Thursday, November 15, 2001

Denver Broncos receiver Rod Smith has caught 456 NFL passes, including an 80-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIII. But Smith’s first catch remains his favorite.
After all, how many first ones win a game on the final play?
It happened Sept. 17, 1995, against Washington during the Redskins’ last visit to Denver. Smith, who had spent his rookie year (1994) on the practice squad and had been used on special teams the first two weeks of 1995, outjumped Washington’s Darrell Green to haul in a 43-yard touchdown from John Elway. Broncos, 38-31.
“It’s still my most favorite moment,” said Smith, who was in such awe of Green that he asked for and received the veteran’s gloves immediately afterward. “I had had a terrible day on special teams, but the rest of our receivers got knocked out and I was the only one left. I got a chance to make a play, and I responded. I have a big picture [of the catch] in my basement that my agent gave me for Christmas that year. I walk by it every day and it reminds me of just how far I’ve come.”
Smith, now 31, has come a very long way. Playing alongside Ed McCaffery the past four seasons, Smith averaged 84 catches (fourth in the league), 1,331 yards (second) and eight touchdowns. McCaffrey was lost for the year in the 2001 opener, but Smith has thrived despite the added defensive focus. Through nine games, he leads the league with 72 catches and 923 receiving yards, and his eight touchdown catches rank third.
Denver’s next-leading receiver is tight end Desmond Clark with 36 catches, 442 yards and three touchdowns. Since Eddie Kennison made good on his announced retirement, McCaffrey is the Broncos’ second-leading wideout with six catches, 94 yards and a touchdown. But Smith can’t be stopped. He has caught at least five passes every game, whether teams lock their best corner on him (as Washington is apt to do with Champ Bailey) or throw multiple defenders at him.
“I’m seeing a little more double-teaming, more combination coverages, but the coaches do a good job of getting me in spots where I can make some plays and I’m just taking advantage of the opportunities,” said Smith, who didn’t practice yesterday after spraining an ankle Sunday but expects to be ready for the Redskins.
Said Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer: “Rod’s a great player. He comes out of his breaks extremely well. He has outstanding hands. He’s as tough as anybody on that team. He wants the ball, and they want to get him the ball.”
The Broncos have thrown more than 100 balls Smith’s way, including seven that were at or behind the line of scrimmage.
“Rod’s so smart,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “You can put him in so many different positions, which gives you a chance to possibly get him one-on-one [with a defender] and get him the ball more than you normally could.”
And yet, Smith has been to just one Pro Bowl, fewer than such younger receivers as Randy Moss or Keyshawn Johnson.
“When people look at Randy Moss or [San Franciscos] Terrell Owens, those guys are more freaks of nature because of their speed and size,” Shanahan said. “Rod isn’t that type of guy. He’s just a consistent, competitive receiver who shows up every week and makes plays.”
And Smith, who wasn’t drafted out of Division II Missouri Southern, appreciates the path he has taken to the top.
“If I was out there spiking balls and doing a lot of dancing and stuff like that, I probably would have made the Pro Bowl earlier,” Smith said. “But I like the way I earned my respect. It took everybody looking at the numbers and [saying], ‘Dang. The guy’s consistent. He’s doing some great things and the team is winning.’ I wish I could have been a first-round pick, but I don’t know if I would be the same player.
“A lot of big-name first-round picks get put in situations and they don’t come through. Then you have this young, hungry guy from a Division II, Division III or NAIA school who’s happy to have a job and will do whatever it takes to help his team win. That’s the kind of the mode I fit. I went from practice squad guy to a team leader. It took a while, but I’ve earned a lot of respect. I think it’s a pretty decent model to follow.

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