For one of the few times in his career, Steve Smith Sr. looked lost on the football field. The Ravens' late rally against the 49ers had stalled 35 yards from the goal line, leaving them with a fifth loss in six games, and Smith wandering aimlessly across the middle of the field. With the sun setting over Levi's Stadium, he stopped a couple of times to talk with friends. He paused to take a picture with a well-wisher. He knelt at the 50-yard line for a brief group prayer.
Then he rose to his feet and looked around awkwardly. It was time to head to the locker room, but he seemed as if he wanted time to stand still.
He inhaled deeply. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes.
It has been two and half months since Smith announced his plans to retire at the end of the season, and the conclusion of each game brings an impactful reminder that the finish line is another week closer for the 15-year veteran. His emotional response following the Oct. 18 loss in Santa Clara?
"The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter," he said. If Smith remains committed to walking away -- and not everyone is convinced that he will do so, most notably his agent -- he will depart with no signs of decay on his game. He currently ranks seventh in the league in receiving yards (588), sixth among qualifying players in yards per game (98) and is tied for 10th with 41 catches, all despite playing with several microfractures in his back and a couple of bad ribs -- not to mention no established receiving threats around him.
"I called him recently and said, 'Dude, you're really going to hang it up? Really?' said retired quarterback Jake Delhomme, a longtime teammate in Carolina. "I told him, 'When I see you, you don't need to quit. Some guys, they need to quit because you want to remember them for what they were in their primes. But it's not like you're regressing.'" To the contrary.
Against the 49ers, he snared seven passes for 137 yards and a touchdown that came after he soared higher than a defender in the corner of the end zone. In half of his six games -- he missed one because of the back injury -- he caught at least seven passes for more than 100 yards. In fact, he's one of only four players who is averaging at least 98 yards receiving a game (four-game minimum).
Smith knows he still is an impactful player, but 15 years and 200-plus games is a lot of wear and tear on a body, particularly for someone as physical as Smith. The former Utah star knows only one way to play, and that's with his throttle wide open.
"If there are two words that I'd characterize him with, it's competitive arrogance," Delhomme said. "When he was on the field, he was the most competitive guy there. In his mind he knew he was better than anybody else on the field -- and that's what made him so great. If the ball is in the air, it's mine. If somebody is going to jam me at the line of scrimmage, I'm going to eat him alive. That's such a compliment to give to a player, because that competitive arrogance of I'm going to dominate when I'm on the field still carries over to today."
It's not uncommon for players to change their minds after announcing their retirement, but Smith doesn't seem that type. He thinks things through before speaking and is known to stand firm when he makes up his mind. And yet, not everyone is convinced that he will leave after this year, most notably his agent, Derrick Fox.
Fox prefaces his comments with the following story: After the 2001 season, he and Smith were relaxing on a catamaran off a Hawaiian shore. They were there because Smith had earned a spot in the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Times were good. The future was bright. Smith, who was 22 years old and married with one child at the time (he has four kids now), turned to Fox and said he planned to play for only three or four years, then retire and watch son Peyton grow up.
"I think he's committed to the concept [of retirement], but I don't think that the reality of it has set in that it means he can't do what he loves to do and lives to do," Fox said. "Pick me out any stadium on any Sunday anywhere in the NFL, and there's not a guy that comes out on that field that loves to compete more than Steve -- and he's never lost that.
"I know this guy better than anybody but his wife. I've told him, 'I don't think that you're really going to retire.' The guy is just an insane competitor, and I think as long as his body works appropriately he's really going to have a hard time next August saying, 'Oh, wow. Guys are going to camp.' He's never experienced it in his entire life, and he's got a lot left in the tank."
Asked to handicap the odds of Smith returning in 2016, Fox said: "I'm 50-50. I'm not 51 percent or 49 percent. I'm right at 50 percent."
Ironically, something that could be working in the Ravens' favor in terms of keeping Smith around is their poor record. They reached the playoffs in six of the previous seven seasons, winning a Super Bowl three years ago, but they're currently 1-6 and last in the AFC North, and they've been unlucky, battered by injuries and have lost every game by one score.
Smith, the ultimate competitor that he is -- well, it's hard to imagine him going out on such a down note. He admitted after the defeat at San Francisco that the losing was as hard on him emotionally as his fast-approaching retirement. Which begs the question: Will he return for the final year on his contract in 2016?
"I've got some important things at home that I want to be a part of," he said, referring to his children.
Smith then packed his bag at his locker and walked slowly into the evening. Whether he'll keep walking when the season ends, no one knows. Perhaps not even Smith himself.