Analysis

Steve Smith stories: First-hand memories of a receiver at work

Steve Smith Sr. confirmed after Sunday's tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals that he was retiring from the NFL. In his 16-year career, the five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro has amassed 14,697 career receiving yards (seventh all-time and most among active players) and 81 receiving touchdowns while playing for the Carolina Panthers (2001-2013) and Baltimore Ravens (2014-16). How did the 5-foot-9, 195-pound third-round pick out of Utah do it? Three NFL.com analysts who saw Smith work up close -- former scout Bucky Brooks; David Carr, who threw passes to Smith; and Ike Taylor, who tried to stop Smith -- look back on Smith's storied tenure.

THE TEAMMATE: David Carr, former NFL quarterback

It's hard to say there's not a better teammate than Smith. But when I think about it, who else would I rather have out there on the field with me? Probably no one. We were teammates for one year in Carolina (2007), and I knew it was going to be interesting -- in a good way -- after the first day of training camp. During team drills, I threw a ball that was a little too late, and he yelled at me to fix it. So I intentionally threw it super early before he broke the route on the next pass. The ball hit him in the facemask, but he caught it at the same time. I turned and started jogging to the next drill with then-quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy, and the ball came flying past my head. Moments later, Smith came up beside me and said, "What's up, man? I think we can hang out." From that point on, I've had the ultimate respect for him, and we still keep in touch.

The thing that stood Smith apart from other receivers I played with was his approach. I've been around a lot of good receivers, and they all practice hard and take time to prepare. But for Smith, practice was the game, and he treated every drill like it was the Super Bowl. If the ball wasn't delivered on time or he ran the wrong route, we kept practicing. That was my experience every day with him, and I've never been around anyone else who meticulously worked that way in my 12-year NFL career.

He was so knowledgeable about coverages and what defenses tried to do to exploit his weaknesses. I remember his routes were never the same. In Houston, I was used to Andre Johnson doing things by the book and running cookie-cutter routes (the same look each time). It was hard for me to improvise early on, because Smith would run a route six different ways. On a slant route, he'd throw the cornerback on the ground the first time, beat the corner with speed the next and juke the corner off the line the next. It was like herding cats sometimes, but it worked for him. Looking back, I wish I could've played with him longer.

In having the chance to play in the NFL for a decade, there are very few guys who I thought could play forever. Smith was one of them. Right when I got to Carolina in the spring, we were doing the vertical-leap test. Smith was watching and studying everyone in the corner of the room, patiently waiting his turn. When the bar was set at the highest mark, the 5-9 Smith came over and jumped past the bar, hit the ceiling and ran out of the weight room with a smile on his face. That's when I knew he wasn't human. I respect him for walking away from the game on his own terms if he decides to be done Sunday, but he could play for five more years if he wanted.

THE OPPONENT: Ike Taylor, former NFL cornerback

In my 12 NFL seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were only two other players who I saw myself in from a style standpoint. The first was my own teammate, Hines Ward. The second was Steve Smith Sr. During our three meetings, I saw a spitting image of myself -- rugged, aggressive, fearless, finding a way through adversity and a not-backing-down-from-anybody attitude. But perhaps the biggest similarity was understanding that 90 percent of football is mental at the NFL level. Everybody in this league has the physical attributes but only the strong survive.

My first impression of Smith when I studied his film was he had an incredible vertical for his size. He always went up and got the ball no matter who was covering him, and that's what I liked about him. When I think back on it all, Smith, along with A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson, were the toughest receivers to tackle. The difference was that Smith wasn't 6-4 or 6-5 like the others. We have always had a mutual respect for each other -- even during Smith's years with the Ravens, who are, of course, Pittsburgh's bitter rivals -- from the time we were both in our primes until our last meeting in 2014 when we battled Father Time. But nothing, major injuries included, has stopped this guy, and that's why we've seen him do it for 16 years.

THE SCOUT: Bucky Brooks, former NFL scout

I was working for the Seattle Seahawks as a regional scout when Smith was selected in the 2001 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers with the 74th overall pick. Scouts always looked for wide receivers who had a background of returning punts, because we felt those players had potential to be dominant, open-field runners who could catch in traffic and make big gains. And by the time I jumped ship to scout for Carolina in 2003, Smith had already been a Pro Bowl punt returner and was transforming into a legitimate receiver at the pro level. Smith developed into not only a catch-and-run guy, but he mastered route running and made plays on 50/50 balls. It was very uncommon for a guy his size to play above the rim like he did, but he always played big, from the moment he entered the league. Defenders had to deal with him in a different way -- almost like a running back, given how broad and thick he is -- once Smith became a threat at wide receiver, because of his tenacious attitude and very physical play.

The most memorable thing for me was watching Smith have the game-winning touchdown in double overtime against the "Greatest Show on Turf" in the 2003 NFC Divisional Round. What a huge moment for him -- but he didn't let that become the pinnacle of his career. Smith earned the receiving triple crown (most receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs in a season) in 2005 and went on to pile up the statistics in many categories.

Most importantly, I had the chance to watch him mature and grow off the field. Early in his career, he had dust-ups and run-ins with not only opponents but his teammates. Over his 16 years, we saw a young hothead turn into a leader, captain and someone young people can look up to. Smith now commands everyone's respect when in front of a room, not just because of his play, but because of how he carries himself.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.