You can look at Jimmy Smith’s career and follow the success of the Jaguars along with it. When he was great, the team was great, when he was down, the team tended to be down as well. There was a time when Jimmy Smith was the best receiver in the game. His five straight Pro Bowl appearances from 1997-2001 were in the prime of his career. He went to the Pro Bowl the year before as the guest of Keenan McCardell but left Hawaii after a day saying he’d only return when he made the team.
Smith retired on Thursday after 15 years in the league, 11 with the Jaguars holding most of the team’s receiving records.
He made spectacular catches, and he made routine ones. He was blazing fast and made himself a great player.
A second round pick out of Jackson State, Smith had a bit of a chip on his shoulder after not sticking with the Cowboys (he was out a year with an appendix problem) and the Eagles not showing much interest either. He was signed by the Jaguars and played mostly special teams but eventually moved into the starting lineup. When he was on, he was great. Over 12,000 yards, 862 catches and 67 touchdowns. He was a great route runner and his speed demanded respect.
“Jimmy Smith is not one of the most acclaimed receivers in the league,” Jaguars Personnel director James Harris said at the retirement announcement today, “but he is one of the most respected.” Harris said defensive backs always named Smith among the hardest receivers to cover. For most of his career, he drew double coverage and opened up the rest of the offense.
No doubt his skills diminished in the last couple of years. His drops were more noticeable and in more crucial situations. His drop on third down against New England in the playoffs ended a drive the Jaguars desperately needed. He didn’t like that at all. Apparently, he talked with Jack Del Rio about retirement right after last season, but was talked out of it. Even McCardell called him on Wednesday night to tell him to keep playing. But Smith said he was done, ready to call it a career and move on with the next phase of his life.
The timing was a bit strange that’s for sure. Instead of before the draft or before the free-agent signing period, Smith’s announcement came right before mini-camp fueling speculation that his retirement could have been somewhat forced. Jimmy’s history of substance abuse is well documented, suspended for four games at the beginning of the season in 2001 for his second violation of the league’s policy. There were constant reports last year that he had failed another test, but his appeal was granted when the lab committed some procedural errors on the second sample. So he was able to play. If he had failed another test, Smith would have been ineligible to participate in the team’s mini-camp this weekend and his absence would have been noticed.
When asked if his retirement had anything to do with drugs or substance abuse, Smith said, “I’m 37 years old and it’s time for me to retire.” The follow up “Is that a no?” was meekly answered, “Yes.” Not a ringing repudiation.
I can’t imagining not taking that opportunity on live television in front of everybody to look at the reporter and say, “No, an emphatic no. I’m clean. I’ve made some mistakes in the past, but they’ve got nothing to do with today.” That would have ended all of the talk. But he didn’t say that, leaving the door open to fuel the talk about drug use and Smith’s past.
I sat in Jimmy’s living room on live television with his wife Sandra, (who by the way is a fabulous person) and his kids and had him look me in the eye and deny he had any involvement in drugs. He was lying directly to me and continued to do so until he got caught. The whole “pulled over for a traffic violation” video was screened on local television with Smith being taken to the Sheriff’s office and charged with DUI. He lied to me, he lied to radio and print reporters as well.
I know that’s symptomatic of an addict, but it became part of Smith’s legacy, part of his life’s story. He was inconsistent in his dealings with the media, sometimes being brutally honest and always accessible to nowhere to be found after the 1999 AFC Championship game loss to the Titans. He stood us up on the End Zone a couple of times, but when he made an appearance, he was about the best guest you could have.
So he leaves the Jaguars with an up and down history, mostly up on the field with his greatness outshining his failings. If it were all about statistics, Jimmy would be a solid candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it’s not just about stats so truly history will judge his place among the greats of the game.
As far as the team goes, Head Coach Jack Del Rio says they won’t go out and find anybody new for Jimmy’s spot. They have plenty of receivers on the roster that can do the job according to Del Rio. Some with different skills that Smith. I’m not sure who that is, unless they think Cortez Hankton or Reggie Williams is ready to emerge as a #1 receiver.
As a fan and as a guy, I’ve always liked Jimmy and enjoyed seeing him succeed. And that part of me wants him to walk away from the game unscathed and leave his problems behind. At 37 he has become a young man again, with young children to raise. As a journalist, I have that voice calling to me saying something in the retirement just seemed a little off.
I hope I’m wrong.