking about cats in the secondary, not the defensive line!
There were quite a few backups for both teams in the game by that time, but that didn't stop me from shouting out a string of expletives that would've made a sailor blush. I was screaming not only because the Bucs had given up the touchdown, but also because I was in awe of what I had just seen.
Talent is talent and speed is speed; Mr. Smith has plenty of both.
Smith wasn't just a one-play wonder who caught the Bucs sleepwalking through the end of a blowout. He erased all doubts a couple weeks later when he made another long house call against the Buffalo Bills. This time there were no excuses. Down 17-7 with just under five minutes left in the first half, the Falcons were within striking distance. Smith took the handoff on a sweep of sorts to the left side of the offense, stuck his foot in the ground to make one sharp downhill cut, then outraced just about the whole Bills secondary, running 38 yards to pay dirt.
If you blinked, you might've missed it.
After seeing those two plays, I thought the Falcons must've felt like they reached in the pocket of some jeans they hadn't worn in awhile and found a crisp $100 bill. Prior to 2013, Smith had already played 34 games in three years with the Falcons. During that time, he had a grand total of one carry and zero catches for his career. In fact, that 50-yard touchdown run against the Bucs was only the fourth carry of his career. Here is a guy who looked to be every bit as explosive as Darren Sproles on those two plays, but he didn't get the fourth carry of his career until the eleventh game of his fourth season in the league.
I thought to myself: Surely the Falcons, after having seen what he could do at the end of 2013, would find ways to get him more involved in the offense the next season.
Wrong, again. WRONG!
That's not to say he didn't get any opportunities in 2014. He actually started the season with at least one big play in five of the first six games. He had a 54-yard touchdown reception in Week 1, a 38-yard run in Week 3, a 48-yard run in Week 4, a 74-yard reception in Week 5 and a 41-yard reception in Week 6.
However, Smith ended the season with only 23 carries and 13 receptions in 11 games. That simply was not enough touches for a game breaker of his caliber. Don't get me wrong: at 5'9, 192 pounds, Smith can't exactly be a workhorse or a bell cow or any other colloquialism we associate with guys who get the lion's share of touches out of the backfield. At the same time, he should be averaging well over what was basically two carries and one catch every damn game in 2014.
Thankfully, for his sake, there has been a changing of the guard in Atlanta with a new coaching staff in place. I have a hard time believing that Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are going to watch Smith's film from those first six games and not try to get him more involved. Smith ended the season on injured reserve because of a broken leg, but an injury like that should be fully healed well before the 2015 season starts.
That being the case, I'm confident that Smith will be a bona-fide matchup nightmare this season and his rushing and receiving numbers should skyrocket. That is why he's my choice to be the Falcons' breakout player for 2015.