Torrey Smith’s intended role in the Eagles’ offense was clearly defined from the time the wide receiver was signed as a free agent in March. It is the same role he had played in his six previous NFL seasons: Get downfield and catch deep passes, or stretch the opposition’s defense with the threat of doing so.
Smith is the fastest receiver on the team and with those marching orders, a big-armed quarterback in Carson Wentz, and an offensive line that provides generally good protection, it figured to be a big season for him. Until Sunday against the Rams, however, that wasn’t how things had been working out.
“I’m more used to having a few shots a game going down the field, but it just hasn’t been that way this year for me,” Smith said. “It’s just kind of how the season has flowed. It’s been a little different.”
Entering the game in Los Angeles, Smith had just 27 catches in the previous 12 games and only four of them for 20 yards or more. Against the Rams, things changed. He was targeted a season-high 11 times and had six catches for 100 yards, including a 46-yard reception on a deep slant over the middle that allowed him to really shift into gear.
“It felt good to finally get a big play. I was lucky that I had some opportunities and made some plays,” Smith said. “We’ve called them. We just haven’t hit on them. Some people think I’ve fallen off a bridge and can’t get open on deep routes anymore. I was getting a bunch of shorter things because that’s what was presented. You take shots when you can, but you have to take what’s there. Sometimes, that’s how it goes.”
The outside perception is that Smith has underperformed, particularly compared to Alshon Jeffery, his wide receiver counterpart on the other side of the field, but not all the stats bear that out. Jeffery has been used differently, of course, and his role isn’t the same. He is taller than Smith and his huge catch radius makes him a jump ball specialist while Smith operates best in space.
Still, Jeffery’s not slow, but he has just eight catches for more than 20 yards this season, compared to six for Smith, despite having been targeted 106 times for his 52 catches. Smith has been targeted just 58 times and has 33 catches. One major perception difference comes from the fact that Jeffery has eight touchdown catches — three on those long-gaining plays — while Smith has two TDs this season and hadn’t had a big catch-and-run since a 59-yard touchdown catch against Arizona in Week 5, also on a deep slant.
Inside those numbers, you can see that Smith has caught 57 percent of the passes intended for him this season while Jeffery has caught 49 percent. (The two main inside receivers, tight end Zach Ertz and slot receiver Nelson Agholor, have higher percentages, as you would expect. Ertz has been targeted 85 times and caught 57 passes for 67 percent. Agholor has been targeted 76 times and caught 48 passes for 63 percent.)
“For whatever reason, I had the ball a whole lot last game,” Smith said. “I might not even get a single pass on Sunday. That’s how the flow of the game goes and how the season has gone for me. I just have to be ready when I get my chances.”
As with so many other things, it’s impossible to know yet how the change of quarterbacks will affect the opportunities of the various receivers. Wentz throws line drives, even on deep balls, and when Foles goes down the field he tends to loft the ball more. As a starter here in 2013 and 2014, albeit with DeSean Jackson to target the first season and Jeremy Maclin the next, Foles’ completions went for 20 yards or more on 13 percent of his attempts. This season, Wentz had 40 such completions in 440 attempts or nine percent.
Doug Pederson’s modified West Coast offense is far different, and much more patient, than Chip Kelly’s boom-or-bust attack, but the point is that Foles has a big enough arm and the will to heave the ball. The offense can’t be better with Foles in place of Wentz — it’s hard to improve on leading the league in points per game — but it can be different and the number of attempts down the field might be one of those differences.
“My job is still the same. Run my route, get open and make the play when the opportunity is there,” Smith said. “Nick puts a little more air under it. That’s fine for me. Put some air under it and I’ll go get it. When there’s more air, the throw doesn’t have to be perfect because we can adjust to it.”
It has been a season of adjustment for Smith and a new quarterback in the huddle is just the latest one. His role hasn’t changed, though: Get yourself down the field and make big plays. Smith says he hasn’t changed, either, even if that doesn’t align with the perception this season.
Despite all that has happened, the playoffs and the possibilities of big plays in very big games lies ahead. The season isn’t done, and according to the man himself, neither is Torrey Smith.