Compliments aren’t always easy for Steve Smith to digest, even at 37. The reasons for that predate his 16-year NFL career, as a poor kid in Los Angeles. They mounted as he made the jump from junior college to Utah. They multiplied when, after beating the odds, he still couldn’t get a legitimate shot at receiver in his first NFL season.
Every year it seems there’s a new player coming out of college who has the qualities to be “the next Steve Smith.” That used to bother Smith because the proclamations came from the same scouts who were dropping Smith from their boards in 2001.
“Now those same people are saying this guy can be a good player,” Smith says. “Oh, I’m a good player now?”
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In the past two years, when an older player gets released from a team, Smith has noticed his name comes up. He knows that part of his legacy will be successfully making a switch to another team late in his career. If Smith did it, they’ll say, it can be done.
“I kind of snicker at that. Oh, if I can do it everyone else can, like it’s watering me down,” Smith says. “Mainly I think I take it as a compliment.”
Last Sunday, Smith became the 14th player in NFL history to catch at least 1,000 passes in his career. His 14,448 receiving yards are the most of any active player and eighth all-time. The passion with which he’s played for the past 16 years should one day lead him to Canton.
But today’s Steve Smith is mellower than in years past, a truth that’s difficult to reckon with when he’s spinning the ball on Sundays or honking his horn in traffic at 7:20 a.m. during a phone interview. He and his wife, Angie, have made a more conscious effort to live in the present rather than in the future.
So to say he’s noncommittal about this being his last NFL season would be unfair. On 2017 and beyond, he hasn’t ruled it in or out. He’s focused on the final six games of this season—his last under contract—and getting into the playoffs. And if he wants to come back to Baltimore, coach John Harbaugh said this week that “he is welcome, absolutely.”
Living in the present also means Smith wasn’t counting down the catches until 1,000. Smith said he didn’t know he was at 999 until an official, after halftime, asked him to whom he should give the ball after the next catch. He joked in training camp that once he got his 1,000th catch, he’d walk off the field, get in his car and go home. “It’s a long drive from Dallas,” he said this week.
Getting 1,000 wasn’t everything, but it was something. Of the 13 other receivers with at least 1,000 catches, six have been retired long enough to be Hall of Fame-eligible and four are enshrined in Canton. Statistics alone don’t fully contextualize Smith’s case, though.
He’s the first receiver under 6-feet (5' 9″, to be exact) to have at least 1,000 catches. He came back from a broken leg in 2004 to get the Triple Crown (receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches) the following season—the last receiver to do it. He’s coming off an Achilles tear and fighting through a bum ankle to be his team’s second-leading receiver.
“To make a name for yourself is what every player desires,” Smith says. “As soon as a receiver catches a pass over a corner, they say what? They say you got Moss’d. That’s making a name for yourself.”
“Steve Smith, he is an animal,” Randy Moss said last month. “And one thing that I like about Steve Smith, he brought back the little guys, and they stayed for a very long time. It was guys like myself who looked at him like, There’s no way that guy is doing that. So then when I finally seen him I’m like, Oh, I’m impressed.
“So to see where Steve has come from, from Utah to see where he is now coming up on 1,000 catches, he has won a lot of fans over. One, because he’s tough. He doesn’t take no b.s. and he’s going out there to play no matter what. If he’s physically able to play, he’s going to play.”
Perhaps no one in the NFL knows Smith better than Ricky Proehl. A 17-year pro himself, Proehl played with Smith for three seasons, including the 2003 run to the Super Bowl. He saw Smith carry the Panthers to the 2005 NFC Championship Game with a 12-catch, 218-yard performance in Chicago that remains one of the greatest games for a receiver in NFL playoff history.
For another three seasons, Proehl’s relationship with Smith became coach-player. Proehl served as an offensive assistant in Carolina in 2011 and ’12 and became the receivers coach in ’13, Smith’s last season with the Panthers before being released in regrettable fashion by general manager Dave Gettleman.
“It could be a lot of fun and it could be a lot of headaches,” Proehl said of coaching his friend and former teammate. “He could be a pain in the ass, but that’s what made him great. He’s an emotional guy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. It was trying at times. Mondays [were the toughest]. Mondays after a loss, or after a win and he didn’t get the touches he wanted. But again, you take the good with the bad. That’s what made him great.
“He wanted to be involved, he wanted to help his team. He didn’t always go about it the right way, but you knew what you were getting with Steve Smith. You never wondered what he was thinking.”
That’s what we’ve all known for years, and it’s what rookie defensive backs in the NFL are finding out now. Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey said he didn’t respect Smith as a man after Baltimore’s Week 3 win. Smith fired back by saying he didn’t need the rookie’s respect and that he has cleat thread stronger than Ramsey. Dallas rookie cornerback Anthony Brown said he had respect for Smith before last week’s game but not after Smith was “yapping after every play.”
In days of yesteryear, Smith may have cussed these players out. Now, mellower, he chooses his words carefully. He believes that creates a greater impact.
“I think what these young players don’t realize is you can’t sit there and say things to an individual all game, and then after the game, ‘Oh man, it’s all good.’ You can’t call them an ‘old mother——’ and ‘you need to take your old a– home’ and all that stuff, and then after the game it’s all good. This is not WWE. This ain’t fake.
“There’s a ton of guys I played against every year for the last 16 years that, yeah we may say things here and there, but then there’s a level of trash talking and competition that there are some things you just don’t say. All the years I played Ronde Barber, I never said ‘get your old a– out of here.’ Never said that. I had a respect for Ronde.
“I’m going to let you know. If you respect me, I respect you. If you don’t respect me, I’m not going to respect. I’m not going to respect you during the game, and you damn sure, when the play is dead and there are no referees to come to your help, I’m not going to respect you or shy away from telling you how I really feel. And letting you know physically and emotionally how I feel about you.”
It’s that kind of passion—if that’s what we want to call it—that makes Steve Smith one-of-one. There will be more short receivers who run crisp routes coming into the NFL, but will they have the ability to hold grudges for 16 years? For better or worse, that has made Smith one of the greatest and most entertaining football players of a generation.
And as remarkable as these statistics are, what if his path to 1,000 catches wasn’t this hard? What if George Seifert let him play receiver his first season, or what if he didn’t break his leg and miss his fourth season, or what if his Achilles didn’t pop last year? Consider what his career would be if he had more stability at quarterback. Chris Weinke, Rodney Peete, Randy Fasani, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde, Matt Moore, David Carr, Brian St. Pierre and Jimmy Clausen all threw Smith passes as starters in his career.
Smith entered this season wanting 1,000 catches, but he also wanted to get 1,000 yards in 2016. No player other than Jerry Rice has caught 1,000 yards at 37 or older. Smith has 516 yards with six games left and, though he knows it’s a stretch, there’s a slight possibility he gets there. What if he hadn’t missed those two games due to an ankle injury? Of course, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts we’d all have a Merry Christmas, and Smith knows it.
The fact is, with these 1,000 catches and this context, Smith should one day join his jersey from last week’s record-setting game in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Exactly when is the question. As an amateur historian of the game, Smith understands it’s unlikely he’ll be a first-ballot pick. It’s still unclear if the five-year clock on his Hall of Fame eligibility will begin after this season or later.
“Well I mean, how long it takes or whatever, I put it like this,” Smith said. “If I needed last-minute extra tickets, our ticket guy would say what are you looking for. I’d always say beggars can’t be choosers. And guess what? Man, I’m a beggar. I’ll take it however I can get it, because I wasn’t even supposed to be here.”