TO THE FIN­ISH

Another mile­stone in sight, Smith not one to let off the gas, coast into re­tire­ment

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

It was back in mid-June, seven months af­ter Steve Smith Sr. suf­fered what was ini­tially be­lieved to be a ca­reer-end­ing Achilles ten­don in­jury and weeks be­fore he re­turned to the prac­tice field, when the vet­eran re­ceiver sug­gested he could make his 1,000th ca­reer catch, im­me­di­ately get into his car and drive home for good.

Nowthree re­cep­tions short of be­com­ing the 14th re­ceiver all time to hit the mile­stone, Smith is no longer en­ter­tain­ing the idea.

“Not from Dal­las,” Smith said af­ter Wed­nes­day’s prac­tice, where the Ravens con­tin­ued prepa­ra­tion for Sun­day’s road matchup against the Cowboys. “That’s a long drive.”

When he de­cided to re­turn for a 16th and fi­nal NFL sea­son, Smith promised him­self he would take time to en­joy each day of it. From his weekly war of words with cur­rent and for­mer play­ers to his re­la­tion­ships with team­mates to his pro­duc­tion on the field, Smith said he’s hav­ing a blast.

His fo­cus this week is on help­ing the Ravens (5-4) cool off the NFLbest Cowboys (8-1), and on build­ing mo­men­tum for a post­sea­son berth and a Su­per Bowl vic­tory, one of the few things that has eluded Smith in his ca­reer. He did ac­knowl­edge that if and when he makes that 1,000th ca­reer catch, he’ll al­low him­self a brief pe­riod of re­flec­tion.

“I’m go­ing to keep that ball,” Smith said. “There are not a lot of guys that have done it. Yeah, guys are do­ing it ear­lier in their ca­reers be­cause the way the game is go­ing, Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Dal­las by 7 IN­SIDE: Mar­shal Yanda prac­tices, hopes to play; Brady has fun with ‘De­flate­gate’

but for me, it’s been a long road, and a lot of things have hap­pened good and bad. If you would have told 12-year-old Steve or 21-yearold Steve that at 37 years old, you’d still be play­ing foot­ball and you’d be catch­ing your 1,000th re­cep­tion, I wouldn’t have be­lieved you. Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand. It’s very hard to do this at this age.”

The old­est re­ceiver in the league, Smith has 36 re­cep­tions, 417 re­ceiv­ing yards and two touch­down catches this sea­son, de­spite miss­ing two full games and a sig­nif­i­cant part of a third with an an­kle in­jury. He re­mains the Ravens’ of­fen­sive ig­niter, the player op­pos­ing teams fo­cus on stop­ping, the one quar­ter­back Joe Flacco looks for in key sit­u­a­tions and team­mates look at to show them the way.

“Every­thing that guy does is in­cred­i­ble ath­let­i­cally,” Flacco said. “The phys­i­cal na­ture of him, ev­ery­body should look at him. I don’t know if they should be jeal­ous or what­not, but they should def­i­nitely take notes to how spe­cial of a per­son they’re watch­ing. The things that he’s gone through and the way he’s come back this year, I’ll be telling sto­ries about him for a long time, and this just adds to it.”

Said Ravens rush line­backer Terrell Suggs: “You kind of for­get his age [be­cause of ] the way he plays.”

Smith in­sists he’s not treat­ing the rest of this sea­son any dif­fer­ently. He’s tried to spend more one-on-one time with team­mates and he par­tic­u­larly val­ues the re­la­tion­ships he’s built with the Ravens’ other wide re­ceivers.

He con­cedes that there are times dur­ing game week when his mind drifts and he thinks of “what will I be do­ing at this time next year?” Be­yond that and a painful an­kle in­jury that he’s still try­ing to get over, he says he’s ap­proach­ing the game as he al­ways has.

“It has been re­ward­ing to play the way I’m play­ing and to be a fac­tor, to be looked at and to be dou­ble-teamed at times,” Smith said. “Go back to the Oak­land game be­fore I got hurt. I ran a 12-yard route and I take it 52 yards. That’s not what peo­ple ex­pected. That’s not what peo­ple thought. Peo­ple can pre­dict or say what they want to, but the thing I love

Ca­reer milestones

Ravens wide re­ceiver Steve Smith Sr. is three re­cep­tions away from 1,000 in his ca­reer. Be­low is a look at where he ranks in sev­eral re­ceiv­ing cat­e­gories: Cat­e­gory Num­ber All time Player(s) di­rectly in front of him Re­cep­tions 997 14th Hines Ward (1,000) Re­ceiv­ing yards 14,349 8th Marvin Har­ri­son (14,580) Re­ceiv­ing TDs 78 29th An­quan Boldin, Charley Tay­lor, Harold Carmichael (79) Re­ceiv­ing yds./game 67.7 37th Reg­gie Wayne (68.0) All-pur­pose yards 18,798 7th Mar­shall Faulk (19,190) 100-yd. re­ceiv­ing games 51 4th Marvin Har­ri­son (59) Steve Smith Sr. drags Browns de­fen­sive back Ed Reynolds II for a touch­down. “It has been re­ward­ing to play the way I’m play­ing,” Smith said. about sports, you don’t get to prove peo­ple wrong by say­ing, ‘I told you so.’ You get to prove peo­ple wrong be­cause you get to defy the odds.”

Smith loves to talk about his doubters, but none of his coaches and team­mates, or his op­po­nents, is sur­prised by the level he’s still play­ing at. Nei­ther is for­mer Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers de­fen­sive back Ronde Bar­ber, now an NFL an­a­lyst. He faced Smith twice a sea­son in the NFC South and called the matchups among the most chal­leng­ing of his 16-year ca­reer.

“Peo­ple ask me all the time who were the hard­est guys I ever played against, and he was at the top of the list. Randy Moss was, too, just be­cause he was a phys­i­cal freak, but I al­ways said Steve Smith be­cause he worked harder than any­body else,” Bar­ber said. “When he got on the field on Sun­days, you could tell that he was there to out­work you. He was al­ways my tough­est chal­lenge. It doesn’t sur­prise me at all that he’s still go­ing, that he’s still pro­duc­tive. Know­ing him, every­thing is a com­pe­ti­tion to him. Even Fa­ther Time is a com­pe­ti­tion that he’s still try­ing to win.”

Bar­ber laughs when he sees a de­fen­sive back en­gage Smith ver­bally. When the Buc­ca­neers played the Panthers, Bar­ber made it a point to ap­proach Smith early in the game and ask him about his fam­ily and his char­ity.

“As soon as you start talk­ing smack to him, the [switch flips] and it’s over with. That switch is not go­ing off un­til the game is over. I al­ways felt if I could dis­en­gage him just a lit­tle, it would be a nice, cor­dial, com­pet­i­tive day, and not the rah-rah Steve Smith that was im­pos­si­ble to deal with,” Bar­ber said. “That’s real. It’s not an act. That’s how he mo­ti­vates him­self.”

Al­ready this sea­son, Smith has got­ten into it with Jack­sonville Jaguars rookie cor­ner­back Jalen Ram­sey and Pitts­burgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, his for­mer team­mate with the Carolina Panthers. Last week, he called out NBC an­a­lyst Rod­ney Har­ri­son af­ter the for­mer NFL safety was crit­i­cal about the Ravens re­ly­ing on a 37-year-old com­ing off Achilles surgery.

“You can say, ‘Maybe he’s not as good,’ or ‘ He’s slow­ing down a lit­tle bit,’ of course, but don’t make it seem like I’m out there run­ning routes with a pi­ano on my back,” Smith said.

On Fri­day at 9 p.m., NFL Net­work will chron­i­cle Smith’s ca­reer as part of its “A Foot­ball Life” series. The hour­long show high­lights Smith’s hum­ble begin­nings in in­ner-city Los An­ge­les, his 13 sea­sons in Carolina, his re­cov­ery from a dou­ble rup­ture of his right Achilles ten­don, and his fam­ily life with his wife, Angie, and their four kids.

The fi­nal chap­ter of Smith’s ca­reer, though, has yet to be writ­ten. Can he help lead the Ravens to the play­offs? Will he ul­ti­mately get into the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame?

Smith ranks in the top 15 all time in re­cep­tions, re­ceiv­ing yards and all-pur­pose yards, but the way wide re­ceiver num­bers are judged has changed in the cur­rent passhappy NFL. There is also a log­jam of re­ceivers wait­ing to get the call from the Hall.

“The prob­lem that all re­ceivers are go­ing to face, you can get 1,000 catches in 10 sea­sons now. That’s al­ways go­ing to be a hur­dle for all these great re­ceivers,” said Hall of Fame quar­ter­back Dan Fouts, who will be on the CBS broad­cast­ing team for Sun­day’s Ravens-Cowboys game. “When [for­mer team­mate Char­lie Joiner] re­tired, it was 750. And now 750 doesn’t even show up on the screen. But longevity has a lot to do with it. What Steve has done over the years has been pretty re­mark­able.”

Bar­ber be­lieves Smith be­longs in the Hall of Fame as well, and said win­ning a cham­pi­onship would clinch it. As for Smith, he in­sists he’s not at all con­sumed by the Hall of Fame de­bate.

“If I get a call, I get a call. If I don’t, I don’t,” he said. “At the end of the day, when I’m done, I’m go­ing home and I’m go­ing to re­lax.”

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Saints (4-5) at Panthers (3-6) 8:25 p.m., NBC | Drew Brees carved up the Panthers ear­lier this sea­son and is per­fectly ca­pa­ble of do­ing so again. The Saints have shown a flicker of life on de­fense, and that should be good enough. Saints 34, Panthers 24

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