While with the Carolina Panthers a couple of years ago, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. sat down and made a list that he hoped would drive him for what remained of his NFL career.
At the top of the list was Jerry Rice, who holds the league NFL record with 22,895 receiving yards. Below Rice, Smith jotted down the names of Tim Brown and James Lofton, who are both in the top-10 all time in receiving yards. Then at the bottom of the paper, Smith wrote, "Where will I be at the end?"
"The whole thing about that is it isn't that I'm trying to be at the top. I respect and know who is at the top," Smith said. "But I'm reaching for something. Obviously, I won't ever get 22,000 yards, but you know what, it keeps me understanding that when I get up every morning, there's a standard that's been set. That's how I look at it. [Rice] is known as the best. If I want to consider myself one of the best, I have to work somehow close to what he's done."
As he enters his 15th and final season, the Ravens wide receiver's legacy appears secure. He has a hard-earned reputation as one of the most intense competitors to play in the NFL and one of the best pass catchers of his era. An undersized receiver who was initially labeled a return specialist, Smith has 915 career catches, 13,262 receiving yards and 73 receiving touchdowns.
If he repeats his numbers from last season, when Smith led the Ravens with 79 catches for 1,065 yards, Smith will likely finish his career in the top 10 all time in receiving yards and in the top 15 in receptions. His resume also includes being named first-team All-Pro twice, five Pro Bowl selections, eight 1,000-yard seasons, six return touchdowns and 17,679 all-purpose yards.
'It may be a little wait'
It's an impressive set of numbers and accolades, but is it enough to get Smith into in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
"It may take a few years. It may not be the first, second or third year [he's eligible]," said Brown, the former Los Angeles-Oakland Raiders receiver, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in early August. "It took me six, Cris [Carter] five and Andre [Reed] nine to get in. So I think from that standpoint, it may be a little wait for him. But at some point certainly, he's going to get the consideration due to him. You can't put up those kinds of numbers and not get the proper consideration."
Brown caught 1,094 passes for 14,934 yards and 100 touchdowns over 17 NFL seasons. When Smith finishes this season, his numbers could closely resemble Brown's in several categories, and both players were also return specialists at different points in their career. Smith and Brown are the only players in league history with at least 13,000 receiving yards and 4,000 return yards.
But several factors could hurt Smith's Hall chances. He hasn't won a Super Bowl ring and he's had several well-publicized fights with teammates. He also could get stuck in the logjam of wide receivers waiting to get the call. Carter, Reed and Brown have gotten in over the past three years, but Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are already eligible and Terrell Owens will join them next year. Hines Ward and Randy Moss will become eligible over the next few years, and other receivers, such as Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne, will surely enter the conversation when they retire.
Smith, who announced in early August that this would be his last season, wouldn't be eligible until the 2021 class.
"By that time, I would assume that at least three of the guys will be in — Randy, [Owens] and Marvin. From that standpoint, it's just going to be a fight to see who else can get in," Brown said. "He really needs to keep going to have a great shot at the Hall of Fame, but I love watching Steve. I love anybody who can run routes, catch the ball and do something after the catch. He's certainly been one of those guys over the years.
"I love the passion that he plays with. I guess that same passion has probably gotten him into a little trouble off the football field, but there's just something about a guy getting really amped up about catching a 15-yard pass. I think that's the role of a No. 1 receiver, that's the role of a go-to guy, to get everybody going."
'He's proved it'
Former NFL wide receiver Mike Quick made the Pro Bowl in five of his nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles before retiring after the 1990 campaign. Quick, now an Eagles broadcaster, watched Smith closely during Philadelphia's joint practices with the Ravens and said if he had a vote, Smith would get in.
"Look at the number of receivers that are in the Hall of Fame. If I'm on the committee, I don't hesitate and I make sure that everybody else on the committee understands this guy's contribution to the game," Quick said. "He's proved it year-in and year-out, that he's one of the great receivers in our game."
Smith acknowledges that he used to think about his Hall of Fame chances but that those days ended while he was in the process of rewriting the Panthers receiving record book.
"My ultimate goal was to be a Hall of Fame player. My secondary goal was to be a franchise player. And my third goal was to be the best receiver in Carolina Panthers history," Smith said. "That's how I marked them down — one, two and three. And my short-term goal, it was just to be a consistent player in the top 15 or so in receiving every year. I started doing that in 2002.
"I look at the guys in the Hall of Fame or waiting to get in, and I think the thing that separates them, those guys were consistent for a long period of time. That's kind of what I tried to be. I've never really been in an offense where I get 100 passes. That doesn't bother me, but I've had the opportunity to play for a long time. That's what I kind of look at and appreciate. I think you build your legacy or reputation on who you are over a period of time."
When he announced that he would retire after the season, Smith declined to even address the prospects of winning his first Super Bowl in his final season. He wants to have fun, enjoy every moment and make defensive backs miserable. That's been his mindset the past couple of years and he's not going to change now with the finish line near.
"I think his legacy can be a legacy that he kind of writes at the end," said Ravens wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, who played 14 seasons in the NFL. "Very few of us get that opportunity to kind of end it the way it is and to go out the way he's going out. For a guy that's had that much success, he deserves it. I know everybody for this team and for this organization wants to see him be at his best this year. I think the [Hall of Fame] will take care of itself, but he certainly should be considered."