A simple “no” wouldn’t suffice. Instead, Harrison Smith made his point by rattling off the final three opponents on the Vikings’ schedule.
Asked recently if he considered shutting down for the season to recover fully from his turf toe injury, Smith quickly and unequivocally brushed aside that line of questioning, even though the Vikings were humming along on the path to nowhere.
“Eagles, Bengals, Lions,” the second-year safety noted.
In other words, Smith had no intention of calling it a season, regardless of the team’s record or circumstance.
“All the other stuff that comes with playing in the NFL is nice obviously, but getting to play on Sundays is what it’s all about,” he said. “So when you can’t do that, you feel kind of lost.”
Smith is expected to get his wish this week after being sidelined since Oct. 13. Barring an unforeseen setback in practice, Smith will be activated from the injured reserve/designated for return list and play against Philadelphia on Sunday.
Coach Leslie Frazier said the plan calls for Smith to ease back into action. Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo will remain the starters with Smith getting a predetermined number of snaps as a backup.
“Based on how Harrison does this week [in practice] we’ll make a determination on how much he plays,” Smith said.
Smith chose rest and rehabilitation over surgery after being diagnosed with turf toe in his left foot following the Carolina game. The Vikings gave Smith the “designated for return” tag, meaning he was eligible to return to practice two weeks ago after being sidelined for six weeks.
“It’s obviously going to take a long time for it to get back to where it was,” Smith said. “But it’s structurally sound. I can move around and can do what I want to do, so it feels good.”
A case could be made that Smith was playing better than anyone on the Vikings defense before his injury. In five games, he collected 41 tackles, two interceptions, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
As eager as he is to pick up where he left off, Smith said he agrees with the team’s decision to proceed slowly with his return.
“I think the coaches are going to do a good job of not just killing me and just throwing me out there and having me take all the reps,” he said. “Especially with [Philadelphia’s] type of offense.”
The Eagles aren’t exactly an ideal opponent for Smith, or anyone, to face after a lengthy layoff. Coach Chip Kelly’s fast-paced attack ranks in the top 10 in most league offensive categories, including rushing (first, 158.5 ypg), total offense (third, 409.3 ypg) and scoring (tied for ninth, 25.7 ppg).
The Eagles already have reached 400 yards in 10 games this season and are trying to become only the fifth team in NFL history to hit that mark 11 times in one season.
Their hurry-up offense will test the Vikings’ stamina, which is particularly concerning for Smith, who will need some time to get into game shape.
“I’ve tried to work on my conditioning since I’ve been off, but there’s nothing quite like when the lights come on, especially with this offense,” he said. “They’re faster than most. Just see how it goes because you can’t simulate it.”
The silver lining in Smith’s injury has been the development of Sendejo in his absence. Primarily a special-teams player previously, Sendejo has posted double digits in tackles in four of the eight games he’s started in place of Smith.
Sendejo grabbed his first interception Sunday against Baltimore and would have had a second pick if not for a questionable pass interference penalty on linebacker Chad Greenway.
“He’s done an awesome job,” Smith said. “He hasn’t skipped a beat.”
Sendejo is third on the team in tackles (93) and has performed well enough that he could share playing time with Sanford if Smith resumes his normal workload in the final few games.
“You’ve got to take advantage of any chances that you get,” Sendejo said.
Smith’s return is a positive sign that should bolster a secondary that has taken its lumps this season. The Vikings are playing out the string these final three games after being officially eliminated from postseason contention Sunday.
But anything is better than nothing to Smith.
“I’ve been kind of in a gray area for a while,” he said. “I’m excited to get back out on the field.”