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Phoenix’s Smith Campaigns for Honolulu Ticket

Times Staff Writer

You’d think that leading the league in pass receptions and yardage might earn you a working vacation in Honolulu, where the best of the National Football League gathers each February to soak up the sun, take a bow and play in another forgettable Pro Bowl game.

You’d think that. J.T. Smith certainly did.

Smith caught 91 passes last season for the then-St. Louis Cardinals, which was more than the elegant Jerry Rice of San Francisco caught, or worker bee Steve Largent of Seattle, or the stylish Al Toon of the New York Jets; more than anyone else.

He gained more yards, 1,117, with those receptions than any other receiver in the NFL, too.

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His peers, who do the voting, thanked him with an expenses-paid trip to--ta-da!--his television set at kickoff time.

Smith nearly popped a blood vessel. You could have fried breakfast on his forehead. Here he was, the leader in two pass receiving categories, and the best he could do was earn alternate status.

There was outrage, of course--and not just from Smith. Coach Gene Stallings couldn’t believe it then and can’t believe it now.

“Perhaps he hasn’t got the name, or what,” Stallings offered earlier this week.

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Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin, a former Pro Bowl man himself, said Smith was robbed.

Smith isn’t in any hurry to argue that. He was overlooked, simple as that, he said.

“A lot of things happened,” he said. “A lot of things go into it. You sometimes have the same people go all the time, even though they don’t deserve it, and you kind of miss over some other people. So I don’t really worry about what don’t happen. I worry about what I do and what I need to improve on and what our team needs to improve on.”

And what the NFL should improve on.

“Maybe they should get some other people to vote (for the Pro Bowl teams). That might make a difference.”

If numbers themselves are the judging point, then Smith has a case. He caught 91 passes last season and 80 in 1986. Toon is closest to him in that 2-year period with a total of 153 catches.

“He’s the ultimate possession-type receiver,” Irvin said of Smith. “He runs precise routes. He blocks well. He catches the ball in a crowd.”

And he sits at home, come Pro Bowl time.

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Irvin has a theory about that. He thinks that Smith might have been a victim of backlash from the 1987 player strike. Smith crossed the picket line and, by doing so, added some receptions against less-talented defensive backs. When it came time to vote for postseason honors, the regulars remembered.

“I don’t know if they held that against him, but I think they correlated his catches to the strike games,” said Irvin, who added that he had voted for Smith.

But Smith caught only 15 passes during the 3 strike games. That still gives him 76 receptions for the season--also a league high. And what about those three 100-yard-plus games against non-replacement players? Or those 5 non-strike games in which Smith had 7 or more catches?

Also, wasn’t Ram tailback Charles White a starter in the Pro Bowl? Hadn’t he also crossed the picket line?

Stallings may be right after all: Smith may be a victim of anonymity. He plays for a team that has been in the playoffs only once in the last 12 seasons. The team’s former home, St. Louis, is hardly a media capital, and Phoenix, the Cardinals’ new base, is never confused with Los Angeles, New York or Chicago.

But Smith is accustomed to being ignored. It happened in 1978, when no NFL team would touch him in the draft. He ended up signing with the Washington Redskins and was released six games later.

The Kansas City Chiefs were his next employers. All they got out of him was an All-Pro year as a punt returner in 1980. The next season, they got 63 receptions for 852 yards.

Then he got hurt. Then, during the next 3 seasons, he was phased out of the passing game. The Chiefs cut him in 1985 and didn’t think twice about doing it. To them, Smith was of little use.

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“In Kansas City, you’ve got to realize that it was a running offense first,” he said. “They wanted to get the blocking. But now, they’ve started throwing the ball, like everybody else is throwing the ball. They’ve got to throw. I was also known more as a punt returner than as a receiver. That was the main thing in Kansas City.”

So Smith went to the Cardinals and was considered to be nothing more than a temporary replacement as starters Roy Green and Pat Tilley tended to their injuries. He caught 43 passes. In 1986, he made those 80 catches, which broke Green’s team record of 78. Last year . . . well, you know about last year. This season, he leads the Cardinals with 16 receptions for 225 yards, which ties him for 11th among National Football Conference receivers.

Now, explain Smith’s success. Good luck? Even Smith finds himself at a loss for reasons.

Maybe it’s because the Cardinals have Green and tight ends Robert Awalt and Jay Novacek, he said. Maybe it’s because Green runs deep patterns, leaving the higher-percentage routes open for Smith. Maybe it’s because Smith isn’t such a bad wide receiver, after all.

“They’re letting me do what I do best,” he said. “I like to go inside and underneath.”

Now if they’ll just let him go to the Pro Bowl . . .


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