John McGrath: Malcolm Smith prominent in Seahawks defense

Staff writerJanuary 29, 2014 

— It doesn't bother Malcolm Smith that his Seattle Seahawks' legacy could be the answer to a trivia question:

Who was credited with the interception that clinched the 2013 NFC championship for the Seahawks?

All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman got the cover of Sports Illustrated after he tipped a pass intended for San Francisco receiver Micheal Crabtree.

Backup linebacker Malcolm Smith got the ball.

Sherman's midair pivot, as majestic as it was athletic, will be remembered as a thrilling work of art. Smith's play suggested he merely was in the right place at the right time. It appeared to be a routine piece of work.

But if Smith isn’t there to hold onto the ball, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is able to take three more shots at the end zone from the Seattle 18-yard line. Without Smith in the picture – and was he nowhere to be found on the Sports Illustrated cover – one of the epic moments in NFC Championship Game history is nothing but an incomplete pass setting up second down.

Smith's contribution to the play is reminiscent of the two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth inning walk the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Davis coaxed off Hall-of-Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of 1988 World Series. By reaching base, Davis kept the issue alive for a hobbling pinch-hitter named Kirk Gibson.

Few fans realize that Gibson couldn't swing for the fences unless Davis gave him a chance. Twenty-five years from now, it's likely Smith will be similarly overlooked.

Not that he's dwelling on how the deflection is seen as more noteworthy than the interception.

"Hopefully, we'll get another that trumps it in this game," Smith said Wednesday. "I'll focus on that. I'd rather have a Super Bowl ring than the greatest interception in the NFC Championship (Game)."

Smith talked during a media availability session at the Seahawks hotel. As reporters gathered in front of the usual suspects, he and teammate K.J. Wright shared the only table set up on the other side of the elevators.

For the occasional reporter who found the two linebackers, maneuvering between entrenched camera tripods was not a problem.

Smith isn't a starter, although he played well through the first five weeks of the season as a replacement for suspended (and then injured) strong side linebacker Bruce Irvin. Later, when a foot injury prevented Wright from starting the final three regular-season games and the playoff opener against New Orleans, Smith served as a capable fill-in on the weak side.

Aside from a familiarity with Pete Carroll, Smith's first college coach at USC, there are reasons why he's prominent in the linebacker rotation.

"He's a great athlete," said defensive tackle Tony McDaniel. "It didn't surprise me at all that he came up with the interception. I've seen him make plays like that all season – not just on game days but in practice."

The interception that sent the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII required some good fortune.

"There was only one receiver on that side," said Smith. "If there were two, I would have a lot more focused on the second receiver. The ball went high and I just ran to the ball, trying to give some help."

A lucky play? Somewhat, but as Branch Rickey used to say, luck is the residue of design.

"Our coaching point is: Good things happen to those who run," said Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. "Keep running guys, because good things are gonna happen.

"You think linebackers just jump in front of guys and make an interception? They don't. They're actually running to the ball and getting balls that been deflected. If you run to where the ball is going, there's a high probability the ball going to be tipped. You've got to be there to make a play."

Smith once was timed at a blistering 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash. When he runs to the ball, he gets there in a hurry.

"Early in his career, the issue was staying durable," said Norton. "We were telling him, 'Michael, be there every day; you're pretty good.' He's really grown up, really matured, and now he's a weapon. He has speed, he's really smart, he's durable now. He can cover backs, he can cover tight ends. And if you stand next to him, you'll notice he's a pretty thick, solid man."

Smith is listed at 6-feet and 226 pounds, and yet turned almost invisible after the deflected pass ended up in his grasp. He thought about the returning the pick, then thought better of it and took a knee for the touchback.

Knowing the Seahawks were Super Bowl bound, Smith casually tossed aside the football that could qualify as Most Valuable Item in any Seattle sports memorabilia collection.

"Somebody gave it to me after the game," he said. "I actually got rid of the ball. I wasn't thinking about it."

And now?

"I've got it at home," he said. "I haven't done anything with it. I might just give it to my dad."

Father's Day would be an appropriate time for some gift giving and a snapshot of dad with son, the kid whose interception was cropped off the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Some photos mean more than others.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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