It's been a fantastic career for retiring Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who on Sunday said of his NFL career, "It's over and done. It's my time." Some might even call it a Hall of Fame career, but unless your name is Jerry Rice, cracking the wide receiver's code to Canton, Ohio, can become a confusing, even disillusioning pursuit. The recently enshrined Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Andre Reed know how tough the waiting game can be.
Some of this is by design. The Pro Football Hall of Fame allows only five modern-era candidates to gain enshrinement annually from a list of 15 finalists. That creates 3,003 possible combinations of five each year (contributors and senior committee selections are separate). The very best candidates tend to make their way into the Hall, but that is little consolation while they wait.
Smith's Hall of Fame fate is unpredictable also because there is no established code to crack for receivers who have put up very good numbers with assists from rules changes and the relatively wide-open passing attacks across the league. Gaining separation against defensive backs could be easier for Smith than gaining the statistical separation modern wide receivers need to stand out from their peers.
Terrell Owens missed the cut last year despite having more receptions, more receiving yards and nearly twice as many receiving touchdowns as Smith has produced. It's not all about numbers, obviously. Owens might fall into a different category based on the baggage he carries. The case for Smith will be distinct. Testimonials from opposing coaches and defensive players will fill in some of the blanks. That could be enough to push through Smith's candidacy on a faster track.
Recent history suggests tougher sledding.
The past five wide receivers enshrined -- Marvin Harrison, Brown, Reed, Carter and Rice -- ranked among the NFL's top five in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns when they finished their careers. Smith currently ranks 12th in receptions, seventh in receiving yards and 25th in receiving touchdowns.
The statistical bar was lower for the five wide receivers enshrined immediately before Harrison, Brown, Reed, Carter and Rice took their places in Canton. Those five -- Bob Hayes, Art Monk, Michael Irvin, James Lofton and John Stallworth -- included a couple of special cases.
Hayes, enshrined with the class of 2009, ranked 30th in receptions, 16th in receiving yards and eighth in receiving touchdowns at retirement. His Olympic speed helped change the way teams scouted receivers and how teams played defense in response. Stallworth and Irvin ranked no higher than ninth in receptions, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns when they retired. Their seven Super Bowl rings surely helped.
Smith's toughness and competitiveness will be part of his Hall of Fame resume. His ability to produce at a high level in multiple offensive systems should work in his favor. Other attributes also could come into play. His chances could fluctuate based on whether and when Owens, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and others gain enshrinement.
All we can say for sure is that Smith belongs in the conversation.
Mike Sando has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector beginning with the 2010 class.