Will Za'Darius Smith get revenge? 'That’s why I’m here now. So, I can play them twice a year'
He started preparing his Week 1 speech in the spring. This defense's new edge rusher is not shy in our chat, either. Now a Viking, Smith wants a piece of the Packers. What happened anyways?
EAGAN, Minn. — Sweet revenge feeds every competitor’s soul. With tangible rewards such as trophies and contract extensions always at stake, we tend to forget these are human beings with an endless supply of pride.
The Green Bay Packers released Za’Darius Smith.
Smith signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
Now, they’ll face off in the 2022 NFL season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.
It’s early June as we chat at Vikings HQ but to say the newest outside linebacker in Minnesota has circled Sept. 11, 2022 on his calendar would be the understatement of the century. He knows how he’s wired. He hated how 2021 went down in Green Bay and — now — Smith is dying to tee off on his former team.
“I played one year of high school football,” Smith begins. “For me to be where I’m at today, that’s how you know I love the game. I put my all into it. That’s why I felt the way I did with Green Bay — I gave that shit my all. I put my blood, sweat… I put my back on the f--king line. I put everything. And that Year 3, I was treated bad. That’s why I’m here now. So, I can play them twice a year.”
We can hyper-analyze matchups. We can grind the All-22 until our eyes bleed. Distilled to its essence — stripped of all nauseating pomp and circumstance — right here is what the sport is all about. Maybe it doesn’t fit neatly into a Park Avenue-approved infomercial but football is a ruthless sport played by grown-ass men hellbent on proving people wrong. And this is easily one of the juiciest subplots in the NFC. The Packers and Vikings are no strangers to revenge games. The sight of Brett Favre in purple still makes fans across the border barf. Those four games in 2009 and 2010 were religious experiences in the Midwest. Wideout Greg Jennings was one of the greatest receivers in team history, a Super Bowl hero, yet ostracized by large portion of the fan base.
Now, Za’Darius Smith heads to Minnesota to stick it to Green Bay. What should’ve been a long-lasting career in Wisconsin ended miserably and, in this conversation with Go Long, the 6-foot-4, 272-pounder sugarcoats nothing.
In building this 2022 edition of the Minnesota Vikings, true, new head coach Kevin O’Connell is rolling with the usual suspects. But there was one significant investment. At $42 million over three years, Smith is the player handpicked to bring the juice to Minnesota’s new 3-4 defense. Teammates rave about his energy. Smith has declared this defensive front “Purple People Eaters 2.0,” even repeating the OG group’s go-to line: “Meet at the quarterback.”
What’s wild is that Smith was having this exact same effect in Green Bay.
What the heck happened? And where does Smith go from there? He’ll be the one giving the Vikings a speech ahead of this Week 1 game. Smith was preparing a speech for the entire team way back in the spring.
He’s been dissecting the Packers’ film to pick up on every conceivable key, too.
“This is my everyday livelihood,” Smith says. “This shit wasn’t even meant to be for me. I really went and took that shit and really became one of the best outside linebackers in the league. That shit means a lot to me.”
The Vikings are counting on the Packers’ loss being their gain. They love his energy. Right here is a vital element to that player-driven culture O’Connell is trying to instill. The loud, hilarious, violent, imposing Za’Darius Smith can bring everything the new head coach talks about to life. And let’s face it. For all of the good juju in Minnesota, Aaron Rodgers remains Green Bay’s quarterback. He’s been smirking and torching and hop-scotching through this division for years. This defense still needs a hammer capable of getting the four-time MVP off his spot.
The best place to turn is toward a player so motivated to face the Packers.
A player who hated how the team treated him when he hurt his back. (Smith doesn’t hold back in this conversation, as you’ll see.)
A player who wants to build something historic with Danielle Hunter in Minnesota. (Smith has been taking his Vikings history lessons.)
Quite possibly, “Z” is the exact ingredient this new culture needs.
The sense déjà vu is real. He can’t shake it.
Three years ago, Smith arrived in Green Bay to change that defense. Times were tough in Titletown when he signed. The head coach was fired, the quarterback was at a career crossroads, and the defense? Shambles. The state of affairs was bad. So, the team’s general manager, Brian Gutekunst, decided to do something his predecessor abhorred each March: Spend money.
Smith was the keynote signing of a massive free agency haul on defense.
Thinking back to the Packers days, Smith starts here. With fond memories. He still takes pride in zapping life into Green Bay’s defense back in ’19.
“Just like here, it was new for us,” Smith says. “New coach. New system. Everything was new. But we wanted to create something that would last a long time. Green Bay never did like free agents. For us to come in, it was big. I really had some shoes to fill. They’d always talk about Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. Those were legendary guys. We came in and said, ‘We’ve got to set the tone.’ So for us to come in as free agents, a lot of people were looking at us, like, ‘Who are these guys?’”
With the Baltimore Ravens, Smith had a mentor in Terrell Suggs polishing off a 139-sack career. He saw how an entire defensive unit can operate in unison — and dominate. It takes camaraderie and togetherness that frankly did not exist in Green Bay when Smith first arrived.
He sincerely wanted to change that. And he did.
Smith was named a captain and delivered with the best season of his career. Our Bob McGinn recorded an eye-popping 65 ½ pressures for Smith and the 13.5 sacks ranked sixth in the NFL. Smith did it with an attitude that was missing at Lambeau Field. So much attitude that even the coaches’ wives noticed. After the Packers knocked off the Denver Broncos in the third game, 27-16, Smith remembers sauntering on out to the parking lot where some of the coaches were having a cookout with their loved ones.
“They were like, ‘We’re so glad you’re here!’” Smith recalls. “Everybody’s just drunk after the game. They’re like, ‘We’re so glad you’re here! You came in and changed the culture! I love y’all so much!’ I knew then that we were bringing something special because that was a coach’s wife who said that.”
Nothing was forced. This all felt natural.
He’d sack the quarterback, celebrate, engage in comical joint interviews with fellow linebacker Preston Smith and the Packers’ defense improved — drastically — before getting smacked by Raheem Mostert and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. The next year, Smith was just as good. The Packers fell in the conference title game again. This time, to Tampa Bay. Smith loved how coaches migrated him all over the field. Coaches knew what he was capable of, he says, more than he did. Mike Pettine was his coordinator. Mike Smith was his position coach. Both are now in Minnesota.
“Putting me in situations I didn’t know I was dominant at,” Za’Darius Smith says. “Hell, I didn’t even know I had that type of ability to move around and play any position. So, they put me in those situations — they wanted me to be in 1-on-1 situations. For me to move around the field, I was basically a guy that was always going to get a 1 on 1. I can beat the man in front of me every time. Those coaches saw that and put me in that situation, and I became an All-Pro.”
Then, everything fell apart. Last season, he played in the first game and the last game.
What went down remains a cryptic mystery to most outsiders. The Packers hardly said a peep publicly and Smith wasn’t required to meet with reporters all season, so nobody heard from him. Here, Smith traces everything back to when he felt a pain in his back weightlifting into training camp.
“I was like, ‘Hold on. What the f--k is this?’” Smith begins. “So, I go to the trainers. They tell me one thing. I said, ‘Alright. I feel like I need a second opinion.’ Because this shit doesn’t feel like anything normal. It was training camp. It was coming back for training camp. When that happened, I said, ‘Let me get a second opinion. They didn’t want me to leave because it was training camp. Get what I’m saying?”
Smith flew to Los Angeles to see his doctor on an off day, and this doctor told him he had a “bulge” in his back that was touching a nerve. He advised Smith shave it down a bit. To him, the linebacker most certainly needed surgery. That word — “surgery” — stunned Smith, but he was all in upon hearing that one of the best surgeons would be fixing him up. Dr. Robert Watkins had previously made Jason Pierre-Paul and Rob Gronkowski good as new.
He got the surgery. He returned to Wisconsin.
The mood, he claims, completely changed.
“How I was here in the building,” he says holding his hand high, before tilting it down, “I came down to here. To a nobody. To everybody in building. I was like, ‘Damn, why am I being treated like this? I brought the culture. I helped change this shit. Why the f--k am I the one being treated like that?’”
Smith isn’t shy in explaining what he means by this because it’s part of the reason he’s now in purple.
“Walking past me not saying nothing. ‘Z, how’s your back doing?’— there was none of that. As you can see, that adds on to why I’m on the other side. So, I can go back. I get to go back two times a year.”
To all of us, it seemed Smith was pissed that the Packers didn’t name him one of the seven captains ahead of the 2021 season. “Wow,” he tweeted then. Head coach Matt LaFleur said at the time that it was the byproduct of Smith not being around the team through training camp. For what it’s worth, in our chat, Smith downplays the captaincy snub and says he was fine with Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos and Kenny Clark leading the defense because all three stepped up. One other source of discontent could’ve been his contract status. Earlier in the offseason Smith restructured his deal in a way that opened the door for Green Bay to dump him in 2022. Yet, even back then, Smith tweeted he wanted to be a Packer “for life.”
To him, it’s simple.
His anger is rooted in the Packers wanting him to play when he believed his back required surgery and time off.
“Yes, they did. That was the only thing I hated,” Smith says. “A lot of fans are now upset with me about the situation. They hate me because they felt like I was just angry for no f-----g reason. They thought I was angry over the contract. I was like, ‘I did good. But that contract was one-year guaranteed.’ … So, for me to come back into that building after going to see my doctor, it felt like shit went south. After that, man, that year didn’t go how I wanted it to.”
It’s not like he completely shut it down, of course.
Smith returned for the Packers’ divisional playoff game against San Francisco at Lambeau Field. He was fully prepared to play with that surgically repaired back to win a Super Bowl. In that loss, he even sacked Jimmy Garoppolo.
“And a lot of people are still mad at me to this day,” Smith adds. “I get a lot of tweets. Angry Packer fans. They’re angry at me.”
In 38 games with the Packers, his pass-rushing production was on par with the best in the sport. Smith was constantly wrecking drives with 30 sacks and 59 quarterback hits in all. If this player is still in there somewhere and if he stays healthy — two major unknowns — the Vikings poached a star at a premium position straight from a division rival. Smith originally agreed to sign with the Ravens, but backed out to join these Vikes. Once more, Smith is trying to be the megawatt energy source for an entire defense. After practice this day, he grabs Danielle Hunter to pose for some pictures with the team’s photographer.
Both players hold their arms out like the Night King at Hardhome in full-on “come at me bro” swagger.
When he first arrived, Smith started learning as much as he could about those Purple People Eaters of the ‘70s: Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen. He had never heard of this group before. But after watching highlights, Smith told himself, “OK! That’s something we can bring back!” He means it, too. He believes this front can also cave the pocket at a scary rate, and he’s getting Hunter to believe the same thing. Moments after posing for that picture, Hunter thinks back to when he and Smith were foes in the NFC North. “He,” Hunter says. “was the player we had to watch.”
As soon as he could, Smith shared the Packers’ offensive calls and schemes with teammates. He pointed out specific strengths and weaknesses in players on the roster. Obviously, Rodgers and LaFleur will be changing things up for Week 1 — especially without wide receiver Davante Adams — but adding an old enemy to your defense helps.
Uh, yeah. Hunter promises Smith is thrilled to face his former team.
“And a lot of us are excited to go out there with him,” Hunter says. “Him coming in here, he’s a leader right away. He’s been helping the young guys out because we have a young team. It’s a good balance of older guys and younger guys. Him coming in, he’s taking all of the younger guys under his wing and showing them the way.”
The defense has grown close in this Post-Zim world. In meetings, Smith speaks up as much as anybody and Hunter says they’ve all been hanging out off the field “as a family.” They stage paintball games: outside linebackers vs. inside linebackers. The week prior to this conversation, they played Laser Tag. Next up, the plan was to head to Top Golf. Critics can mock this stuff all they want but within such a violent game — where bonds must be tight — such camaraderie must exist. Teammates see Smith going above and beyond to strengthen real relationships throughout the defense.
When it comes to the actual X’s and O’s, Smith has helped the giant Hunter adjust from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Hunter believes Smith has the talent to lift this perpetually OK team into title contention, too.
“Z definitely brings that impact on the line,” Hunter says. “He comes in and he can play all over the line. He can play nose, guard, rush from all over. End. That’s something we’ve really needed these past three years. Seeing him out here at practice — being able to rush from everywhere — that’ll be a plus for us.”
“I can be one side and…”
He stops himself.
“…I’m not going to give away all of our plans, but it’s a plus for the D-Line.”
The man who’d know best is the right tackle trying to block Smith through those Packers games. Brian O’Neill takes a seat, exhales and says he’s glad Smith has joined “the good guys.” Three words that likely make our Packers readers here cringe. What makes Smith so difficult to block? He can rush from every spot.
Says O’Neill: “He can beat you with speed. He can beat you with power. He can beat you with technical moves. But he can do it over the guard. He can do it over the center. He can do it from the right side, the left side. He can run games. He’s really skilled in a lot of different ways and can present problems from not just one spot. Which a lot of guys are really good at one spot. He’s really good from three, four, five spots with multiple different moves from each.”
As a lineman, a pass rusher like this forces you to be “100 percent” honest.
Against a “one-trick pony” or even a “two-trick pony,” O’Neill explains, you can cheat a bit. You know what’s coming. But against Smith, a lineman needs to take what he gives you. You’re forced to react to whatever Smith decides to do. And if you overstep one way or another, you’re toast.
This effect doesn’t always pop in the box score because — play-to-play — Smith basically swats away chess pieces from a playcaller’s board. O’Neill remembers the Vikings chipping Smith with a running back, which takes that player completely out of a route. Other times, they’d need to shade a guard over to help which then puts other linemen in vulnerable 1-on-1 situations. Za’Darius Smith was the focal point for the Vikings and that, he assures, created a damning ripple effect. “It put the onus,” O’Neill says, “on everybody who wasn’t blocking him.”
When the Packers and Vikings played in Minneapolis last season, quarterback Kirk Cousins was mostly unscathed in the pocket in completing 24 of 35 passes for 341 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s no coincidence.
“I’ll say this,” O’Neill says. “When he wasn’t on the team last year, we felt that presence on the defensive line go down. It was a noticeable difference when he wasn’t out there in terms of the intensity or maybe one guy can be 1 on 1 more than the other. It allowed us to do a lot of different things.”
And right there is why Smith is still worth top dollar. At his best, he’s a weapon that offenses must write in all bold, all caps in the gameplan.
Offense wasn’t the problem in Minnesota last season. Most of those eight losses by a TD or less were on the defense. He could fix this.
Oh, the Packers know plenty about Smith themselves. They will no doubt test their old friend in the run game with the 1-2 punch of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Count on LaFleur trying to use Smith’s exuberance against him in the opener. Because if Smith flies upfield, lanes could gash wide open. That was his Achilles’ heel in Green Bay, and it’s a common problem for top pass rushers. Knowing when to slam the gas pedal and when to tap the breaks is a balance T.J. Watt has mastered.
There’s also the fact that the Packers — one way or another — always get the last laugh in this border war.
Still, it’s also true that revenge has been on Smith’s mind for years.
Before heading off to a meeting, Smith reminds everyone how far he’s come. The Alabama native needed to go the JUCO route at East Mississippi Community College. The school carried only eight out-of-state players and Smith only played one year of high school ball. His technique was shot. He didn’t know how to read an offense. The NFL was an impossible pipe dream back then. Smith needed to completely learn the game from the team’s defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, who also happened to play with Smith’s brother (Bob Meeks) at Auburn.
“We clicked instantly,” Smith says. “He took me under his wing. After practice, I’d stay with him. Like, ‘Coach, what’s this run?’ ‘Plunge! Stutter!’ He was teaching me all of that stuff, while every other guy was going home on the weekend. I had to stay there. When you really want something and you want to be successful at it — and you work hard — it’ll happen for you.”
If we learned anything from Rachaad White, it’s that JUCO life can be a rotten, stinking, cockroach-infested nightmare… that makes you equipped for anything. Smith turned his own two years on the brink of the sport into a scholarship from Kentucky, and here he is entering Year 8 as a pro.
Then, Smith even takes it back further. To his childhood, to when he was an eighth-grader hanging out with 12th-graders.
One summer, his friends got in trouble and were tossed into the Butler County Correctional Facility.
His mother, Sharon, just so happened to work at the jailhouse and decided to take her son for a drive to the facility. Inside, Mom told young Za’Darius to walk to “Cell 5.”
“I’m like, ‘Cell 5? What the f--k?’ I go back there and see my boys. They’re like, ‘Z! What’s up?’ I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ She says, ‘Go in there with ‘em. Go sit in there for 30 minutes with them.’ They’re in the jail cell. She gave me the key and told me to go in there. ‘Go play cards with ‘em. Go in there and watch TV. Go chill with ‘em. Talk to them.’ So, I’m in there on the hard seats. A little small table. Bunk beds. One toilet for five people. So I’m like, ‘Damn, what if somebody has to go to the bathroom?’ You really have to sit in here and be roommates with five guys. They brought our food for lunchtime, and it was so disgusting.
“This showed me — right then — that I never want to go to jail.”
He never had a father figure. This single lesson whipped him into shape, and he quit hanging around shady crowds.
Za’Darius Smith is always grinning from ear-to-ear because he knows how far he’s come. His joy’s been infectious. His arrival combined with Mike Zimmer’s exit has drastically increased the general happiness on this side of the ball. Hunter ‘n co. cannot say it enough: Everyone enjoys coming to work now. In four days, substance on a Sunday will finally replace vibes.
When a player like Smith promises to bring it vs. his old team with a drip of unapologetic vengeance, a little more life is pumped into the sport itself. This is what makes the NFL great.
The honesty is refreshing. Give me Nickell Robey-Coleman calling his shot ahead of a Super Bowl over kissing Tom Brady’s rings.
That doesn’t mean this is going to end well. Green Bay would love to choke out Minnesota’s hope yet again. But that’s why this new Vikings regime signed Smith — to change that inevitability, to veer these two franchises in opposite directions.
He’s healthy. He’s paid. He got his wish “to play them twice a year.”
Finally, Week 1 is here. This rivalry has new life.
And, by Monday, Smith hopes a few more Packers fans are angry at him.
Our most recent longform ahead of this 2022 season…
Great, hearty discussion here everyone.
Packers-Vikings should be a quite the brouhaha on Sunday.
Will get into all the above on the podcast with Jim Monos tonight -- https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/go-long-with-dunne-monos/id1542095361
I'm still confused as to what his actual beef with Green Bay is. It doesn't make any sense that he would be ostracized for an injury, particularly by the locker room. I can see where the front office would take that into consideration in cutting him loose, especially for a back injury, which I find it hard to fault them for. I guess the article didn't really specify who was allegedly treating him in such a way. I was really hoping to get a more detailed reasoning besides "everyone hates me now for no particular reason." Seems fishy. Usually when that happens, it's the person's own fault, i.e. when everything smells like shit, check the bottom of your shoes.
I wish him the best and for all he gave Green Bay these last few years, he was absolutely a part of changing the culture on defense, but it seems like with most of these things, we'll never know what truly went down behind the scenes. I have a feeling that the emergence of Rashan Gary played a role in Green Bay's decision to cut Z more than anything. But that's what happens in the NFL, it's a game of replacement. The Vikings can continue their tradition of plucking our salty leftovers, it helps keep the rivalry fresh.