(Jerry Smith photos courtesy of the Washington Redskins)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
Before there was Shannon Sharpe … before there was Kellen Winslow … before there was Ozzie Newsome or Dave Casper or any tight end known more for catching than blocking, there was Washington’s Jerry Smith.
A former wide receiver, Smith became one of the most dangerous and productive tight ends of his era. What he didn’t become was a Hall-of-Fame finalist, semifinalist or senior candidate, and while that’s not likely to change anytime soon I can tell you why it should.
Because Jerry Smith deserves nothing less.
Jerry Smith was such a force in the passing game that, when he retired after the 1977 season, he held the touchdown record for his position. It was 60, and I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, so what? Rob Gronkowski already has more, and he’s only played six years.
But Gronk is from a different era, where 4,000-yard passing seasons aren’t uncommon and 100-catch years nothing extraordinary. Last year 12 quarterbacks threw for 4,024 yards or more, including rooking Jameis Winston. The year before it was 11. And the year before that, nine – with two (Peyton Manning and Drew Brees) eclipsing 5,000.
When Jerry Smith was named All-Pro in 1967, there were no quarterbacks who threw for 4,000 yards and only five who threw for 3,000. The highest completion percentage was John Unitas’ 58.5, and the best passer rating was Sonny Jurgenson’s 87.3.
As I said, a different era.
(Jerry Smith, right, photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins)
Now let’s look at the receiving leaders. Last year seven players had 100 or more receptions, and there were four in each of the 2014 and ’13 seasons. When Smith had a career-best 67 catches in 1967, only one player had more – teammate Charley Taylor, with a league-leading 70. That was a year when Smith produced 12 touchdowns, too, and only one player there was better – the Giants’ Homer Jones with 13.
Jerry Smith was one of the best pass-catching tight ends of any era, and the proof is in those 60 career touchdowns – a record that stood for the position until Sharpe broke it 26 years after Smith retired. It’s also a Redskins’ record for tight ends that remains today.
But Smith was more than just a wide-receiver-turned-tight-end. He was someone who could catch AND block – or, as Washington president Bruce Allen said, “a true tight end, always with a hand on the ground.” And Allen should know. His father, George, coached Jerry Smith.
“He had the Mike Ditka thing in a 210-pound body,” said former teammate Charley Taylor, on the NFL Network’s “A Football Life.” “Mike was 240. Jerry was 210. But he could do the same thing.”
Not quite. Ditka is in the Hall of Fame. Jerry Smith is not, and, OK, I get it. Smith was named to the NFL’s All-Pro team twice and was not an all-decade choice. Ditka was a five-time All-Pro and member of the league’s 75th anniversary team.
But talk about a complete player. Jerry Smith wound up with 17 more touchdown catches than Ditka, eight more than Casper, 13 more than Newsome and 15 more than Winslow.
And he still ranks fourth on the all-time list for tight ends.
Yet he not only has never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist or semifinalist; he’s only twice made the preliminary list – which is whittled down annually from over 100 names to 25 semifinalists before it’s reduced to 15 finalists. Now that I don’t get, and critics have asked if it’s because Smith was gay – dying in 1986 from AIDs.
I can’t speak for past committees, but it’s a topic I have never, ever, ever heard discussed in that room.
More likely, it has to do with his position. Tight ends historically have a tough time reaching the Hall, with Ditka named in his 12th year of eligibility, Casper in his 13th and Mackey in his 15th. Heck, it took Charlies Sanders 25 years to make it to Canton, and then it was as a seniors’ candidate.
Sanders had 29 fewer touchdown catches than Jerry Smith. He also had 85 fewer receptions. So why’s he in, and Smith not? Answer: Never underestimate the power of an all-decade selection.
Sanders was a member of the 1970s’ all-decade squad. Smith was not, and, yes, that’s significant. As our Rick Gosselin has pointed out on Talk of Fame Network broadcasts more than once, 76 percent of Canton inductees are all-decade members.
Translation: You better be all-decade or make a significant mark to be Canton worthy.
But there’s something else. Smith avoided the limelight. While others like Ditka and Winslow were the centers of media attention, Smith was a reluctant interview. Self-promotion was not part of his game; hard work, selflessness and reliability were, and maybe, just maybe, that plays a part in his failure to make a blip on the Hall-of-Fame radar.
All I know is that Jerry Smith was one of the best tight ends of his era and one of the best tight ends ever. If nothing else, he deserves to have his case discussed. So let’s start talking.