Catching Up With Lightning: A Conversation With Jaguars Legend Jimmy Smith
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The people of Jacksonville love a lot of things. Those who make up the community love their city, their parks, their fishing, and much, much more.
But maybe above all else, the residents love the Jacksonville Jaguars — their football team. And one of the biggest reasons why that love for the Jaguars ever began over 25 years ago loves Jacksonville right back.
"Big part of my life. Probably the most happiest time of my life [was] spending time in Jacksonville," legendary Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith told JaguarReport in an interview this week.
"I think about it often, you know, living there. I miss the beaches, miss the people and the relationships that I had when I was there. And they are still good relationships because every time I come home I get a big warm welcome from everyone in Jacksonville, so I consider Jacksonville home. It will always be home to me."
Today Smith, 51, is the father of seven (five boys, two girls) and keeps his days busy by raising his family. Each of his sons wants to play football in their own right, Smith said, and one son, Trey Smith, is currently a running back at the University of Wyoming. But long before Smith was fostering his own family of future football players, he was a part of the Jaguars family.
Simply put, one can not even begin to tell the story of Jacksonville and the Jaguars without spending an extensive amount of time on Smith and the defensive secondaries he left in his wake. From 1995 to 2005, Smith donned the teal and white and set the standard for wide receiver play in Jacksonville, a standard which current and past players are still trying to come close to.
Today, Smith still holds the franchise's all-time records for receptions with 862, which is 363 more than the next closest player. He also holds the franchise's all-time records for receiving yards with 12,287 (nearly double the amount of the No. 2 all-time receiver) and receiving touchdowns with 67.
No receiver in Jacksonville's history has ever come close to matching Smith's production, his longevity or his accomplishments. In 11 seasons, Smith recorded at least 1,000 yards in nine of those seasons, making the Pro Bowl five times. One of the two seasons he didn't record 1,000 yards in was in 1995, a season in which he started just four games.
Smith was automatic production for Jacksonville during the winningest era of the franchise's short history, making him a Jaguars legend whose on-field prowess has yet to be matched. Because of his contributions to the franchise over 11 years, which included him appearing in 11 playoff games, Smith was at last inducted into The Pride of the Jaguars in 2016, making him the fourth and the most recent player to be honored by the team with his name on the stadium.
"That was huge man because, you know, even though I've been nominated for the Hall of Fame ever since I have been eligible, being inducted into the Pride of the Jaguars is extremely big and if I do get into the Hall of Fame one day, I will look back on the decision that Shad Khan and Tony [Khan] made," Smith said.
"Being in The Pride of the Jaguars has had more of an impact in my life than being nominated for the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame. I'm extremely grateful for being in the Pride, and hopefully one day it will propel me to get into the Hall of Fame."
Smith said a big push for him to be inducted into The Pride of the Jaguars came from Tony Khan, son of Shad Khan and co-owner and senior vice president of football administration and technology. Tony Khan has long been vocal on social media in regards to his admiration for what Smith did with the Jaguars, which is notable considering the Jaguars were under a different ownership group during Smith's career.
"When his dad took notes and started looking back on the history of the Jaguars, I remember him saying you can’t find not one highlight tape in the golden years of the Jaguars and I am not on there," Smith said.
"So it was big for Shad to acknowledge that I was a good player. The fans already knew ... They weren't there when I was there. For him to acknowledge it and make the decision to put me in there was huge. So I'm very grateful and very appreciative of Shad Khan and his son for making the decision to get me in there."
As it presently stands, Smith is still the only wide receiver to ever be named to The Pride of the Jaguars. The fact that most of his career numbers double the production of those are directly behind him in the franchise's all-time record books is no accident. But when talking about Smith and his legacy in Jacksonville, it would behoove anyone to remember to mention his running mate Keenan McCardell.
McCardell, the Jaguars' current wide receivers coach, and Smith formed the fabled 'Thunder and Lightning' duo. Smith, known as the 'Lightning' to McCardell's 'Thunder' says it is no accident that his former teammate has grown into such a successful position coach considering his insight and knowledge of the position.
After all, it was that same insight and knowledge that helped propel Smith and McCardell into the NFL's history books as one of the league's most dangerous and overlooked duos. While their names may be glossed over by some, Smith said what the two accomplished on the field together isn't understated by those who actually paid attention, even if the national media sometimes didn't seem to be caught up to which feats they were achieving each Sunday
"Nothing has changed because even when we were playing and leading the league in receptions, we weren't getting mentioned as the top guys then. So it doesn't bother us, but the true football fans who really know football, they know how good and how productive Keenan and I were as receivers," Smith said. "That is just the result of what you get when you are playing in a very small market. Had Keenan and I played in an L.A. or a Dallas or a New York, things would be different.
"It was just the matter of not having a national media follow us, and that is why we have been getting overlooked since day one."
Going back to 1996-2001, when the Jaguars won 58 games and went to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, the identity of the Jaguars was that of an offense who could essentially score at will thanks to an uber-productive wide receiver duo in Smith and McCardell. But since Smith's retirement in 2005, the wide receiver position has struggled in Jacksonville, and what was once the identity of the team became a yearly issue.
In Smith's final year in 2005, he recorded 1,023 receiving yards. Since then, only three wide receivers have hit the 1k mark in Jacksonville: Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson in 2015 and DJ Chark in 2019. Every receiver since Smith has tried to follow in his footsteps, but whether due to injuries, poor offenses or subpar quarterback play, nobody has been able to reach the heights Smith did.
But could that change moving forward? If it does it will likely be via Chark, McCardell's first Pro Bowl product at wide receiver. Last year, Chark caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns, giving Smith hope for the future at the position. But it was long before Chark ever stepped foot into Smith's old stomping grounds that Smith had an idea of what his old teammate's protégé could become.
"Well it went beyond last year. I first saw DJ his senior year in a bowl game when my son was at Louisville and they played LSU. Just scanning over the field, he just jumped off the field," Smith told JaguarReport. "I saw the way he was coming off the ball. I saw the way that he was coming out of his routes and creating separation from pretty good defensive backs. One, in particular, was Jaire Alexander, who played for Louisville and was considered the top defensive back that year. And just to see DJ Chark create the separation on that guy, I knew he was going to end up being a good NFL player."
Smith, of course, had no idea Chark would eventually follow in his footsteps in Jacksonville. It wasn't until several months later that Smith saw his old team draft the speedy wideout who impressed him during the bowl game in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
"At that time I didn't know Jacksonville would end up selecting him but on that day when they selected him I tweeted 'this is going to be a good receiver.' Because he has the 'it' factor," Smith said. "How to separate from a defender, a lot of guys don't learn that until they get into the NFL and not only in their first year, for a couple of years they don't learn that. So he was light years ahead of everyone on the field when I saw him at LSU."
Smith has seen other Jaguars wide receivers attempt to follow in his footsteps in the past, with Robinson and Hurns flashing the potential to turn into a dangerous duo similar to 'Thunder and Lightning' before injuries and below-average quarterback play derailed the pair.
But in Chark, Smith sees a talented receiver who has already shown the ability to be among the best at his position. Now, it is just a matter of Chark repeating his performance and continuing to grow as a player on and off the field, the Jaguars legend noted.
"He is now the lead guy at receiver in that group. He is a Pro Bowl receiver, so now that he has that first Pro Bowl year behind him, now he has the roadmap and the answers to the test on how to continue being a pro ball receiver year in and year out," Smith said. "He knows what he's got to do. He's got to work harder than anybody else and he has to be a leader. And he will get some of that training on how to be a leader from Keenan because Keenan was considered the leader of our offensive unit back in the day."
As Smith looks forward to watching Chark in his third year and the Jaguars' new-look offense around him in 2020, he still looks back fondly on what he and the Jaguars accomplished several decades ago. Smith not only saw the Jaguars in their true heyday; in some ways, he was the Jaguars in their heyday. Their offensive superstar who could score on a whim. Their electric playmaker that seemingly no defense had an answer for. He was simply the wide receiver in Jacksonville.
It all started in 1996, Smith's first season eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards. That year, the Jaguars had a magical run to the AFC Championship following a 9-7 season in which they just squeaked into the postseason. Smith created countless memories in the nine seasons following, but it was 1996 that still lives fresh in his mind, in part due to his game-winning touchdown vs. the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round.
"The way that we ended our season was against Atlanta with Morten Andersen missing a field goal, one of the all-time greats. Then going to Buffalo and proving all the doubters wrong, beating a team that never lost in Buffalo and Jim Kelly's last game," Smith remembered. "Then beating Denver when it was 35-30 with a couple of minutes left on the clock and Mark [Brunell] throwing me that icing on the cake touchdown was probably the best memory that sticks out to me."
Nowadays, Smith doesn't refer to the Jaguars as 'them'. Instead, it is always 'we.' The team and city he created such a strong bond with through a decade-long career still hold an important place in his life today. He is still a Jaguar, and the Jaguars are still the team that he helped literally get off of the ground in 1996 and beyond.
A lot has changed since Smith last played a down in the NFL, but Jacksonville hasn't. For Jimmy 'Lightning' Smith, it is still the same city that made him one of their own as he began an illustrious and exciting NFL career and the same city that backs their team and its players.
"You know, when the Jaguars are in town and they are on the field working, it is just a different feel in Jacksonville," Smith said.
"When their team is winning, I will tell you, this is probably one of the best cities to live in because we have tremendous fan support. And I'll be eternally grateful for having the fan support that we've had all these years — true Jaguars fans."
While Smith's career is long over with, his records still stand as tall today as they did when he stepped away from football after the 2005 season. Chances are, nobody will come close to touching any of the countless Jaguars records Smith holds today, at least not anytime soon.
Until the day does come that a receiver like Chark or whoever else approaches the gaudy numbers Smith posted in Jacksonville, he will continue to be the standard by which all Jaguars wide receivers are compared to, and for good reason.
While it remains to be seen if Smith will ever be immortalized in Canton via the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there is zero doubt he is a giant in Jacksonville. He was then, he is today and he will be tomorrow. Lightning struck in a big way in Jacksonville, and it will forever be remembered.