The definitive Hall of Fame case for Steve Smith
Steve Smith will be an interesting test-case for any Hall of Fame voter who has not watched game film over the past 15 years.
Those who have witnessed his game-wrecking ability year-in and year-out inherently understand the greatest player in Carolina Panthers history has been one of the most iconic, unstoppable 100-yard forces of his generation.
Smith announced Monday that the 2015 season will be the last of a storied career that has mixed instant-classic soundbytes and entertaining touchdown celebrations with on-field dominance and defining moments.
Ever the showman, Smith promptly vowed on Tuesday’s edition of the The Rich Eisen Show to “wound, damage and puncture” opponents while playing with “house money” on his way out of the league.
Make no mistake, Smith can still make a defense pay in the twilight phase of his career. When Cam Newton replaced an inept Jimmy Clausen in 2011, an over-30 Smith finished fifth and 12th in receiving yards the next two years, placing behind only Calvin Johnson in pass plays over 20 yards during that span. He’s now coming off one of the most productive age-35 seasons in NFL history.
Smith has been so steadily effective through a lengthy decline phase that we tend to forget he was the picture of compact explosiveness during his prime.
If the analytics site, Pro Football Focus, had been around when Smith was the NFL’s premier wide receiver from 2005-2008, their metrics would have backed up what the film showed: Smith was not only the game’s most lethal run-after-catch threat, but also boasted an astonishing vertical leap and my-ball mentality to high-point contested passes with the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss.
Refer to the video to the right, as the lightning-quick Smith scorched the Rams’ secondary for a 69-yard, walk-off touchdown, lifting the Panthers to victory in double overtime of the 2003 playoffs.
Who else makes that play?
For a half-decade there was no scarier sight for defensive backs than Smith’s high-octane, punt-return skills threatening to take every slant route to the house.
Former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden once raved, “If you watch some of the piles of trash he’s come out of over the years … his highlights might be more impressive than anybody’s.”
Around The NFL reached out to NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, who has been breaking down game film for more than 35 years, to gauge Smith’s case for the Hall of Fame.
“How do we measure greatness for a wide receiver in an era in which so many catch 80, 90, 100 passes?” Cosell said. “One way is to evaluate that player’s ability to make game-changing impact plays over a long period of time. By that measure, Steve Smith belongs in the Pro Hall of Fame.
“Secondly, the word ‘unique’ is certainly overused when it comes to athletes. Yet think about this: How many 5-foot-9 receivers have there been in the history of the NFL with Smith’s combination of vertical speed, lateral explosion, physical strength, mental toughness and unrelenting competitiveness? You could argue there has not been another wide receiver quite like Smith. 2015 should be the final year of a Hall of Fame career.”
On this week’s edition of the Ross Tucker Football Podcast, Cosell passed along an interview he did with Fitzgerald four or five years ago: “(Fitzgerald) said at that time there was no better man-to-man route runner in the NFL than Steve Smith.”
Ronde Barber and Ike Taylor, a pair of retired cornerbacks with a combined 372 NFL starts, each identified Smith as the most challenging wide receiver they were ever tasked with covering.
“Megatron [Calvin Johnson] was impossible to cover. Randy Moss in his prime — nothing you can do,” Barber explained. “But to me, Steve Smith was the toughest guy I faced. When I played him, he was just like me. He chose to outwork everyone else out there every day.”
Skeptical of expert analysis and anecdotal evidence? Let’s consult the numbers.
It’s a testament to Smith’s greatness that he spent the entirety of his prime battling bracket coverage in a run-first offense without benefit of a franchise quarterback — and still joined Jerry Rice (Joe Montana, 1990) and Sterling Sharpe (Brett Favre, 1992) as the only modern-era players to win the single-season, wide-receiver Triple Crown (first in receptions, yards and touchdowns).
In a revealing article highlighting Smith’s career dominance, Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart cites that magical 2005 season as the best in modern history in terms of receiving yards per team pass attempt. Smith’s 2008 season is the second best.
In the 16-game era, Smith (2005) and Isaac Bruce (1996) are the only players to lead the NFL in receiving yards while playing on a team that ranked in the bottom-five in pass attempts. Three years later, Smith turned around and led the league in receiving yards per game in an offense that ranked dead-last in pass attempts.
Smith averaged an astonishing 101.3 yards from scrimmage with 38 touchdowns in 48 games with Jake Delhomme at quarterback from 2005 to 2008.
As NFL researcher Adam Harstad of Footballguys.com pointed out, there’s a strong statistical argument backing Smith as the most dangerous wideout in postseason history.
While Fitzgerald’s 2008 playoff run is widely recognized as the most torrid in history, Smith’s 2005 performance isn’t far behind.
He kicked off that postseason by catching 10 of 11 (91 percent) targets for 84 yards and a touchdown versus the Giants, adding another score on a 12-yard run. Smith went bonkers the next week, dismantling the Bears secondary — one of the best of the era — for 244 yards on 15 touches, hauling in 92.3 percent of his targets.
With starting running back DeShaun Foster injured and no viable second fiddle in the passing attack, the Seahawks triple-teamed Smith in their NFC Championship Game victory. When John Fox allowed his stifled receiver a shot at a punt return, Smith returned his lone opportunity 59 yards for a score.
“He was a transcendent talent,” Harstad reasoned, “who was too often let down by those around him.”
A model of postseason consistency, Smith has either reached the end zone or topped 100 yards from scrimmage 10 times in 11 career playoff games. The lone exception was a 14-3 win in which the Panthers passed just 14 times versus 40 rushing attempts.
Among players ranked in the top 25 for career postseason receiving yards, Smith’s average of 91.0 per game ranks first. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin (82.2) ranks second, with “GOAT” Rice (77.4) third.
Smith will enter the 2015 season 14th on the career receiving yards list, with a chance to ascend to the top 10 if he reaches 640 yards during his victory lap. He’s one of just 10 players in NFL history with 18,000 combined yards.
Let’s place that in proper context: Smith lost one season to a broken leg, had two more sabotaged by historically inept quarterback play and spent his prime in an offense that annually ranked among the bottom-five in pass attempts.
Smith’s Hall of Fame appeal goes beyond the dominant game film and overwhelming numbers, however.
As we age, our appreciation for sports often veers away from collecting trophies or worshipping heroes and toward a yearning for transcendent moments and outward joy.
Steve Smith has delivered on those counts, often as the gridiron embodiment of entertainment.
The beating heart of the Panthers for more than a decade, Smith is a complex character as far as professional athletes go. He has been voted by his peers as one of the NFL’s funniest trash talkers as well as one of the players they would least like to fight.
After humiliating trash-talking cornerback Fred Smoot to the tune of 201 yards and a touchdown, he unveiled his rowboat touchdown celebration as a shot at the Vikings’ infamous love boat scandal.
After emasculating Rams cornerbackJanoris Jenkins, Smith broke out the “You’re No Primetime” touchdown dance.
After dropping the hammer on then-Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, Smith gave the sports world the phrase, “Ice up, Son.”
After warning bystanders to wear goggles because there would be “blood and guts everywhere” when he got his revenge on the Panthers, he ordered his former teammates to take their asses back to Carolina and mow his lawn.
After one particularly gleeful Smith celebration, the game announcer noted with astonishment, “It’s like one guy has taken over this 100-yard piece of land out here and he’s making his own little personal playground out of it.”
To Smith’s credit, there’s an infectiousness to his antics.
“I love him,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said upon signing Smith in 2014. “There’s guys in the league you hope some day to get a chance to coach, and he’s been one of those guys for me.”
For all of the reasons outlined here, Smith merits recognition in football’s pantheon.
Hall of Fame debates often boil down to transcendent peak versus sustained excellence. Smith passes the test with flying colors in both categories.
Six years from now, No. 89’s bust should be unveiled in Canton — complete with an oversized chip on the shoulder.
That’s the bottom line.
The latest Around The NFL Podcast breaks down what Geno Smith’s injury means for the Jets and recaps the first Hard Knocks episode in Houston.
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