During the recent NFL exhibition season, the Denver Broncos announced their all-time team. Heading the list was popular defensive tackle Paul Smith, the man who terrorized running backs and quarterbacks during an 11-year career in Denver and became one of the top linemen in the league.
This was the same Paul Smith who,after being selected all-pro in '72 and '73, finally was slowed by a knee injury and was dropped by Denver following the '78 season.
"I guess I had played there so long they felt they had to put me on the all-star team," laughed Smith, now 35 and a member of the Washington Redskins. "i had slowed down some and was coming off a knee injury. Denver drafted a lot of young guys and I didn't play much the last couple of seasons."
Smith, a ninth-round draft pick out of New Mexico, wasn't at all bitter at being released. In fact, he was looking forward to a change of scenery.
"Red (Miller, Denver's coach) and I didn't see eye to eye on a few things and we both felt maybe it was time for me to move on," Smith said. "I felt I still had a couple of good football years left in me and I wanted to give it a try somewhere else."
Doc Urich, Smith's line coach in Denver before becoming the defensive coordinator for the Redskins three years ago, also believed the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Smith could still play. He recommended signing the 11-year veteran as a free agent.
"I thought he had some good years left in him," Urich said. "He had slowed down some but he was completely healthy when we brought him in here. I think it was a matter of Denver going with some younger people and people have to be replaced by other people.
"Even when we signed Paul, we knew it migfht be tough for him to make the team because we had a few young guys here, too. But Paul worked hard and we just couldn't find anyone to do what he could do and he made the team."
Used mainly in a relief role, Smith enjoyed a good season last year and decided to come back in 1980. When Denver was honoring its all-star team during the halftime of an exhibition game in August, Smith was conspicuously absent for a very good reason. He was fighting for a spot on the 45-man Redskin roster and his chances didn't look good.
"I knew what I was up against but I had worked hard in the offseason and felt I could go another year," Smith said. "There were a lot of free agents and rookies here and I knew I had to prove once again to the coaches I could still play the game."
Throughout the exhibition season and Washington's first five games, Smith has played well. Although he hasn't started, he has logged as many or more minutes than Diron Talbert, Perry Brooks or Dave Butz. Smith has been credited with 11 tackles, six assists and a quarterback sack.
At 35, could Smith still play four hard quarters?
"Sure, I think I could go full-time but our rotation system keeps us fresh," Smith said. "I have no complaint about being spelled every season. We have a good group of defensive linemen -- we're not that old -- as good as any defensive line in the league."
When Washington last played Denver, Smith started at nose tackle in Denver's 3-4 alignment. When the teams meet again Mmonday night in Denver, Smith will not trot out with the Redskins' starting defensive team. But before the first period is over, he will make his presence known.
"I still live in Denver and I have a lot of friends there and will see a lot of former teammates on the field," Smith said. "I have no bitterness toward Denver. The club treated me well when I was there. This is just another game but it's a game we need to win desperately if we are to turn our season around. And for that reason, I'll play extra hard. We'll shake hands and be friendly after the gun but before that we'll be trying to win a football game."
Used mainly against the run, Smith still considers himself a good pass rusher but agrees that Brooks, who is younger, quicker and has better moves, should be brought in on passing situations.
Although the Redskin line has looked woeful at times, particularly against the run, the Washington coaching staff has been pleased with Smith's play.
He's played good football for us," Urich said. "By rotating him, he's well-rested. We don't want any of our linemen on the field for long periods." w
Smith only wants to be on the field long enough to show the Bronco coaches and fans that he can still play.