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Pats need slimmer Smith to reach playoffs - ESPN - 6/5/2003


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Pats need slimmer Smith to reach playoffs

By Darrell Trimble

NFL Insider

Thursday, June 5

Updated: June 5

10:55 AM ET

The New England Patriots won the NFL title two years ago, but in 2002 they continued a disturbing trend of Super Bowl participants who fail to qualify for the playoffs the next season. Part of the reason was a defense that couldn't stop a corpse from gaining 100 yards on the ground, but another reason was the disappointing play of Antowain Smith.

Smith started training camp last season by failing the team's conditioning test, administered by coach Bill Belichick. The test consists of running 20 required 60-yard dashes in under eight seconds each, and with less than 30 seconds between sprints. Smith wasn't allowed to practice with the team until he passed the test, and Belichick was furious that Smith came to camp out of shape after getting a new deal.

Smith coming to camp in less than ideal condition is nothing new. Smith also failed the conditioning test two years ago, and he responded by racking up a career-high 1,157 yards. But his play was affected by his lack of conditioning. He started off slowly in 2001, before finally finding his legs and rushing for 700 yards in his final nine regular season games.

That was not the case last year. Smith started off the season mediocre and finished in much the same way. The team was looking to upgrade the spot in the offseason, or at the very least bring in someone to challenge him, but they have yet to do so. And after comments made by Smith on a local radio station on Wednesday, it looks like that was a mistake.

Smith said that conditioning "isn't one of my strong points.'' No one knows if that means he'll come to camp and fail a third straight conditioning test, but for someone who came off a sub-par season in which he topped 80 yards on only three occasions, it's disheartening to see he isn't working out diligently to ensure that the Patriots won't have to rely on Tom Brady's arm alone.

Brady threw 601 passes last year. Only Drew Bledsoe and Rich Gannon attempted more. That's in stark contrast to two years ago when he tried only 413 passes in his 15 games. Granted, that had a lot to do with his limited game experience, but it also had a great deal to do with Smith's ability run effectively.

The Patriots aren't pleased, and according to the Boston Herald, they could bring in some running back competition as they have interest in former Boston College star Mike Cloud, a free agent after four years of spot duty in Kansas City.

Belichick was beside himself last year when Smith failed the team's opening day conditioning run, but he might blow a gasket if Smith turns out to be a three-time loser. If Smith doesn't cut the mustard, he'll likely wind up in Belichick's dog house and might not get a chance to redeem himself.

If they want to get back to the playoffs, the Patriots must have better production from their ground game, especially if they want to win their division. There is no tougher division in football than the AFC East. Last year, only one game separated the champ from the cellar dweller, and a strong case can be made that three of the teams made significant strides to get better in the offseason.

New England was one of those teams, but if Tom Brady has to attempt 38 passes a game again, then the Patriots will have to get used to sitting at home in January.

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