Smith went on to earn two Pro Bowl nods in 2019 and 2020, leading the team in sacks (26), forced fumbles (5) and tackles for loss (29). He was the sparkplug for a Packers team that went from firing its head coach in 2018 to winning the next three division titles.
However, things changed for Smith in 2021 after he sought a second opinion for a back injury and underwent surgery. The Packers ostracized him for the rest of the season and eventually released the 30-year-old outside linebacker.
“Walking past me not saying nothing,” Smith in a feature interview with Go Long TD’s Tyler Dunne on September 7. “(Not) ‘Z, how’s your back doing?’ — there was none of that… I was like, ‘Damn, why am I being treated like this?’ ”
Now, the Vikings are reaping the benefits of Green Bay’s mistreatment of Smith. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors on November 3 after tallying 6.5 sacks in October. He is tied for the league lead with 8.5 sacks on the season and also has a league-high 13 tackles for loss in seven games played.
Smith, responding to earning NFC Player of the Week honors a day earlier, admitted he thought his career was over last year, tweeting “God is a Awesome God!! Just a year ago I thought my football career was over!!! Look at how the tables have turned!”
Za’Darius Smith Breaks Down His Fallout With Packers
In a Go Long TD feature story, Smith spoke out on the souring of his relationship with the Packers.
After feeling pain in his back while weightlifting at training camp in 2021, Smith left Green Bay to get a second opinion.
From Go Long TD:
“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 was phased out of Green Bay’s future. They restructured his contract with a potential out in 2022 that came to fruition despite Smith returning in time for the playoffs. Smith played a rotational role in a divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers, playing just 19 snaps, but still sacked Jimmy Garappolo — a flash that he is still the same player he was before the surgery.
Vikings Signing of Za’Darius Smith Among NFL’s Best Offseason Moves
Signing Smith to a three-year, $42 million deal in the offseason, the Vikings may have gotten the steal of the offseason.
Smith’s cap hit this season is just $3.2 million for Minnesota while Over the Cap has valued his worth at his position to be over $25 million.
Meanwhile, the Packers have had to sit pat and pay Smith $11.4 million severance to lead their border rival to their best start since 2009 and a 3.5-game lead in the division.