Eisenberg: Ravens Lucky To Get Steve Smith For Final Chapters

There are any number of ways for a person in my position to quantify the enduring excellence of Steve Smith Sr., the Ravens wide receiver who announced Monday that this would be his final season.

You can cite his career numbers, which rank among the best ever. On the NFL's all-time lists, he's currently No. 18 in receptions, No. 14 in receiving yards and No. 33 in touchdowns. He's also one of only two players in history to accumulate 13,000 receiving yards and 4,000 return yards, and the other guy to do it, Tim Brown, just went into the Hall of Fame last weekend.

You can recount some of the many stories that reflect Smith's legendary competitiveness, qualities that have long made him a favorite among players around the league – opponents as much as teammates. My favorite occurred in 2013 when Smith, still in Carolina at the time, battled New England cornerback Aqib Talib through a game, got the best of him and then taunted Talib for getting injured and missing the final minutes. "Ice up, son!" he shouted at Talib through a TV interviewer.


But I'm going in a different direction to quantify Smith's excellence. I'm going to cite the holes he will leave in the Ravens' architecture when he departs.

Remember, this is a guy who is 5-feet-9 and turned 36 in May, not exactly the prototype for a player who will be missed. But it turns out replacing Smith is, not surprisingly, a daunting challenge on many fronts.

For starters, he is coming off a 2014 season in which he led the Ravens with 79 receptions and 1,065 receiving yards, production that made him a no-brainer choice as the team's No. 1 wide receiver going into 2015. No Baltimore wideout had caught that many passes in a season since Derrick Mason caught 80 in 2008.

If Smith had said Monday that he was retiring immediately, the Ravens would have been in serious trouble. They're counting on big things from him this year, hoping he can at least repeat his 2014 performance. He looks as strong as ever in practices.

"He's going out playing at the top of the game," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday after Smith broke the retirement news to teammates and the media.

Harbaugh went on to describe Smith as a "pit bull," a reflection of the jut-jawed, tone-setting fierceness that Smith has displayed here every time he steps on a field, either for practice or a game.

"I don't think you can get by in today's game without a guy like that on your team," Harbaugh said.

I couldn't agree more. It's a tough sport. You need tough guys. But the Ravens didn't really have a guy "like that" on offense before Smith arrived last year. The unit had stumbled and lost its way in 2013, becoming inoffensive, almost mild. Smith immediately brought back an edge reminiscent of what Anquan Boldin provided.

Now that his departure is scheduled, who is next man up as the pit bull? It's a question the Ravens will have to ponder, an issue they'll have to address going forward.

Bottom line, you don't just snap your fingers and replace your No. 1 wide receiver, No. 1 practice example-setter and resident pit bill. Hey, it may take a couple of guys to replicate what Smith has brought to Baltimore.

The Ravens would love nothing more than to send him on his way with the kind of farewell that Ray Lewis' pending retirement stirred in 2012. That ended with confetti falling in the Superdome.

But that's asking a lot, so much that Smith, who has never won a Super Bowl, didn't even want to speculate on the idea Monday.

"Whatever happens, happens," he said with characteristic frankness.

When he was done talking, there was no reading between the lines, no wondering what he meant. He is retiring largely because his wife and children live in North Carolina and he can't stand to be away from them. He probably could keep playing for another two or three years, he said, but it wasn't in his family's best interests for him to hang on just to "chase something."

He's a wise head and a unique individual, the antitheses of a cookie cutter pro athlete. The Ravens were fortunate to have him for what turns out to be the last chapters of his superb career.

And boy, they're going to miss him.

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