Most players who have ever suited up and played a down of football for the Minnesota Vikings can be remembered for something. Whether it’s a legend like Bud Grant or Randy Moss, or someone whose time with the franchise was short-lived like Moritz Böhringer or Babatunde Aiyegbusi. While the word “legacy” is often reserved for those who make the biggest impact, anyone can leave a legacy of their own, so long as they’re memorable and stand out from the crowd.
Za’Darius Smith is a great example of this. He will never be viewed as a Vikings legend in the same way Jared Allen or Everson Griffen are; although they all can be described as boisterous and unhinged. However, Smith managed to leave some lasting impressions in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, being one of the few players capable of single-handedly uniting two rival fanbases for all the wrong reasons. This is the story of Za’Darius Smith’s legacy, and how he provoked the Packers, and eventually, the Vikings.
Packer For Life
The Packers were coming off a 2018 season where they were mediocre when it came to pressuring the quarterback, ranking 18th in the league in pressure rate. With Aaron Rodgers no longer in his prime, the Packers needed to build a defense that could hold their own. So that offseason, they signed Preston and Za’Darius Smith to help fortify their pass rush. Upon signing with the Green Bay Packers, it didn’t take long for Za’Darius Smith to establish himself as one of the fan favorites. Za’Darius brought this edge that the fans loved, which was something the Packers' defensive line didn’t have for quite some time. He was exactly what they needed.
For a while, things were great. In his first two seasons with the Packers, Za’Darius Smith had 26 total sacks, was named Second-Team All-Pro in 2020, and went to back-to-back Pro Bowls. That offseason, Smith was lobbying for an extension so that he could be a “Packer for life”. Everything seemed so promising, but little did we know that things would take a turn for the worse in 2021.
Captain Cap Hit
Instead of extending Za’Darius, the Packers front office restructured his contract, lowering his cap hit for 2021 while simultaneously increasing his cap hit to $27.7 million in 2022. This pretty much ensured that Green Bay wouldn’t keep him past 2021. This frustrated Za’Darius, who viewed this transaction as a form of disrespect. He ended up hiring new agents shortly afterwards. My friend Sam, who is a Packers fan, witnessed firsthand how Smith’s attitude and demeanor drastically changed after extension talks stalled.
“Za’Darius came in and seemed like an immediate leader, and someone who wanted to be involved in the community. He was loud, and got the whole fanbase pumped. Then he flipped a switch. He suddenly felt disrespected and all of the things we thought about him changed. It was unexpected.”
The beginning of the 2021 season is when Za’Darius Smith really started to stir the pot. Angered that he was not voted a team captain, Za’Darius decided to take matters into his own hands. He hired a jeweler to create a custom-made diamond-encrusted captain’s patch pendant, and posted it on Instagram. It may not sound like a big deal, but not only were Smith’s antics starting to become a distraction for the team, but Za’Darius not being nominated as a team captain marked the point of no return for his future in Green Bay.
Za’Darius Smith spent most of the 2021 season hampered by a lingering back injury. When he was finally healthy enough to suit up for the playoffs, Za’Darius ended up coming off the bench while Preston Smith and Rashan Gary got the bulk of the snaps with the starting unit. The Packers predictably cut him that offseason. Although the drama seemed to be over, it had only just begun.
Provoking The Packers
After hitting the open market and agreeing to a deal with the Baltimore Ravens, it seemed like the Packers could rest easy knowing that Za’Darius Smith was out of sight and out of mind in the AFC. Za’Darius was set to return to the team that drafted him and everything would be happily ever after in Baltimore. Then the improbable happened; The deal fell through. Za’Darius Smith was once again on the open market, but this time a new team emerged as the favorites to land the Pro-Bowl pass rusher – the Minnesota Vikings.
While other teams like the Dallas Cowboys were interested in signing Smith, Minnesota had something no one else could offer. Revenge. That was, ultimately, the reason why Za’Darius chose to sign here, so he could play the Packers twice a year. Za’Darius Smith talked about how poorly he was treated in Green Bay in an interview with ProFootballTalk last year ahead of the Vikings' season opener against the Packers.
“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. I put my back on the f---ing line. I put everything. And that year three, I was treated bad. That’s why I’m here now. So, I can play them twice a year.”
As we all know, the Vikings have quite the history when it comes to signing ex-Packers players. However, this signing was different from someone like Greg Jennings or Daronte Jones coming to Minnesota. Za’Darius Smith was a Pro Bowl-caliber pass-rusher who still had some gas left in the tank. He was a cornerstone of the Packers' defense which was one of the better defenses in the league in 2021. Smith was easily the most impactful ex-Packer to sign with the Vikings since Brett Favre, but even he spent a year with the Jets beforehand. A betrayal of this magnitude was unprecedented.
When the signing was announced, the switch-up from Packers fans was very apparent. Some Packers fans tried using their superiority complex as a defense mechanism, while others acted like Za’Darius was washed up. This makes sense, because Packer fans wouldn’t want rival fanbases knowing they were upset about something, in fear of getting mocked. However, make no mistake, Packer fans were not happy to hear the news.
Provoking The Vikings
Meanwhile, Vikings fans were hyped to land a top free agent pass rusher, especially one from a division rival. It was extra ammunition Vikings fans could use to make fun of Green Bay. Za’Darius Smith seemed excited as well. Especially since he got to reunite with his old coaches in Mike Pettine and Mike Smith. In particular, his goals were to win the NFC North and win the Super Bowl.
Za’Darius Smith was a key component of the Vikings defense in 2022, and without his contributions Minnesota doesn’t finish atop the NFC North with a 13-4 record. Smith finished the season with 10 sacks and made another Pro Bowl appearance. If his goal was to uphold the Purple People Eaters tradition of meeting at the quarterback, then he certainly did that.
The one thing he failed to uphold in Minnesota was his end of the contract. Za’Darius agreed to terms on a 3-year, $42 million deal last offseason. However, it was structured in a very team-friendly fashion. In essence, Smith signed a 1 year, $9.5 million deal with a base salary of $1.5 million, a signing bonus of $5 million, and a per-game roster bonus of $3 million. After the 2022 season, his base salary increased drastically. Here’s a link with all the contract details, but long story short his agent got fleeced by Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.
Once Smith realized how badly he got duped, his immediate response was to list his Eagan home for sale, tweet his goodbyes, and request to be released. While some Vikings fans such as myself were shocked to hear the news, this felt like déjà vu for my friend Sam who witnessed a similar situation unfold in Green Bay.
It’s easy to look back at Za’Darius Smith’s time with the Vikings and feel dissatisfied with how it all ended. From the last eight games of the season where his production took a nosedive, to him requesting to be released one year into his three-year deal. It’s really a shame that he was adamant about leaving Minnesota, just like he was in Green Bay. Especially since both franchises were extremely accommodating, and embraced him with open arms. The fact that two rival fan bases both share a level of disdain for a former player in Za’Darius speaks volumes about his character.
On the other hand, I’m still thankful for Za’Darius’ time in Minnesota. He was an extremely entertaining personality on and off the field, and to see some of the reactions from Packers fans back when he first signed with the Vikings was hilarious. After winning the NFC North, Minnesota got draft capital for a player who was still on the Packers' payroll, that was likely to be cut anyways. Although the Vikings' defense was atrocious as a whole last season, Za’Darius was one of the few bright spots and he definitely played up to his contract, even if that was what ultimately led him to demand a change of scenery.
Special thanks to Sam, who was kind enough to provide his perspective on Za’Darius Smith. Here’s a link to his Twitter account.
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