State Your Case: why Jim Ray Smith deserves a shot at Canton

Jim Ray Smith 64) photo courtesy of the Cleveland Browns

Three Hall of Fame-caliber seasons by Terrell Davis produced a bust in Canton.

From 1996-98, Davis was the best in the NFL at what he did – run the football. He rushed for 1,538 yards in 1996, 1,750 in 1997 and 2,008 in 1998, winning one rushing title and helping the Broncos win two Super Bowls. He went to three Pro Bowls and was a first-team all-pro all three seasons. But a series of knee and leg injuries forced him into retirement after just seven NFL seasons.

But those three seasons were special — and “special” earned Davis a gold jacket.

Jim Ray Smith would like to be afforded that same courtesy from Canton.

For three years, Smith was the very best at what he did – run block. From 1959-61, he was the best guard in football for the Cleveland Browns. He was the only guard voted first-team all-pro all three of those seasons. He also went to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1958 through 1962.

Hall of Famer Jim Brown won five consecutive rushing titles behind the blocking of Smith from 1957-61. Mike McCormack played right tackle on that same Cleveland line. He played in six Pro Bowls during his 10-year career but was never voted first-team all-pro. He was enshrined in Canton in 1984 after a 17-year wait.

McCormack and Smith both retired after the 1962 season, and Gene Hickerson stepped into the starting lineup at right guard in 1963. He helped Jim Brown win his final three rushing titles and Leroy Kelly one. Hickerson went to six Pro Bowls and also was a three-time first-team all-pro during his 15 seasons. He was voted a bust in Canton as a senior candidate in 2007 after a 29-year wait.

Smith’s own wait is now at 49 years and counting. He’s never been a finalist. He’s never even been a semifinalist.

The Cowboys talked Smith, a Baylor product, out of retirement from the Browns in 1963 to play two more seasons. But physically, he was not there for the expansion team. Injuries limited him to 16 of a possible 28 games before he called it quits, this time for good.

So Smith wound up playing nine seasons and was a Pro Bowl blocker in more than half of them. He was a first-team all-pro in a third of them.

There are a few differences between Smith, McCormack and Hickerson. Longevity is one of them. Smith played the shortest career of the three. Championships are another difference. McCormack played on two NFL champions, Hickerson one and Smith none. The Hall of Fame selection committee is partial to players who win championships. Of the 275 players enshrined, 63 percent of them arrived in Canton wearing championship rings.

But if Canton’s new standard is three Hall of Fame seasons, then the door has been opened to the short-career players. Running back Priest Holmes, wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, defensive end Rich Jackson and Smith all deserve to have their careers discussed and debated by the Hall of Fame selection committee.

When Smith finally retired, the Browns sent his jersey off to Canton in anticipation of his election to the Hall of Fame. But until you are a finalist, you are not a Hall of Fame candidate. It may or may not come at this point – it’s been half a century since he last played — but Jim Ray Smith, one of the best guards of his era, deserves a turn as a finalist.

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  1. bachslunch
    September 18, 2018

    Rick, enjoyed reading this. Srong case made, and well written.

    I’ve been convinced that Jim Ray Smith has an excellent HoF argument for some time now. Guard is not the best represented position, and especially not for this time period. I have his honors as 4/5/none, with three of the 1st team all pro selections unanimous and a fourth (1962) via NEA only when he was otherwise a 2nd teamer — plus he was unanimously named a 2nd team all pro in 1958. Ken Crippen’s film study site ranks him very highly in the few games they looked at.

    His nine year career is a tad brief, but is actually longer than that of HoFer Dick Stanfel as well as another 50s guard who probably belongs in, Dick Barwegen. His career straddles two decades, which didn’t help him any in all decade team consideration.

    And best I can tell, he’s still alive at age 86.

    I’m sold.

    • Rick Gosselin
      September 18, 2018

      If you didn’t have statistics and didn’t win championships, you have the longest possible road to Canton. I agree with you on Barwagen. Wish Howard Mudd would get a look as well. I feel for the interior linemen of the 1950s and 1960s.

  2. bachslunch
    September 18, 2018

    Guards really did get the short end of it for the 50s and 60s, and there are a lot of folks who could merit a look. Besides Smith, Barwegen, and Mudd (combo with coaching), there’s Walt Sweeney, Ed Budde (both on the all-AFL team), Duane Putnam, Ken Gray, Gale Gillingham, and John Niland.

    Guard from this period is a position that just can’t catch a break, sorry to say.

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