Jimmy Smith, Jacksonville
by Sam Monson
The Jacksonville Jaguars came into being in 1995, along with the Carolina Panthers as the league's first expansion teams since 1976, and despite a history stretching back only a dozen years, the Jaguars have had their fair share of great players, and several who have flown under the radar of the NFL and the mainstream media. Well we here at the Diner believe in righting those wrongs, and so here is a piece that takes a look at one of these unsung greats: Jimmy Smith.
Jimmy Smith attended College and starred at Jackson State, becoming the third wide receiver taken in the 1992 draft, behind Desmond Howard and Carl Pickens. He was selected in the second round of the draft that year, the 36th overall pick, by the Dallas Cowboys, who were looking for another WR to compliment Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Smith broke his leg during that pre-season, and didn't even make the field until October of his rookie season. He never even caught a pass during that rookie season. Just like 1992, the 1993 pre-season looked promising for Jimmy Smith, as he was the Cowboys leading receiver during their pre-season games. Then Smith had to undergo an emergency appendectomy, which actually sparked off a long list of medical problems. After his surgery, an infection set in, and Smith battled with the condition in hospital for over 3 weeks. When he emerged from hospital, he had lost 30lbs, and found himself in another battle – just to be paid for the 1993 season. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted to withhold Jimmy Smith's salary for the 1993 season, contending that the appendectomy wasn't a football related injury, and so the Cowboys were not obliged to pay him. Smith took the Cowboys to court, and won, eventually receiving his salary, but the damage in Dallas had been done. Smith spent the entire 1993 season on IR, and was eventually waived by the Cowboys before the 1994 season.
Smith, at this stage looked like just another promising college prospect that had been chewed up and spat out by the NFL. After battling back to fitness, he tried out with the Philadelphia Eagles, before being cut late in the pre-season, after what had looked like yet another promising pre-season. Smith had some other try-outs, but nothing ever panned out, so he was left with just sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring: “I did nothing,” said Smith, who ended up sitting out the entire 1993 and '94 regular seasons. "Just sat at home, watched TV from the couch. Just sat home and hoped. Hoped for a phone call. Just sat and waited." Eventually the phone call came. The Head Coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, Tom Coughlin was looking for players. The expansion Jaguars were looking for bodies to take into training camp, hoping to plough through enough NFL wreckage that they might unearth some talent, enough to field a competitive team, and maybe spring a few surprises along the way. They couldn't have wished for a better surprise than Jimmy Smith.
Coughlin was helped in his search by Jimmy Smith's mother of all people, who reportedly sent the coach a binder of Jimmy Smith's press clippings, but in reality, Tom Coughlin was well able to spot talent. Smith began his Jaguars life as a WR simply battling to make the roster, and would end his career as a 2 time All-Pro ('98 and '99), and 5 time Pro-Bowler (5 straight from 1997-2001). Of all the shrewd personnel moves that Tom Coughlin made in his early days as the Jaguars Head Coach, Jimmy Smith was the best. “We were, in effect, giving him his third and probably last chance in the National Football League. He was a humble athlete who was very respectful of the game, of his coaching staff and the opportunity. Pete [Carmichael – Jags WR coach at the time] kept saying to me, 'There is something about this kid, there is something about this kid.'”
Smith didn't set the world alight immediately in Jacksonville, and neither did the Jaguars, finishing the 1995 season with a 4-12 record, which actually beat the previous mark for an inaugural season by an expansion team of 3 wins, set by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968. The next season though, was the coming out party for both the Jaguars, and their new star WR, Jimmy Smith. In the second half of the season, Jimmy Smith logged more than 5 receptions in every game bar one, including four 100 yard receiving games, and his chemistry with QB Mark Brunell was to provide the spark that would drive Jacksonville into the playoffs in only their second season, and take them to the AFC Championship game. Smith also hauled in a TD catch during their playoff game against the heavily favoured Denver Broncos, still considered by many in Jacksonville to be the team's finest hour.
From that point on Jimmy Smith was a legitimate NFL star WR, except he was never really noticed as one by the media, perhaps because of the small media market that is Jacksonville. He just quietly went along, giving the Jaguars an elite threat, and leaving the rest of the league to realise how good he was. When people talk about Jimmy Smith, it is always the players that sing the loudest about his prowess. “Jimmy is the best receiver I've been around. He is the total team player and his teammates always knew he would be there for them. It was an honour for me to have been on the same field with him,” former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell said in the aftermath of Smith's retirement before the 2006 season. Whilst Mark Brunell might be a good judge of WR talent, it is the NFL cornerbacks that have had to face Jimmy Smith that really show you how good he was as a player.
Ravens Cornerback Chris McAlister once said “We nicknamed him “J-Smooth” because he made everything look so easy. Jimmy is clearly one of the best receivers to touch the field. He was one of the most consistent players in the NFL, with his great combination of speed and power and elite route running ability. I loved competing against him because he always brought out the best in me. I will miss him as a competitor, and the league will miss him as a man. I wish him nothing but the best.” All-Pro corner Champ Bailey goes further still, stating that “Jimmy Smith is the toughest wide receiver I've faced. He just works so hard and plays the game with so much intensity that he's difficult to stop. Every year, and I'm not sure why, he just doesn't get the attention he deserves. But he's one of the best receivers in the NFL.” Think about that for a moment, Champ Bailey says that Jimmy Smith is the toughest WR he's ever had to face. That's some pretty illustrious company, and Smith's not just in the mix, he's at the top of the list.
Smith's stats actually bear out the praise, which makes his anonymity even more of a mystery. He led the Jaguars in receiving yards in each of his final 10 seasons with the team, and ranks 8th all-time in receptions. He also ranks in the top 15 all-time for receiving yardage. He has more receptions than any WR currently in the Hall of Fame (at least until Cris Carter walks in this year), and but for an injury shortened season in 2003, would have notched 10 consecutive 1000 yard receiving seasons. Perhaps Jimmy Smith's finest season came in 1999, where the WR tore up the league for 116 receptions, 1,636 yards, and 6 TDs on the way to his second consecutive All-Pro nomination.
Jimmy Smith rose from the ashes of his own NFL career to become one of the league's best WRs, and nobody outside of his teammates and competitors ever noticed. So here is a note to everybody else – Jimmy Smith was an all-time great WR, just look at how the Jaguars have struggled at the position since he left. Jimmy Smith is the greatest player in the Jaguars' short history, and owner Wayne Weaver has already said that he will be the second player inducted into the Jaguars Ring of Honour, after OT Tony Boselli became its first member in 2006. Smith retired after a decade at the top of the NFL, but he will be remembered for the humble family man who did work in the community, and for the player who resurrected his career from the ashes.
Learn More about past NFL greats in our History Archive