Lamar Smith: In Review and Celebration
At the end of the 1999 season, 5’11”, 230-lb. tailback Lamar Smith was waived by the 3-13 New Orleans Saints, eager to clear house. Oddly, Smith was Ricky Williams’ backup that season, and in 2002, would be released by Miami in favor of him, as well.
Smith started two games in ’99 and averaged almost three and a half yards per carry, a stat good enough to land him on another team. That team, thankfully for them and their fans, was the Miami Dolphins.
Smith, with a chronic chip on his shoulder from a rookie season disaster resonating to his present life, would easily out-duel J.J. Johnson and Thurman Thomas for the starting job in 2000, and highlight a team that was supposed to be in a transition period.
As Jimmy Johnson gave way to Dave Wannstedt, and Dan Marino to Jay Fiedler, the popular conception was that the new Millennium would usher in a rebuilding era for a team fresh off a Divisional Round playoff berth.
Not only would Miami facsimile that playoff stature thanks to Smith’s punishing rushing attack and team orchestrated smash mouth defense, but they even won two more regular season games than the predecessor.
Before 2008, the last two Miami playoff teams were anchored by Lamar Smith at running back.
Lamar Smith’s dash down the opponent’s strong side after effectively stutter-stepping the linebackers to the outside, with a hardcore stampede of tired and timid Jason Belser at the goal line, hence icing the game, remains a mainstay in my memory as I would expect all fellow Dolphin fans to admit, as well.
Smith was a hero in southern Florida that December 30, and though he’d be released by the team after 2001’s first round embarrassment against Baltimore, role players that well embraced for their drive and field charisma are worthy of a little memoriam every now and then. So, without further adieu, here’s one for #26…
Lamar H. Smith was born in Fort Wayne, IN on November 29, 1970. He played his high school ball there, and eventually made way to the University of Houston where he suited up for Kim Helton in his second of two seasons (senior year; he was a transfer).
Though the Cougars struggled while Smith was there, Helton was a formidable offensive mind who had been the offensive lines coach for three NFL teams before taking the Houston job. He and his playbook proved a suitable mentor for a budding running back.
Smith was more impressive at the combine before the 1994 draft than his brief two-year stint with the struggling Cougars could ever denote.
The Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the third round as the tenth running back and seventy-third pick overall, to effectively backup Pro Bowler, but oft-injured, Chris Warren.
The team wanted a heavy-headed tailback for single back situations in order of spelling Warren who had to miss two games the previous year.
The path for Lamar Smith was all but paved in gold until disaster struck, taking shape of that symbolic chip I referenced earlier.
Driving drunk one night in December of that rookie season, Smith drove his automobile into a pole, ending the career of a teammate.
He had to think about the ramifications throughout the entire following season, as his trial didn’t conclude until February 1996.
Smith ended up serving a work-release program, which allowed him to keep his job. Also, by court order, he donated a large percentage of his future game checks to the wounded compatriot.
Naturally, Smith's numbers struggled for the next couple years due, likely, in most part to this calamity, and also the facts that Seattle was a mediocre team, Smith was still quite young, and Chris Warren was the Seahawk starter at running back.
After the 1997 season, Seattle decided, prematurely as time would prove, that they had seen enough of Smith. Out were both he and longtime starter Chris Warren. In were Ricky Watters and Ahman Green.
But 1998 would roll in and so begin the pinnacle of Smith’s career, as he landed in New Orleans under Mike Ditka. Lord only knows what was on Smith’s mind after the trauma in his personal life and the release from Seattle. But he managed to start nine games that year, and saw his yards per carry tally rise to 3.3, his personal best.
Smith rushed for 100 yards in a game for the first time on Sept. 27, when he led the, then, unbeaten Saints to an overtime win at Indianapolis with a stellar 157-yard performance.
He would have been the full time starter in '99, had the Saints not drafted Ricky Williams out of Texas in the offseason.
Despite, Smith raised his yards per carry mark while appearing admirably in 13 games as a backup. He rushed for 66 yards in the team’s opening game against the George Seifert-coached Carolina Panthers.
However, New Orleans would go on to see little need for an aging (now nearly 30) backup rusher, and became the second team to release Lamar Smith after their three-win season in 1999.
In a most beneficial spin, Dave Wannstedt replaced Jimmy Johnson as Miami's head coach, and instituted a four-man try-out at running back in the hope of ceasing the ground woes that ran the former Cowboy out of popular approval.
Smith was among this quartet, along with incumbent starter J.J. Johnson and Buffalo great, Thurman Thomas.
Smith won the job easily, and started the season by rushing for 145 yards and a score against, whom else, but New Orleans. Sweet.
2000 would prove to be Smith's career year as he ran for nearly 1,150 yards, tied for eighth in the league with rushing attempts (309 in 15 games), and posted career marks in receiving (31 catches that year), to boot.
Of course, the highlight was his remarkable 40-carry show against the Colts in Wild Card week at Pro Player. Smith averaged well over five yards-per-carry.
The game had a rough start for the Fish, who trailed by 14 points after a mid-second quarter touchdown strike from Peyton Manning to Jerome Pathon.
To this point, Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler had already thrown three interceptions. It was clear. Time for Lamar.
The second half started with Miami feeding Smith eight times en route to a quick score. He had a 24-yard burst to get into Colt territory, and the drive’s capstone from the 2-yard line.
Miami’s defense stepped up the entire second half, only allowing a 50-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt.
Jay Fiedler was finally able to get things going at the two-minute warning, orchestrating what was a game-tying drive, which saw Smith touch the ball three times.
Then, in overtime, following a Vanderjagt miss, Miami’s offense came out for what would be the game’s final drive.
Smith received six touches out of the ten-play spree (and one additional 13-yard rush which was called back on a holding penalty), the last ending the Colts season on a 17-yard run designed to go between the right guard and tackle, before Smith improvised to read the blitz, thus bolting for the sideline and the end zone.
The game literally ceased on its hero's hoisting of Colts free safety Jason Belser over the goal line, where Smith let him fall off to the field like, say, a giant chip shed from his shoulder.
The home fans went wild; knowing their AFC East champions just proved themselves one of the league’s most resilient contenders.
They were later losers in the Divisional Round when forced to travel west to play the eventual conference runner-up Oakland Raiders.
However, Smith played a very limited role in the game, only carrying eight times as his fatigue from the Colt win hung over all week.
Smith reportedly couldn’t even walk the Monday after Wild Card weekend, and Wannstedt took some heat for obviously overusing his workhorse.
2001 would come around and supply another feather in Smith's cap, as he would start all 16 games for the lone time in his career. Therefore, he also set a new career high in rush attempts for one season (313).
Smith's 1202 all-purpose yards were instrumental in clinching Miami's second to last playoff berth to date.
His 158 rushing yards in week 17, against the Bills, guaranteed the Dolphins their second straight home Wild Card game.
Unfortunately, this year's team would lose to Baltimore, as Rex Ryan's front seven stuffed the box and forced Fiedler to test his gifted secondary, led by Pro Bowler Rod Woodson.
Smith was pretty much forced from an effective position here, and limited to blocking duties.
2001 was a contract year for Smith but, despite the reliable numbers, Miami decided not to pay the 31-year-old an excessive salary. Instead, as earlier stated, they traded with New Orleans for Ricky Williams. It was the second time his presence forced Smith out of the limelight (and a job).
Carolina, on the other hand, was in need of any kind of attainable feature back after they lost hope in journeyman Richard Huntley, and so they signed Smith before the 2002 season.
He again proved his worth was more than what people gave him credit for. Smith increased his rushing touchdown total from '01, even though he started five less games.
Despite respectable stats from their leading rusher, the Panthers were going through a disappointing stretch under a young John Fox, and wanted to focus on their youth movement (which, of course, resulted in a Super Bowl appearance against New England the following year).
Smith yielded time down the stretch in '02 to Nick Goings before Carolina picked up free agent Stephen Davis that offseason, while also going on to draft coveted DeShaun Foster out of UCLA. Smith's contract was again left on yet another table.
But one last testament to his abilities and commitment were evident in the 2002-’03 offseason when two teams showed enough interest in the aging back to sign him.
Green Bay was first, and then finally New Orleans gave him a spot on their 53-man roster.
However, approaching the age of 33, Smith could not hold on to his job and was subsequently released in 2004, denoting the end of a dramatic and sometimes traumatic career of extreme highs and lows unlike, even, your average film script.
Either way you edit it, that overtime score against the Colts was a climax for the ages, and I still remember O.J. McDuffie jumping up in the end zone after the referee signaled "touchdown!" The crowd roar was deafening even through my TV.
I only have one more thing to ponder about Lamar Smith in closing thoughts…
After reviewing his story, what can you attribute to supplying Smith his simply awesome will power to stay on the field?
We know he was a competitive spirit, with the know it all to pursue an NCAA Division I scholarship after two years of unpublicized junior college ball in northern Oklahoma.
But what about the car accident in 1994, that left a teammate paralyzed?
Can you attribute Smith's perseverance to a natural incentive for activity and avoidance of any down time when one might reflect on such cataclysm?
Was there a sense of honor to be attained for the fallen comrade?
No matter the personal answer, which nobody else other than the accident victim really has the right to know, Smith left his mark with Miami Dolphin fans so acutely that he, and any subsequent story lines, will not soon be forgotten.
That is in its own right the sports equivalent of any tribute publication of any kind.
During the 2000 and 2001 seasons, Smith's energetic persona and "low-gliding" 230-lb icon have effectively bookmarked those winning years in many memories; mine, in particular.
Lamar Smith was very much part of a dying breed of workhorse running backs. You will never see Ronnie Brown carry the ball 40-times in one game. Of course, you can’t hold this choice of strategy against Brown, but you certainly have to bow down and recognize the classic durability of Smith.
As of recently, in 2007, Smith took part in a coaching internship program through the now defunct NFL Europe.
He, at least, temporarily had relocated to Tampa for a training clinic attended by former NFL players interested in coaching or officiating as a future career.
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