Running back Jimmy Smith's four-month career with the Washington Redskins ended Monday like a meteor that fizzled on the league waiver wire.
"As it got closer to the season," General Manager Bobby Beathard was saying of his fourth-round draft pick, "Jimmy just froze up. He seemed to lose his confidence and he kept fumbling the ball (on kickoffs) in practice . . . I know the players were worried about him being back there on kickoffs . . . Really, we were scared to death (too). We lost confidence in him."
Smith's downfall was not gradual. In seemed both swift and shocking. In mid-July, Smith had reported to the Redskins' training camp from Elon (N.C.) College noted as a kick return specialist with breakaway speed and a ego that kept pace.
Raised in the ghetto in Kankakee, Ill., he played three years at Purdue, was known as the Herschel Walker of the Big Ten, then transferred due to grade problems.
"I believe if I'm healthy, there's nothing I can't do," Smith had said in July. In another instance, he had said of his kick-return ability, "Anybody can take a hole and go with it. I have a knack for returning it all the way."
And sure enough, he did. Smith's 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a preseason game against the Los Angeles Raiders represented the Redskins' first kickoff returned for a touchdown since 1978 and was achieved more because of Smith's individual effort than because of good blocking.
Over the last two weeks, though, Smith fumbled kickoffs in practice. Teammates offered advice. Wayne Sevier, special teams coach, said he asked Smith last Friday, 'How long have you been playing football?'
"Jimmy said, '15 years,' " Sevier recalled. "I told him 'You caught the ball for all that time. Quit listening to everybody else and just do it.' "
In the season opener against Miami, Smith caught the ball -- then caught flak for using poor judgment. Teammates warned him to stay put, but he chose to return the opening kickoff from six yards deep in the end zone. He was tackled at the eight. On a second return, he didn't follow his blocking and was tackled on the 18.
In the second half, he was benched in favor of Mike Nelms. Little did he know his Redskins career was about to end.
"The judgment thing in the end zone is one thing that maybe you can forgive a guy for," Beathard said. "But he didn't follow the (blocking) wall (on the second return). He ran like a blind runner. He showed no instincts."
As a running back, Smith seemed merely average with the Redskins. Nor did he catch passes from out of the backfield as well as coaches had hoped. Recently rookie Keith Griffin, drafted in the 10th round, moved ahead of Smith to No. 4 on the depth chart.
"Jimmy's role kept shrinking," Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday. "In the end it was kick returns (only) and I didn't think he performed them well."
So on Monday, when Detroit released running back Rick Kane, a seven-year veteran who Gibbs feels can be "the Nick Giaquinto-type" who can play special teams well and catch passes out of the backfield, a question arose. Kane, 29, has caught 70 passes in 97 league games. Smith was not what the Redskins had hoped.
Said Beathard, "There was no question in everybody's mind who would help us the most."
So now, after one week of the season, Nelms leads the league in kickoff return average (28.7 yards on three returns), the Redskins have only three rookies on the fringe of their active roster (Griffin, tight end Anthony Jones and quarterback Jay Schroeder) and the former Herschel Walker of the Big Ten is left with an uncertain future.
Actually, Smith's meteor fizzled twice this week. After he was waived by the Redskins, he was claimed by Seattle on Tuesday, to help fill the void created by running back Curt Warner's season-ending knee injury. But the Redskins couldn't find Smith for two days to tell him that he had been waived. They asked Seattle not to contact him in the interim.
At last, the Redskins reached Smith on Tuesday. He flew to Seattle Wednesday night.
And he was waived by the Seahawks yesterday morning. The Seahawks had signed veteran Franco Harris, while waiting for Smith, and then decided that the injured knee of kick returner Zach Dixon was not serious enough to place him on injured reserve.
"It was just unfortunate timing," said Mike McCormack, the Seahawks' general manager. "We couldn't reach (Smith) and he missed two meetings and a practice."
Smith, 23, could not be reached for comment yesterday. His agent is Fred Jaffe, a Kankakee pharmacist who recruited Smith to Purdue back in 1979. That's when Smith and Eric Dickerson were known as the nation's top two high school running backs.
Reached yesterday, Jaffe said Smith planned to return to North Carolina and wait. Jaffe spoke of Smith's harsh background: the first of six children; his mother was 14 at the time of his birth; his father "was never around . . . ," according to Jaffe; the family lived in a one-bedroom house "that since has been torn down by the city for being uninhabitable," Jaffe said.
"Jimmy is very disappointed," Jaffe said. Jaffe added that Smith has spent his money wisely. (Smith signed a three-year non-guaranteed contract with an estimated $65,000 signing bonus.)
Defensive end Todd Liebenstein remained hospitalized yesterday with a viral infection. He has a fever, has lost weight and also has fluid on a knee. His status is day by day. Line Coach LaVern (Torgy) Torgeson said that if Liebenstein cannot play Monday night at San Francisco, he would be replaced by Charles Mann. Since the Redskins would then have only three healthy defensive ends, veteran reserve Tony McGee would spell Mann on the left side and Mann would spell starter Dexter Manley on the right side.