The Baltimore Ravens will enter Week 17 of the NFL season with no chance at making the playoffs. Their heartbreaking 31-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers has ensured that the Ravens will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season and for the third time in the last four years. This is very rare territory for a franchise that has made the playoffs in six of the nine seasons where John Harbaugh has been their head coach. In fact, both Joe Flacco and Dennis Pitta had to this point in their careers, never played an NFL game where their team was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

There’s no getting around the fact that playing meaningless football really sucks. The Ravens’ Week 17 clash with the Cincinnati Bengals has the potential to feel like an annoying formality. Since both teams are eliminated from playoff contention, the game will only be shown in the television market’s of the two teams. The only real exciting outcome to come out of this game will be the release of the 2017 NFL Draft order, which will be locked in place after Week 17 ends.

The Ravens can win and finish 9-7, which would clinch a seventh winning season with Harbaugh as coach. A loss here would drop them to 8-8 and would also ensure that the Bengals would avoid getting swept by the Ravens for the first time since 2011. It would likely vault the Ravens a few spots up the draft board, considering that there are nine teams with either seven or eight wins entering into Week 17.

For one player though, this “meaningless” game may have significant meaning coming from a personal standpoint. That would be WR Steve Smith Sr., a player who is approaching the end of his 16th NFL season. At 37 years old, Smith is the oldest wide receiver currently playing in the NFL. Only Drew Brees and Tom Brady are older than him, among position skill players on offense.

Smith’s case is interesting because he initially promised retirement shortly before the Ravens’ 2015 season. This was an offseason where the Ravens were coming off a 35-31 loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. It went without saying that when Smith mentioned retiring after 2015, he was thinking of a Super Bowl appearance or at least a deep playoff run.

2015 was instead an unmitigated disaster for both Smith and the Ravens. The Ravens finished 5-11 and secured their first losing season in eight years. Smith played extremely well in the first seven games of the season, before suffering a torn ACL against the San Diego Chargers in Week 8. That ended his 2015 season stats at 46 receptions for 670 yards and three touchdowns. 

In addition to ending Smith’s 2015 season, it put the future of his NFL career in doubt. Video evidence of the ACL tear shows that he was in a lot of pain when he was helped off the field in that game against the Chargers. Rehabbing from an ACL injury is hard enough for a young player. But having to do that at 37 years old and you can see why most NFL players would instead be tempted to throw in the towel.

Yet just a month and a half after the torn ACL, Smith announced his intention to return for the 2016 season. I don’t have definitive proof, but it’s not hard to imagine that Smith was incredibly motivated by the video that showed him being removed from the game against the Chargers. He knew that despite the massive difficulties that would come from rehabilitation, he had to do it and to comeback to end his NFL career on his own terms.

Fast forward to Week 16 of the 2016 season and Smith has played in 13 of the team’s 15 games so far. He has surpassed all of his 2015 stats, with 67 receptions for 765 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He has done what he had set out to do, along with starting the occasional feud with players nearly two decades younger than him.

Because that’s just how Steve Smith Sr. plays. Through 15 years in the NFL, the guy has stayed exceedingly consistent. He’s a trash talker sure, no matter whether he’s going against one of the best defensive backs in the league or a rookie in the first month of his NFL career. He also has a reputation as a hothead who has occasionally gotten in trouble for fighting his own teammates in practice.

But in addition to these things, you can’t deny that Smith has played the game with heart. Between his 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and his three seasons in Baltimore, Smith has only had the privilege of making five postseason appearances. Three of those postseason appearances ended in the divisional round or sooner, while both the 2005 NFC Championship and Super Bowl XXXVIII ended with agonizing losses that prevented him from getting his own Super Bowl ring.

He’s nevertheless continued to play his hardest, no matter what the team around looks like. He has had eight 1,000 yard receiving seasons, with four of those coming on teams that finished 8-8 or worse and failed to make the playoffs. Even in the lost season of 2015, he was a shining example to the Ravens of a player that did not give up despite the fact that the team went 2-5 in the seven games he played in.

This year, his numbers are not deserving of a Pro Bowl appearance. Though he has a case for it, he is very unlikely to be nominated for Comeback Player of the Year. And yet despite being just 5-9, he has somehow kept playing and remained the Ravens’ top wide receiver even after taller contemporaries like Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne have retired. His will to give his best on the field and his chip on the shoulder that came from being drafted in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft have kept the fire inside him going for 16 years playing at the highest level of football.

As soon as he is eligible, Smith should be sworn into the Panthers’ Ring of Honor. History will deservedly remember him more for what he did in his 13 years with the Panthers, specifically how he helped to put that no-name franchise on the map with an exciting Super Bowl appearance in 2003 and also how his best statistical season helped to propel them into another deep playoff run just two years later.

But it is also likely that many will remember fondly the twilight of Smith’s career in Baltimore. Where his scrappy attitude and the mountain-sized chip on his shoulder fit in so well with Harbaugh’s mantra to “play like a Raven.” Where he remained a starting wide receiver for all three seasons, making his case that the Panthers were wrong to cut him in March 2014.

During the 2016 season, Smith did even more to add to his Hall of Fame credentials. He is now seventh all-time in career receiving yards at 14,697. He is 12th all-time in receptions with 1,028. Though he is unlikely to move further up those lists in Week 17, he has still had a great season when it comes to solidifying his legacy as one of the top wide receivers in the early twenty-first century.

Both Harbaugh and several Ravens’ teammates have expressed doubt that this is Smith’s last season, so it could be possible that he is back in 2017. But if he does the likely thing and retires, he will have done so knowing that he went out on his terms. Week 17 against the Bengals is Smith’s likely last opportunity to shine on the NFL and to make opposing defensive backs “ice up, son.” Expect him to make the most of it and to end his likely Hall of Fame-worthy career with a bang.

 

 

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