Donovan Smith has been chastised more often than not throughout his eight-season tenure with the Buccaneers, so 2022 isn’t exactly anything new.
His first five years or so saw him largely established as an average-at-best left tackle who too often got penalized or whipped by elite edge rushers. Then Bruce Arians and Co. arrived, and he began a notable ascension that saw him record a borderline elite 2021 campaign.
After so many high-profile departures along the trenches this past offseason, the team needed Smith and Tristan Wirfs to remain top-tier, stalwart bookends. Well, the exact opposite of that has transpired for the former.
Smith has regressed into one of the worst offensive linemen in the league this year, as he’s committed a whopping 11 penalties, six of which are holds. Holding has been a persistent issue ever since he debuted, as he has more than 30 since 2015 (a league-high in that time frame). It’s just especially hurtful this year because he leads the league and three of those penalties have nullified touchdowns. Per The Athletic’s Robert Mays, those canceled scores are especially egregious in comparison to his peers.
Donovan Smith has been dinged for a league-high 6 holding penalties this year.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) December 12, 2022
There were 3 nullified touchdowns on those 6 calls.
36 other players have at least 3 holding penalties on the season.
There were only 3 nullified touchdowns on those 123 holding calls.
One of those scores came Sunday, as a clear-and-obvious hold wiped out what would’ve been Tampa’s longest touchdown this season – a 66-yard bomb to Mike Evans. It went from being a potential tie, 7-7, to the contest completely unraveling. Against the Saints two weeks ago, a Smith hold in the final seconds wiped out the initial game-winning score to Chris Godwin.
Mike Evans has a 66-yard TD that changes the entire momentum of the game wiped out by a Donovan Smith holding penalty.— Josh Hill (@jdavhill) December 11, 2022
Smith has been called for 6 holding penalties and has cost the Bucs over 140 yards (and at least six points). It’s unreal that this is allowed to continue: pic.twitter.com/40GhEmXiZN
On top of it all, he’s simply allowing too much heat on Tom Brady. Smith is on pace to give up more than 40 pressures per Pro Football Focus, and he’s already given up six sacks (tied for sixth-worst).
So yeah, it’s not going great!
Smith, to his credit, has been an iron man since entering the league in 2015. He started 77 straight games before a nasty-looking elbow injury against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 knocked him out for the following two games. While he returned promptly in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs, it’s hard to know if the hyper-extended elbow ever had time to properly heal, which might certainly be affecting him.
However, some of Smith’s recent quotes add some variables to the speculation. He revealed that he’s also experiencing some personal issues off the field, and after Sunday’s debacle in San Francisco, he seemingly chose to implicate the referees as an issue.
Bucs tackle Donovan Smith, asked about a recent uptick in penalties and sacks allowed: “I’m playing the game of football the best way I know how. I’m dealing with some things. That’s the way it goes. It’s personal. Don’t feel like sharing it with the world.”— Greg Auman (@gregauman) December 9, 2022
Bucs tackle Donovan Smith, who had a holding penalty negate a touchdown in Sunday's loss, had this to say in postgame: "I'm not allowed to talk about penalties with the ref. It's illegal." Would seem to suggest he thinks the issue is with the call, not what he did on the play.— Greg Auman (@gregauman) December 12, 2022
There are a few aspects to note here. First and most importantly, fans should not attack a man going through personal struggles. It’s unbecoming, and we should all have some degree of sympathy. His play on the field is frustrating and he should be held accountable as a professional, but he’s also a human being who deserves common decency. So if you’ve got a red hot take primed in your Twitter drafts, just take a second or two to think before discharging it into cyberspace.
That said, perhaps Smith needs some time away from the field to clear his mind and refocus. No competitive player wants to willingly take themselves out of their position, but sometimes it is better for everybody involved. Smith’s mentality is open to questioning as well when he chooses to deflect to officiating, rather than accepting blame for what’s clearly a him issue. The refs were not good on Sunday, but they made the right call on his holding penalty.
But, ultimately, the coaching staff shouldn’t really be giving him the option to choose his path right now. Smith is actively hurting the team’s performance, and it’s hard to believe it will get much better 14 games in. If the coaches want to save their jobs and somehow lug this unit to an incredibly sad division title – and an even sadder playoff berth – they have to seriously ponder sticking Smith on the bench for a bit and giving Brandon Walton or someone else a run.
Walton played well enough in relief earlier this year, and it would honestly be hard for him to be worse. Such a change will not fix every issue the Bucs have been struggling through, but it could help alleviate ones such as the constant pressure on Brady and penalties that continually put the offense in a hole. Additionally, it would put other veterans on notice that nobody is above accountability for lackluster play. When you lose 35-7, the cruciality of that message can’t be overstated.
It would also be an ideal week to do so, as the Cincinnati Bengals just lost their best pass rusher, Trey Hendrickson. There’s an argument that that very development could be what Smith needs to get back on track, but as I mentioned earlier, he’s hardly earned the benefit of the doubt.
We should all hope Smith can get right from what’s ailing him and return refreshed for 2023. But right now, the team needs to consider every realistic change if it hopes to salvage anything from this nightmarish season.
What say you, Bucs Nation? Should the Buccaneers consider benching their longtime left tackle? Vote in the poll below and discuss in the comments!
Should the Buccaneers bench Donovan Smith?
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