Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco talks about WR Steve Smith, and Smith reacts to Flacco. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun Video)
Steve Smith started the healing process immediately after he left the Carolina Panthers' facility and returned to his Charlotte home.
Even though he anticipated his release by the only NFL organization that he had ever known, he was still angry and bitter. When Smith sat down with his family, the emotions poured out. They discussed everything — his college career at Utah, getting drafted by the Panthers, the 13 prolific seasons he played with them, and then of course, the difficult parting of ways.
"We sat down as a family, we prayed, we thought about it and discussed it," said Smith, wearing a gray Ravens sweatsuit. "My wife cried, my kids cried. They didn't see me, I shed a few tears. Then, we got back up, dusted ourselves off and we said, 'What is the plan for the Smith family?' and we moved forward. It got me here, so am I bitter to play against them? I'm not bitter, because I get to play."
In a radio interview shortly after his release in March, Smith warned to "put your goggles on 'cause there's going to be blood and guts everywhere" if his new team faced the Panthers in 2014.
Four days before the Ravens play the Panthers on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, Smith was far less dramatic and much more reflective. In a couple of months with his new team, he's established himself as quarterback Joe Flacco's go-to target with more than double the receiving yards than the next closest Raven. Smith has quieted some of the talk that he is in steady decline.
"For a 35-year-old guy, I shouldn't be doing this, right?" he said.
On several occasions, Smith has taken thinly-veiled shots at the Carolina organization, which let him go amid talk of declining production, an escalating salary, and what some Panthers officials felt was a disruptive personality. But on Wednesday, he said that he doesn't feel that he has to show his old team that he can still play. Instead, what he said he is really looking forward to is getting "the game over with."
"Honestly, I never really envisioned that I'd be in a different uniform, in a different city. A lot goes into it," said Smith, the Panthers' all-time leader in every major receiving category. "It's eye-opening when you're in a place for 13 years and now you're in a different place. It's been a lot of reflection. The receivers always make fun of me because at least one day of practice, for a moment, I'll sit off to the side away from everybody and just reflect where I am."
The Ravens certainly have no regrets that they signed Smith the day after his Carolina release. Smith has 18 catches for 290 yards, the most in franchise history for a Ravens receiver in his first three games. His 32-yard sideline catch over Joe Haden, one of the game's best cornerbacks, set up Justin Tucker for the game-winning field goal against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday.
"It's been pretty obvious, as a football player, what he's meant to us," said head coach John Harbaugh. "He's made plays. He's a fiery competitor. He's been a leader. It's a young group of receivers and he's had an impact on those guys. But he hasn't done it in an overbearing way. He's just been himself."
Harbaugh joked earlier this week that he was going to challenge Smith to "shock the world" and not engage the Panthers with any trash talk. He then smiled, knowing how unrealistic that was. Smith, after all, is the guy who told then-New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib to "Ice up, son," after Talib exited a chippy matchup against Smith with an injury.
"My enthusiasm will be out of this world," Smith said. "It'll be fun to play against guys that I know their tendencies; they know my tendencies."
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera reminded reporters several times on Wednesday that Sunday's game is the Panthers against the Ravens, not the Panthers against Smith. However, both Rivera and Smith's former quarterback know how fired up the Ravens wide receiver will be on Sunday.
"No matter if it's the Carolina Panthers or the Buffalo Bills or any team in the league, he's going to be stoked to play," Cam Newton said.
He apparently always is. On one of the first plays of training camp, Smith came back to the huddle and questioned why Flacco didn't throw him the ball. Flacco told him he needed to get more depth to his route. Asked about his expectations for Smith on Sunday, Flacco joked, "Can he be much crazier than he is at certain times?"
"If I pay much attention to that maniac on Sunday, who knows how I'm going to play?," Flacco said. "He's going to want the ball — probably every since down — and if I don't get it to him, and I pay attention to how he reacts to that, then I'm going to be in trouble, and I'm going to feel bad, and then we're not going to play the way we should."
Smith was then asked if it was OK that his new quarterback called him a maniac.
"Man, I'm here to play ball," Smith said. "I enjoy playing ball, and I play with a passion. I know when I'm on your team, you love me; when I'm not on your team, you despise me. At the end of the day, that's my job."