View from the O-Zone: Smith deserves Pride – and more

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JACKSONVILLE – Sunday will be special for Jimmy Smith – more than special, actually.

Memorable, thrilling, heart-stopping … all make for really cool days – and there's no question Sunday at EverBank Field will be cool for Smith. Good for him. It's deserving.

And speaking of deserving, Sunday shouldn't be the last such day for the best wide receiver ever to play for the Jaguars. Nor should it be the biggest.

But first things first – and the first thing to know about Smith going into the Pride of the Jaguars Sunday is this is a guy whose name and number absolutely belongs on that wall.

Sometimes these things are debatable. There are many names on many stadiums around the NFL, and some names are more deserving than others.

Smith's Pride inclusion is beyond debate, because make no mistake:

Those Jaguars glory years, 1996-1999? The run to the AFC Championship Game in 1996? The '96 playoff victories over Denver and Buffalo? The two division titles and the 14-2 1999 season?

None happen without Smith. None.

He was an elite player – a five-time Pro Bowl selection who twice overcame life-threatening illnesses to reach that level.

And yes, there is darkness in Smith's story, too. Most fans know the stories of Smith's off-field troubles late in his career and during a lot of his retirement. We mention these here because they're part of Smith's story, but this week isn't the time for emphasizing such things.

No, this week is a time for emphasizing Smith's career – for remembering just how good he was, and just what he meant to this organization.

That's because he was really, really good – better, perhaps, than many remember.

And he meant a lot to this organization. A few players, perhaps, have meant more; the list is short and exclusive.

How good was Smith? His statistics tell part of the story: 862 receptions for 12,287 yards in a 13-year career that included seasons without receptions in 1992 and 1993 with Dallas. He spent 1994 out of football and had 288 yards receiving for the 1995 expansion Jaguars; for the 10 seasons after that his career rivaled pretty much any NFL receiver at the time outside the unrivaled Jerry Rice.

He had more than 1,000 yards receiving every season but one from 1996-2005. The lone exception was 2003 when he had 805 yards receiving while playing just 12 games. He finished his career as the NFL's seventh-leading receiver in receptions and 11th all-time in yards.

But statistics only tell part of the story, and the bigger part was the respect he had from defensive backs. No receiver compared with Rice, but those who covered receivers at the time often called Smith the next-most-difficult to defend.

I covered Smith from 1995-2001, then covered Marvin Harrison with the Colts from 2002-2008. Harrison was inducted into the Hall of Fame in January, and was considered a lock to make it early in his eligibility. I can't honestly say he was better than Smith.

Smith was a rare combination: size, speed, strength. His strength made him difficult to press. His speed and thickness made him difficult to cover deep; once he got a defender on his hip, the advantage was his. He played with quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Byron Leftwich for the majority of his career. Brunell was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, but it's fair to wonder what statistics Smith would have compiled had he played the majority of his career with elite quarterbacks.

As it is, his numbers are impressive. Very impressive.

Hall-of-Fame impressive? That's a legitimate question. Is Smith worthy? Yes. Its likelihood is a different story. Smith has been on the Hall of Fame modern-era preliminary list since 2011, but has yet to make the list of semifinalists.

The Hall process of course has proven tough for the Jaguars' three most Hall-worthy players. Tony Boselli made the preliminary list eight years before being named a semifinalist. Once there last January, he did not make the finalist list. Though it now feels more and more likely that Boselli will get in, his induction already is overdue.

Fred Taylor, the best running back in franchise history and a player who retired as the NFL's 15th all-time leading rusher, became eligible for the Hall this year. His absence from even the preliminary list was as laughable as it was unfortunate.

Smith is facing a similarly long road with seemingly long odds. Still, the odds seemed against Boselli until around this time last year. Then, the conversation changed. More voters took a closer look at Boselli's career and suddenly what seemed unlikely seems possible.

Smith's Hall of Fame hopes could – and should – take a similar turn. Whereas a close look at some players' career reveals warts, a close look at Smith reveals a player who was among the elite players at his position for an extended time – and a player key to the success of a very successful team. A close look at Smith reveals a player who is very much Hall-worthy.

Here's hoping it happens. If so, it would cool. And deserving.

Because while Sunday at the 'Bank will be a big, special day for the best wide receiver in Jaguars history, it shouldn't be the last such day. And it shouldn't be the biggest, either.

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