First Sean Smith felt pain. Then he felt fear.
A knee injury for any player is a nightmare scenario. But for a pending free agent about to enter the most important few months of his professional life, it’s potentially life-changing.
So when Smith went down in a heap in the opening drive of the second half last Sunday, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of panic.
“Oh my god,” Smith said. “It was the worst day of my life.
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“It scared me. I was jumping on the sideline, thinking, ‘Yo, I can go back in.’ They’re like, ‘No, you’re done.’ ”
Turns out, Smith was fine. An MRI showed he merely sustained a bruised knee and not a catastrophic tear.
But his anxious 24 hours crystallized just how risky it is to play out a contract year with no safety net. Smith is one of 20 players for the Dolphins (7-8) whose contracts will expire at the end of the season, meaning Sunday’s finale in New England (11-4) is almost as much about survival as it is about winning.
A prominent Dolphins player set to become a free agent at season’s end said he has played the entire season under a dark cloud. He tries not to think about living on a razor’s edge, but can’t help it. People remind him most every day. If he isn’t asked about it by a reporter, someone will bring it up on Twitter.
Plus, the ultimate cautionary tale is just across the locker room.
Tackle Jake Long — like Smith and fellow starters Reggie Bush, Brian Hartline, Anthony Fasano, Randy Starks and Chris Clemons — is not under contract beyond this season. When Long tore his left triceps this month, it ended his season — and probably hurt his wallet. Long, the former No. 1 overall pick, wants a bank-breaking deal this spring, either from the Dolphins or another team. But he has finished each of the last two seasons on injured reserve — a red flag for talent evaluators.
If Long is a worst-case scenario, Hartline’s 2012 is exactly how pro athletes dream it up. He has put together a career season in his contract year, making himself money by the week.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Hartline said this week. “It’s happened so fast that I haven’t really thought about it in-depth, but every now and then it kind of creeps in: potentially, it could be my last game as a Dolphin.”
Hartline is one of just 15 NFL receivers to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in the season’s first 15 weeks, and Thursday, he learned he had been named as an alternate in the Pro Bowl.
Yet as of Thursday, no progress had been made on a potential contract extension, he said.
“I feel like I do want to be here, first and foremost, but the longer it takes, I guess it brings other teams into consideration,” Hartline said. “I’m kind of in the wind.”
Like Hartline, Bush is a Pro Bowl sub, and needs just 40 rushing yards to go over 1,000 for the second consecutive year. But although the Dolphins are paper thin at receiver, they have a stable of running backs. That intuitively would give Hartline more leverage than Bush.
Last week, Bush reiterated that he, too, wants to return to Miami, and the organization feels the same, so long as it’s at the right price. Bush has consistently said that he wants to be part of a football renaissance in Miami, helping resurrect a fan base that has been dispirited by a decade of losing.
“There’s definitely some unfinished business here [and] some things that we want to accomplish,” Bush said.
Bush and Hartline have been lucky. Although both have sustained minor injuries this year, neither has missed a game. And despite his scare last week, Smith has been similarly dependable.
But Smith has had better seasons on the field — Pro Football Focus ranks him in the bottom half of corners to have played at least of 25 percent of their teams’ defensive snaps — and it probably has cost him some money. For players such as Smith and Hartline, this is their time to cash in. Careers for football players are notoriously brief, and those lucky enough to make it to free agency hope to get a contract that will set them up for years.
“It’s kind of unreal to be thinking those thoughts,” said Smith, who expects to play against the Patriots, just a week after his injury. “I told myself I’m not going to allow myself to think beyond Sunday. I don’t want to be thinking about anything else but the Patriots.
“I don’t want to lose that edge. Now I’m hurt, and I’m not focused. I definitely want to finish strong, and whoever watches the film last, I want them to say, ‘OK, this is the kind of player we have right here.’ ”