During his long drive to Maryland from his North Carolina home on Sunday, veteran wide receiver Steve Smith had plenty of time to think about an offseason defined by a dramatic change in his life.
After 13 years with the Carolina Panthers, Smith was cut in March following one of the least productive seasons of his career. The Ravens promptly signed him to a three-year, $11 million contract.
Smith remained in a reflective mood as veterans officially reported to camp Wednesday. Smith, however, showed up Monday eager for his new start.
“Honestly, I was just driving up going the opposite way of where I went for 13 years,” Smith said. “It’s a different objective. It’s a different place. It’s a different time. I’ve always looked at training camp as a measuring stick of where I am, mentally and physically, and I think these coaches evaluate that as well. That doesn’t change.”
Besides having a new NFL employer, there’s little different about Smith. The five-time Pro Bowl selection has maintained his gritty personality, his no-nonsense approach to football and his preference for action over words.
Direct as usual, the 35-year-old wasn’t in the mood for questions regarding the practice atmosphere with the Ravens compared to his tenure with the Panthers.
“I don’t really want to compare,” Smith said. “I had a great career there and that time has passed, but I think playing and being in the Ravens organization, facility, the Raven way, I think I fit in very perfectly compared to probably where I was prior. So, I’m happy where I’m at and I’m happy I got the opportunity to be here. I think I’m going to fit in perfectly.
“The truth is I wouldn’t be able to appreciate where I am today if I didn’t have the opportunity and experience in Carolina. I’m lucky to even be here. After you hit 35, you should be with a walker and all that stuff. I’m just happy to be playing ball and have the opportunity to play in a conference where it’s smash-mouth football.”
During the Ravens’ minicamp in June, Smith got into a brief altercation with cornerback Lardarius Webb on the practice field when Smith took exception to Webb’s knocking him to the ground. By the next morning, Smith had delivered a peace offering to Webb in the form of breakfast from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Smith’s toughness and bold nature have been embraced by his new teammates. His feistiness frequently trigger memories of former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers before last season.
“He’s definitely going to be a competitor, I mean he got into a fight the last day of (minicamp),” linebacker Terrell Suggs said of Smith. “He’s still a little fired up about it. We get another defensive guy playing offense with Steve coming over. This is one guy last year (defensive coordinator) Dean Pees told us not to anger, and it was a preseason game.”
When the Panthers were in the process of parting ways with Smith, the Charlotte Observer reported that Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t want him back because he was concerned that Smith was a disruptive force in the locker room.
Smith has rarely been known to hold back his opinion. He said that quality makes him well-suited for the Ravens.
“I love the personality,” said Smith, who reported early at the Ravens’ training complex Monday to take and pass his conditioning test. “It’s not really about how you say it. It’s about what you do, and that’s the part I love about it. I’m not really concerned more about the perception. It’s more about what’s going on.
“That’s the thing I love about it. What’s really going on. What are we doing? How are we improving? That’s really at the end of the day, that’s really what people care about. It’s the wins and losses. It’s not all the stuff and the fancy get-up that goes on during the week.”
Smith is eager to prove himself again with his new team. He spent this offseason building timing with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, but downplayed the notion that they need a considerable amount of time together to develop the proper chemistry to succeed.
“If you throw me the ball, there’s no chemistry,” Smith said. “It’s catchable, I’m going to snag it. Practice is there to make mistakes, to understand what I need to do and how Joe operates. My job at the end of the day is to make him look good.”
After catching 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns last season and being cut by the Panthers, Smith is aware he’ll be under scrutiny because of his age and recent performance. The 5-foot-9, 195-pounder doesn’t lack for motivational fuel.
“Honestly when everything went down (being released), there was a part of me that felt offended,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, I sat there and thought about it. Everybody makes decisions based on wherever it is, and it’s not my place to say it’s justified or unjustified. For me, my motivation is to go out here and make plays, have fun and really enjoy the journey. I’m only going to play a couple more years.”
Smith is looking forward to forming a productive tandem with fellow starting wide receiver Torrey Smith, the former Maryland standout, saying “You can call us, ‘The Law Firm: Smith, Smith & Associates.’ ”
Steve Smith is expected to have a large role in the Ravens’ offense, but he’ll have to share the workload with Torrey Smith, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels and wide receivers Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown.
“I understand there are going to be times when I’m the premier receiver, and there are times that I need to clear through for Torrey or Jacoby or Marlon,” Smith said. “You have to be able to be efficient in any offense; you’ve got to understand in every play what your role is, and if you don’t understand what your role is, that’s where you have veterans that become frustrated, and things start to unravel. I understand my role.”
The Ravens envision Smith injecting toughness and versatility to the offense, given his ability to operate over the middle or strike deep, having registered 836 career receptions for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns. Smith made several acrobatic catches during offseason practices, displaying a knack for making plays with a high degree of difficulty.
“Just his natural ability to catch the ball with his hands,” Flacco said of Steve Smith. “He’s strong to the ball even though he’s not very high in stature. He’s just strong to the ball, and his hands are really, really good.”