To the extent that the Hall of Fame is supposed to mirror the consensus view, Smith’s absence from Canton is justified. But that’s only because he’s tragically underrated. If you take a normative view of how the Hall of Fame should operate, then the lack of traction Smith’s case has made is downright appalling.
No wide receiver of his caliber has ever been so overlooked. Even Art Monk was a finalist for the HOF every single year he was eligible until being inducted in 2008. Ditto Cris Carter, who was a finalist the first five years he was eligible before being selected for the Class of 2013. Tim Brown has been a finalist each of the first four years in which he’s been eligible. Smith, on the other hand, appears to have fallen through Canton’s cracks.
When I came up with my era-adjusted career rankings, Smith came in as the 12th best wide receiver in history. The issue with Smith has never been production but perception. Let’s go through the reasons Smith’s been overlooked.
Reason 1: No one outside of Jacksonville thinks he was that good (in the all-time, Canton sense)
Smith made “only” five Pro Bowls and was never named a first-team All-Pro by any major publication (he was twice named an AP second-team wide receiver). But these subjective awards are not always great indicators: Smith gained 1,636 yards in 1999 but the voters selected Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter over him. Isaac Bruce is the only receiver to gain more yards in a season without being named first-team All-Pro, and that came in 1995, when Herman Moore, Carter, and Jerry Rice, all joined Bruce with 119+ catches and 1,600+ yards. In 1996, Smith wasn’t a household name, and was shut out of the Pro Bowl despite leading the AFC in receiving yards (and in fact, his teammate Keenan McCardell was instead selected). As it stands, Smith’s postseason profile of 5 Pro Bowls/0 1AP isn’t that much different than that of Monk (3/1), Michael Irvin (5/1), or Steve Largent (7/1), and it probably should have been 6 Pro Bowls and 1 1AP.
Reason 2: He ranks only 17th in career receiving yards and 16th in career receptions, which is not outstanding when you remember that he played in a 16-game, pass-happy era.
That’s true. But that’s because Smith had no junk seasons. Outside of his top 10 seasons, he gained just 288 receiving yards. And let’s be honest: how many Hall of Famers are there at any position that would not have been Hall of Fame-worthy if you removed their 11th, 12th, 13th and so-on best seasons?
If we limit receivers to their best 10 seasons by receiving yards, Smith would vault up to 8th on the career list with 11,999 yards. He’d be only three yards behind Reggie Wayne and 143 yards behind Isaac Bruce, and would rank ahead of both of them in receiving yards per game since Smith missed five games during that ten-year period. The only receivers ahead of him in both yards and yards per game: Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, and Terrell Owens. Smith also would rank 8th in career receptions if we limited receivers to their best ten years behind only Rice, Harrison, Carter, Wayne, Tony Gonzalez, Tim Brown, and Holt. In other words, if Smith had some junk years, he’d have top-ten stats. I don’t think the lack of junk years should keep anyone out of the Hall.
Reason #3: It’s not just the lack of career numbers; his peak wasn’t great enough.
From 1996 to 2005, Jacksonville ranked 25th out of 30 teams in pass attempts with only 5,115. And over that time period, he was very nearly Marvin Harrison’s equal in receiving yards. The Colts, however, ranked 4th in pass attempts over that stretch.
Harrison is another player that didn’t have many junk seasons. Like Smith, he was very good from ’96 to ’05, although Harrison was only dominant for the last seven years of that stretch. But outside of another great year in 2006, that decade was basically Harrison’s career. In other words, for ten years, Smith — despite not playing with Peyton Manning and playing on a team that passed infrequently — basically matched the most statistically dominant wide receiver outside of Rice and Don Hutson. That’s incredible.
From 1996 to 2005, Smith trailed only Harrison in receiving yards, and Harrison’s Colts threw an additional 397 passes during that time. The table below shows the top 25 leaders in receiving yards over the decade in question, along with how many passes their teams attempted, the receiver’s receiving yards per team attempt and yards per game averages. The next four columns show what percentage of the receiver’s yards came from which quarterbacks.
Yes, Harrison outgained him, but that’s only because the Colts threw more passes and he had Peyton Manning. In yards per team attempt, Smith ranks first. In yards per game, only Torry Holt, Randy Moss, and Harrison are ahead of him. But Holt and Moss both played in more pass-happy offenses and I think most people would prefer playing with Holt’s set of quarterbacks.
Unfortunately for Smith, he’s dinged by many for the simple fact that his teams didn’t throw that often. But a wide receiver can’t control how often his team passes, only what he does when a pass is called. Smith lacks a signature moment, but not a signature game. Against the 2000 Ravens, running wasn’t an option for any opponent. This was especially true for the Jaguars, who were relegated to Stacey Mack as their starter with Fred Taylor out with a knee injury. In the first quarter, Brunell hit Smith for touchdowns of 43 and 45 yards to give Jacksonville a 17-0 lead. But the Ravens came back, and held a 32-29 lead with two minutes remaining. On third and six, Brunell connected with Smith for a 40-yard touchdown, giving the Jags a 36-32 lead (that the defense would relinquish to Tony Banks and Shannon Sharpe). For the day, Smith had 15 catches for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Reason #4: He didn’t score enough touchdowns
This is the most valid criticism of Smith, but it’s not significant enough to overshadow an outstanding resume. From 1996 to 2000, the Jaguars ranked 6th in points scored and 3rd in points differential. But Jacksonville was one of just three teams over that five-year period to rush for 90 touchdowns; the Jags simply didn’t pass that often when near the goal line. Even when the team struggled over the next few years, Jacksonville still boasted strong rushing touchdown numbers.
Only 17 of Smith’s career touchdowns came from within ten yards. He simply wasn’t force-fed near the goal line. I won’t argue that he was on the level of Harrison, Moss, or Owens when it comes to scoring, but those are three of the greatest receivers in NFL history. Smith also caught them when it counted: he scored 10 touchdowns in the fourth quarter or overtime with his team tied or trailing by 7 or fewer points. That’s more than Moss (9) or Harrison (5), and only one behind Cris Carter and two behind Owens.
And it’s important not to overstate the value of a touchdown, either. It’s roughly 20 yards, and that was included in the calculation that placed Smith as the 12th most valuable receiver in NFL history. For a ten-year period, he was one of the game’s best players. He shouldn’t be forgotten.