Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. plans to make this his last season in the NFL. "I feel like this is the best place, if it's going to be the end this would be the best place for it to end," said Smith. (Kevin Richardson)
Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. has a T-shirt he looks at every day. It reminds him of a mantra he tries to live by, a message that seems more pertinent now than ever before.
"Enjoy the journey," the shirt says.
For 14 NFL seasons, Smith has been one of the league's best at his position. Undersized but ultracompetitive, he has 915 career receptions, 13,262 receiving yards and 73 touchdown catches, in 13 excellent years with the Carolina Panthers and last season for the Ravens.
A month before the Ravens are set to kick off the regular season against the Denver Broncos, Smith announced that this, his 15th season, will be his last. The 36-year-old told his teammates the news before Monday's practice and then revealed his decision to reporters later.
"I'm not really a big gambler or whatever, but the analogy is all my chips are on the table," Smith said. "So, we're going to see what the dealer gives me."
Smith's decision, which he said was made in April, is not a big surprise. It was widely believed when he signed with the Ravens last March after being released by the Panthers, that he'd play for one or two more years.
He enjoyed his first season with the Ravens and led the team with 79 receptions for 1,065 yards to go along with six touchdowns, but acknowledged on several occasions that it was difficult for him to spend so much time away from his family, which lives in the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Smith and his wife, Angie, have four children and the oldest, Peyton, a soccer player who has been recruited by several schools, will start college next year. Smith has said he wants to attend many of his son's games, and to be around more for his youngest son, Steve Jr., who turned 1 this year.
"I just feel like it's time," Smith said. "I don't want to hold on. I said in the summer, Jerry Rice is the best receiver to ever play. I don't believe that chasing whatever it is to chase for four more years would be conducive to my family or be conducive to me. I would be having to give up something. I would be jeopardizing something. I don't know what that is, and I don't have any intentions of finding out."
Smith said he made the announcement now to put to bed the persistent questions that he figured he'd be asked throughout the season. The timing brought to mind Ray Lewis' "This will be my last ride," speech before the team's Super Bowl run in 2013. Lewis was the last high-profile Raven to announce his retirement prior to the end of a season.
"Remember what happened the last time we had a player like this retire?," linebacker Terrell Suggs asked. "Steve Smith is one hell of a guy and maybe we can send him out with something special."
Said quarterback Joe Flacco: "He has had a great career. I think it is awesome to spend time with him at the end of his career and to see if we can win it for him going out."
Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, ranks 18th in league history in receptions, 14th in receiving yards and 33rd in touchdowns. A third-round NFL draft pick by the Panthers in 2001 out of the University of Utah, Smith's 17,672 combined yards — he was a prolific return man earlier in his career — rank 10th in NFL history and are the most among active players.
He and wide receiver Tim Brown, who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame last week, are the only two players in league history to record at least 900 receptions and score touchdowns on a catch, run, punt return and kick return.
"He's certainly earned the right to go out on his own terms," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If you look at what he's doing, he's going out on top of his game. There's no question about that. He made the decision to go out at his very best."
About the only thing missing from Smith's resume is a Super Bowl ring. He insisted Monday that he wasn't chasing anything and isn't thinking about going out on top. However, his teammates don't sound like they believe him.
"I'm pretty sure a Super Bowl is on his mind," receiver Kamar Aiken said. "I know he would like to at least have a Super Bowl before he retires, but we'll definitely try to give him the best opportunity for it."
Marlon Brown said Smith told Ravens receivers several months ago that this season would be his last.
"He's passing the torch," Brown said. "He knows that this is his last year, so this really means a lot to him. I don't want to be the guy who stands in the way of his dream, going to the Super Bowl. I'm going to out there and practice and play to the best of my ability, not just for me and the team, but for Steve."
The departure of Smith, who has taken on more of a leadership role this year, will leave a void. This year, though, the Ravens will need him to be every bit as productive as he was last season, when he emerged as Flacco's go-to target.
This Ravens lost their second and third leading pass catchers (Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels) from last year's team, and possess a young and mostly unproven group of receivers. Ten of the team's 12 receivers on the 90-man roster are 26 years or younger. That includes rookie first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman and sixth-rounder Darren Waller.
Smith said he feels great physically and thinks he could play for two or more years, but has other things he wants to do. Smith will forego $3 million by skipping the final year of the three-year contract he signed in 2014.
"I don't know; it's just something about here," Smith said. "I feel like this is the best place. If it's going to be the end, this would be the best place to end. I think it's always easier when you know you have a finish line. You get to let things loose. Whatever happens, you just kind of let the chips fall where they may."