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Trey McBride elicits memories of Jackie Smith

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 7, 2023
Trey McBride

It might be a stretch to say this early that second-year Cardinals tight end Trey McBride is on a path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

However, it’s not outlandish to accept that McBride is generating comparisons to a long-ago Hall of Fame tight end whose franchise receiving records have stood for more than five decades.

It was 60 years ago that the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Jackie Smith was selected by the Cardinals in the 10th round of the 1963 draft. He mostly ran track at Northwestern Louisiana and when he did play football for a half year in high school and briefly in college, he was a flanker.

Reflecting this week on the SiriusXM NFL Radio Hall of Fame radio show, Smith said, “When I came to the NFL, I was a backup at tight end because I was just big enough to play tight end and fast enough to cover for the receiver outside, too. That’s how lucky I was to be in that position. It was the right time and place and within the evolution of the offensive scheme. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

That “right time,” Smith said was “in the era of the game when teams didn’t throw to tight ends all that much. And when you did it was not very long passes. The defense was not geared to contend with a tight end that could go out and get downfield and get in the face of the safeties.

“I was able to take advantage of that, so it wasn’t as much about me as it was the offense that we developed to be able to take advantage of that.”

They sure did. Pass-catchers, even wide receivers, didn’t pile up receptions in those days, but what Smith did was make those plays count.

In his second 14-game season, it was 14.0 yards per reception (47). Then 15.8 in 1965 on 41 catches, 18.0 on his 45 receptions in 1966 and then the stunning 21.5-yard average on the 56 receptions for 1,205 yards in 1967.

That’s the record that stood until Zach Ertz tied it in 2021 and McBride did the same during last Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh.

McBride’s 56 catches this season have been good for 610 yards, the seventh-most in club history. It’s no surprise that the other six were by Smith: 648 in 1965, 657 in 1964, 687 in 1970, 780 in 1968, 810 in 1966 and that other-wordly 1,205 at the top.

For his career, Smith averaged 16.5 yards per reception. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce currently has a 12.6-yard average, while Hall of Famers Tony Gonzalez averaged 11.4 and Kellen Winslow 12.6

It’s also important to note that in the latter stage of his career, he did play for Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell, but his glory years were pre-Coryell.

Meanwhile, McBride will leap-frog all the way to second all-time if he totals 201 yards in the team’s final four games.

Smith is happy to see it.

“Good for him; I’m glad he’s doing that,” Smith said. “That’s what they’re up there for, to do that, for somebody to go break it. Great, go get ‘em. I’m glad for him.”

As for his ability to accumulate yards after the catch, in his homespun way, Smith said, “Those guys (on defense) are trying to hurt you out there. I was trying to get the hell out of there; that’s all I was doing.”

Trey McBride and Jackie Smith carbon copies

The same can be said for McBride, who is 6-foot-4, 246 pounds and like Smith, his aggressiveness has consistently been seen dragging tacklers, breaking tackles and even jumping over tacklers.

Asked if he’s fine with the hurdling, tight ends coach Ben Steele said, “I don’t coach the hurdling, so that’s on you, but you better secure the ball. I’d rather him just pick his feet up and run over (guys), but the guy’s got some ability to do some crazy stuff like that and it hasn’t, knock on wood … I don’t coach it, but that’s on him.”

McBride’s production and play-time sky-rocketed after Ertz was placed on reserve/injured on Oct. 24 with a quad injury and was then released last week.

In the first seven games of the season, McBride played only 44.3 percent of the snaps and had 15 receptions on 21 targets for 170 yards and no touchdowns.

In the first game without Ertz, on Oct. 29 against the Ravens, McBride played 82 percent of the snaps and was targeted 14 times with 10 receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks later against the Falcons in quarterback Kyler Murray’s first game of the season, he was on the field for 77 percent of the snaps and had eight catches on nine targets for 131 yards.

Last week against the Steelers, it was nine targets, eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown playing all but three snaps (96 percent).

In the last six games, McBride has played 85.3 percent of the snaps and been targeted 53 times with 41 receptions for 440 yards and two touchdowns.

Steele said, “Since Ertz was injured, I’m proud of the way he’s taken that role and done some huge things, made some unbelievable plays in key moments. He’s right where we want him to be and I know he’s just going to continue to grow in all facets.”

After the win in Pittsburgh, Murray said, “His confidence is through the roof. He’s become a matchup nightmare for whoever is on him. They’re going to put a safety on him; it’s tough for safeties to guard him. Super athletic. Sky’s the limit for Trey. I think for me and him to be able to keep playing with each other — yeah, just keep playing with him, and the better he’ll get.”

Dec 3, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) passes the ball to tight end Trey McBride (85) against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Most important is that McBride embraces the blocking aspect of the position, which also is the way Smith played.

Listening to Steele describe McBride sounds like a duplicate of what Smith brought to the field.

Asked whether McBride can emerge as that type of player, Steele said, “Without question. He has the ability to be the complete tight end and not just a one-dimensional guy that’s only going to run routes and catch the ball. Similar to a (George) Kittle-type guy that can be in on every down.

“That’s the limitations you have with guys that don’t block or can’t block. Trey’s different. He’s willing and able and he does a great job. He’s done some really good things and he continues to get better. He’s always working. He’s someone that you’re able to coach and listens to coaching. It’s fun to work with him.”

McBride said, “You are asked to do a lot, you’re asked to know a lot. You’re asked to block, you’re asked to run routes, asked to pass protect. It’s a tough position, but I think the offense we run here values the tight end.”

Nov 12, 2023; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end Trey McBride (85) catches a pass as Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant (27) defends in the first half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

When asked why it’s so hard to defend Smith … I mean McBride, “Steele echoed Murray’s comments, saying, “The dude, he always plays with passion and it’s his style of play, too, but he has a motor unlike any other and he doesn’t stop. His speed, athleticism, all that obviously makes him a mismatch against safeties and linebackers. He can also win some one-on-ones against DBs (cornerbacks).

“To me that’s his biggest thing; his explosive speed. He’s obviously strong and got some burst. It’s tough to defend a guy like that.”

Cardinals Ring of Honor

In other words, a carbon copy of a certain Pro Football Hall of Famer that for some inexplicable reason is not a part of the Cardinals Ring of Honor (ROH) in State Farm Stadium.

Prior to the enshrinement of tackle Duke Slater (Chicago Cardinals 1926-1931) in the 2020 Centennial Class and Coryell this past summer, Smith was the only Cardinals Hall of Famer not in the Ring of Honor.

Yet, quarterback Jim Hart, who played in St. Louis for the Cardinals, threw many of the passes Smith caught in his career, but isn’t in the Hall of Fame, is in the ROH. As is wide receiver Roy Green, who played in both St. Louis and Arizona, but also isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sept. 11, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, USA; William V. Bidwill, the late former owner of the Arizona Cardinals was inducted into the Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony at State Farm Stadium. NFL Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals

When the Cardinals staged an event at the stadium several years ago the day before a game, Hall of Famers cornerback Aeneas Williams was brought to town, while cornerback Roger Wehrli, who now lives in the Phoenix area, was also present.

However, the busts of only 11 of the team’s 12 enshrinees at the time were on display for fans to see because Smith’s bust was nowhere to be found. Can anyone spell petty?

Smith believes it’s all traced to a contentious situation that arose the summer after he retired following the 1977 season. That was Coryell’s final year as coach and was also a relationship that ended badly.

Early in training camp, tight end J.V. Cain, who passed away on his 28th birthday (July 22) after collapsing on the field in training camp in 1979, had suffered a torn Achilles and first-year coach Bud Wilkinson wanted a worthy replacement.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported then that a third party got Smith together with Wilkinson and then-owner Bill Bidwill was told that Smith wanted to play, but that Bidwill wasn’t totally receptive to the idea.

Still, the possibility of a return progressed and Smith underwent a physical. However, days passed without any contact from the team.

The fire was stoked at the team’s preseason game in Green Bay when Bidwill said a potential return “hasn’t come up.” He told the Post-Dispatch, “The last I heard he didn’t even want to play. He’s had a great career, but at some point enough’s enough.”

One player disagreed with that notion, telling the paper, “With Jackie back we can really put it together. We’ve got to have him. We’ve got to have a tight end.”

The Post-Dispatch reported there was the belief Bidwill was upset with the active role Smith took in the 1974 players strike and by pressure Smith exerted to be given a no-cut contract. He eventually got it, while agreeing to accept a pay cut.

Bidwill denied a portion of the latter, saying, “Jackie didn’t ask for that. I gave it to him.”

It was also reported that Smith had been cleared to play by Dr. James Elsasser.

Finally, Smith contacted Wilkinson directly and told the Post-Dispatch, “This afternoon, I called Bud Wilkinson to get it straight, once and for all. The whole thing had been hanging for two weeks. I felt uncomfortable with my employer. I needed to know. It was no big deal. I’d never, ever thought of playing until they contacted me. But after they did contact me, I wanted to know.”

Smith said Wilkinson claimed he didn’t want to see Smith get injured while saying Elsasser had concern about a “soft disc” Smith had in the neck area.

“Us hard-hitting rednecks don’t worry too much about things like a sore neck,” Smith said then. “But I wish they would just come out and say it. I think Mr. Bidwill was sort of caught in the middle of all of this. I’m not criticizing him.

“But if they don’t want to take a chance on paying me a lot of money and then having me get hurt, I wish they’d just say it. They elected not to take the risk. That’s fine with me, but say it; say it.”

Smith admitted it would have taken “a helluva lot of money” to come back, noting, “I had to have a certain amount to make me disassociate myself from my businesses. It would have to be a logical move and not an emotional one.”

What irked Smith then and still does (he once told PHNX “it haunts me,”) is that Bidwill and director of operations Joe Sullivan frequently claimed there was never an interest in having him play again.

“That really makes me mad,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “The way things came out, it sounded like I must have contacted them and that’s not the way it was. They came to me.”

He also told PHNX he tries not to think about his absence from the Ring of Honor, but when asked, those feelings come up again.

He said, “It bugs the shit out of me. I gave that team as much as I had, as much as anybody.”

Adding to the intrigue of the situation is that about a month later after the Cowboys had some tight-end injuries, Smith was contacted and signed with the team. He played that season and then retired permanently.

Ten years later, reflecting on his one season in Dallas, Smith told the Post-Dispatch, “I was disappointed when I left St. Louis, but very few people leave that organization under pleasant circumstances. You’re just looking to get out of there with as little distaste as possible.

“That’s the reason I’m glad I went down to the Cowboys for that one season. I was able to see how an organization is run that appreciates its players. It was a pleasant experience.”

Did that have a lasting impact on Bidwill? Perhaps. However, Hart was able to patch up his differences with the organization. With three games remaining in the 1979 season, Bidwill wanted Wilkinson to start quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz. Wilkinson was fired, Larry Wilson took over as interim coach and Hart was benched. Hart was never shy about voicing his feelings about Bidwill.

However, Hart had been on friendly terms with Michael Bidwill for many years and the current team owner reached out and had him enter the ROH in 2017.

It surely appears time for the long-ago hatchets to be buried and for bygones to be bygones.

As the great poet Rod McKuen wrote in Listen to the Warm in 1967 (yes, that year), “I’ve been going a long time now. Along the way I’ve learned some things. You have to make the good times yourself, take the little times and make them into big times and save the times that are all right for the ones that aren’t so good.”

Jackie Smith will be 83 in February and when the calendar shortly turns to 2024, it will have been 30 years since he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with his bust added to the hallowed halls of Canton.

Adding his name to the Ring of Honor should be the least the Cardinals do.

Your move, Michael.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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