Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is one of the greatest tight ends in football history. His 480 career catches were the most ever by an NFL tight end when he retired from the sport in 1979. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Smith is most remembered for a catch he failed to make. Fair or unfair, his defining moment came in the final game of his career--Super Bowl XIII.

On January 21, 1979 the Dallas Cowboys met the Pittsburgh Steelers for supremecy of the 1970s on Super Sunday in the Orange Bowl. The Steelers and Cowboys were the most dominant teams of the decade. Going into the game, each franchise had won two Super Bowls during the decade and this game would ultimately determine who was the decade's best. Super Bowl XIII was arguably the greatest assembly of football talent the sport has ever seen. Fourteen hall of famers played in the game as well as both head coaches Tom Landry and Chuck Noll. Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith was among those 14 hall of famers.

Late in the third quarter, the Cowboys trailed 21-14 and were driving for a potential tying touchdown. Dallas marched to the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. On third down and 3 yards to go, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach saw Jackie Smith wide open in the middle of the end zone. Staubach fired a low line drive in Smith's direction. But as Smith went to catch the ball, he tried to make a sliding catch and the ball slipped through his hands. Smith flopped in the end zone in agony and disgust. It was a catch he has made hundreds of times in practices and games. But in the biggest game of his life, his reliable hands failed him. Dallas radio comentator Verne Lundquist sympathized with the heartbroken Smith immediately after the play saying, "Bless his heart. He's got to be the sickest man in America."

Staubach defended Smith. "It really wasn't a very good pass. It was low and it surprised him and he wasn't ready for it, " Staubach said. But Smith made no excuses. "I don't think it was Roger's fault. The ball was well thrown."

Smith's drop forced Dallas to settle for a 27-yard field goal, cutting the score to 21-17. The Steelers would win the game 35-31. Super Bowl XIII was considered one of the best Super Bowls of all time. NFL Films produced a 90 minute documentary called "Battle of Champions" chronicaling nearly every play of the game and its legacy. It was a game filled with big plays by big stars. But ultimately much of the attention was given to Smith's third quarter drop. Many believe the game not only propelled the Steelers as the franchise of the 1970s but it also hurt the legacy of the 1970s Cowboys. Nine Steelers would go on to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while only five Cowboys from Super Bowl XIII were enshrined in Canton.

Jackie Smith was the best tight end of his era. He caught more passes than fellow hall of fame tight ends and peers Mike Ditka and John Mackey. He was a 5-time Pro Bowl selection and was one of the fastest players to play his position in the 1960s and 70s. In 1967 he caught 56 passes for a career high 1,205 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaging a remarkable 21.5 yards per catch. But by 1977, his body had been battered from 15 seasons in the NFL. In 1978, he was released by the Cardinals and picked up by the Cowboys. He didn't catch a single pass for the Cowboys in 1978. Had he caught that pass in the Super Bowl, it would have been his first and only catch in a Dallas uniform. Smith had to wait more than ten years after he first became eligible to finally make it into Canton. Many believe Smith's Super Bowl drop delayed his entry into the hall of fame.

"It's amazing how people have latched on to that play," Staubach said. "It's just unfair. It wasn't the end of the game. We still had a full quarter to go. We were only four points behind and Jackie Smith has taken more heat than he deserves."

Many have compared Smith's drop to Bill Buckner's error in game six of the 1986 World Series. Both were outstanding players in their respective sports who were overshadowed by one mistake. But through it all, Smith has handled his legacy with class. He's never complained or shied away from answering questions about that faitful Sunday night in the Orange Bowl. If you visit the hall of fame and find his bust, you'll know that 480 catches is always greater than one drop.

No comments: