"I think we did a lot of good things, but sometimes we find a way to make it tough on ourselves," said Joe Flacco when asked about today's game being a great test. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Steve Smith Sr. knew his reputation as a demonstrative and demanding teammate preceded him. He just wanted to give his new quarterback some time to make up his own mind.
So about two weeks into his first training camp with the Ravens in 2014, Smith sat down for breakfast with Joe Flacco at the team's training facility and served up a simple question.
"I just said, 'What do you think of me so far?" Smith recalled. "He kind of snickered and looked at me, and we just started talking. He was totally, completely honest, which was cool. That's what I respect."
Smith declined t reveal what Flacco said, and Flacco claims to not remember. But to Smith, the back-and-forth set the foundation for a strong and productive relationship between the laid back quarterback and the fiery wide receiver. Their connection and health will be vital in determining whether the Ravens are able to rebound in 2016.
Flacco, 31, is in his ninth year after an offseason spent rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee. Smith, 37, pushed back retirement for a year and pushed through his recovery from a torn right Achilles' tendon to return for a 16th NFL season.
The two connected for a modest 19 yards on five receptions SUnday against the Bills, but their past success together portends bigger production this season.
"He's one of the best that's ever played, there's no doubt about it," Flacco said. "Just getting the chance to be around him, to see what he's about and to develop a true, honest opinion about who he is as a player and as a person, I've just been very fortunate. He's been huge for me and my career. You can listen to all the bad things you hear about people and form an opinion. I didn't know what to think of him, but since he's been here, he's been nothing but great."
Rewind two years and there were questions about how the partnership would work out. Flacco can be stubborn and set in his ways. Smith expects a lot out of his self and his teammates, and had a few highly publicized altercations with Carolina Panthers teammates. Some believed the Panthers had to move on from Smith before they could truly become Cam Newton's team.
In two-plus years, Flacco and Smith haven't agreed on everything. Smith remembers Flacco criticizing him for freelancing a route during the 2014 season. When the two met on the sideline, an annoyed Flacco told Smith he would never get the ball in that situation. Smith chuckled at the quarterback's gumption. But their disagreements traditionally morph into what both call an "open dialogue," where ideas are exchanged, buttons are pushed and frustrations are erred before the two quickly move on.
"Every quarterback and wide receiver has some dialogue, but not every quarterback that I played with is a Super Bowl champ, or a Super Bowl MVP," Smith said. "Not every quarterback is his height, and can throw 60 or 70 yards off his back foot. There are things that Joe can uniquely do that some of the other guys I've played with cannot."
During Smith's 13 seasons in Carolina, the Panthers had 11 starting quarterbacks. That group included first overall draft picks Vinny Testaverde, David Carr and Newton, and undrafted quarterbacks Matt Lytle and Matt Moore. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist in his rookie 2001 season. His ascension into a Pro Bowl receiver began in 2003, when Jake Delhomme arrived as the Panthers' starting quarterback.
The two fierce competitors played parts of seven seasons together, helping to lead the Panthers to a Super Bowl and developing a strong rapport on and off the field. They are still close today.
"Playing with him is probably one of the great treasures in my life," said Delhomme, who retired after 2011. "We grew up together and had a mutual respect for one another. He hated to lose as much as I hated to lose. That's what drove us. I expected him to be great each and every day, and he expected me to be at my best each and every day. We demanded excellence out of each other."
Delhomme and Smith had their disagreements. They defused them quickly. Delhomme said that if Smith groused, he'd jokingly say, "You're acting like so-and-so," and invoke the name of one of Smith's young kids. Delhomme never doubted Smith's commitment and unwavering desire to win.
"When it's time to play on Sunday, he's going to be at his best and he demands everybody else be at his best," Delhomme said. "What makes him so great is he has a competitive arrogance about him, and I use that in the finest form of flattery. People are attracted to Steve Smith. He's a lightning rod, but he's a lightning rod in a good way. He raised that level, that meter in so many people."
Smith's mentality has carried over to his Ravens' teammates.
"Steve is not hard to get along with when you're on the same side with him," Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. "He can be [demanding], but it comes from a good place. It's not a selfish mentality. It's more, 'I just want to win and compete.'"
Not your average Joe
Smith said Flacco was "well conditioned" for his arrival because of all the years he played with big personalities such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. Flacco held his ground with all three of those players. During one memorable training camp exchange following the Super Bowl season, Flacco reminded Suggs that he makes more money than the outspoken defensive lineman.
Flacco was also able to establish strong relationships with established veteran receivers Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin.
"It means a lot to me as a quarterback if my receivers think I'm a good quarterback," Flacco said. "It doesn't really matter what everybody else thinks, but it means a lot to me when I feel like those guys trust me. With those guys, it's not tough to have confidence in them. They're really good receivers."
Flacco's teammates say there's a misconception about the quarterback due to his calm "Joe Cool" demeanor. He has no problem voicing his opinion, and he does it often, but it's usually not within earshot of reporters or fans. He also likes teasing teammates. During days spent in the training room this summer, Flacco needled Smith endlessly about the fact that the wide receiver's right calf muscle had atrophied and was significantly smaller than his left calf.
Smith, who is an intent observer of teammates' actions and habits, confronted Flacco recently because he believed he picked up on some of the quarterback's tells. Flacco grinned, failing to confirm if Smith's suspicions were right.
"He doesn't want people kissing his [butt] and around here — that's not going to happen," Flacco said. "I have a tough time beating around the bush and just saying something you want to hear. I kind of say it how it is, even if I don't realize that's maybe not what I should say at the moment. But that's how I feel, that's what I'm thinking. I try and be as honest as I can in all situations, and Steve's the same way."
Something Flacco told Smith in the Ravens' locker room helped fuel the wide receiver through the arduous rehab process. Smith sat slumped in front of his locker last Nov. 1, his Achilles' tendon shredded and tears streaming down his face following the Ravens' victory over the San Diego Chargers. Smith was confronting the potential end of his career when Flacco approached him.
Flacco told Smith of the dynamic impact he had on the organization in such a short period of time and vowed that Smith was going to overcome the injury.
"It threw me off. You hate hearing when somebody gets hurt, 'Aww man, we're sorry to hear that,' or 'Is there anything I can do for you?' You're hurt. Nobody wants to hear that," Smith said. "For a guy like Joe who, a lot of times keeps things to himself, for him to go out of his way and say that really meant a lot to me. I listened to it at the time, but when you have two or three months to kind of sit around and not do anything, you reflect on a lot of stuff. It meant a lot to me in that moment and it meant even more when I sat back and thought about it."
Flacco admitted he didn't know what to say to Smith. He just knew he needed to say something.
"I just told him the truth. When you have a friend that isn't feeling good about something because he might be looking at the last play he's ever played, it can be tough. We've all been doing this our whole lives," Flacco said. "I'm not really good in those situations, but Steve is a good friend, and what I said was true. Steve has had a huge impact here in a couple of years. He impacts people in a very real and emotional way."