OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Steve Smith had made up his mind. Last January, in the days following the Carolina Panthers' disappointing one-and-done playoff appearance against the San Francisco 49ers, Smith's heart and body started leading him in the direction of his own one-and-done experience. His decision was clear. He would play one more season with the Panthers, his 14th in Carolina, and then retire, heading home to his burgeoning family and whatever life after football held.
"The only people who knew were my close friends and my wife,'' Smith said Wednesday afternoon.
"This year was actually going to be my last year in Carolina. I was going to retire. I was done. I had been waking up every day about 3 a.m. and wrestling with some things in my quiet time.
"I finally decided and made the commitment to my family. I told them, 'I'm done. I don't think I can do it much longer. My knee was sore and I knew all the work I had put into my career and what it would take. I came to terms with it, that this year was going to be my last year ever playing football.''
But plans can change rapidly in the NFL, and Smith is thankful they did. Days after his surprise release from the Panthers in mid-March, Carolina's all-time leading receiver signed a new lease on his football life, agreeing to a three-year, $11 million deal in Baltimore, with a Ravens organization that has a long and successful history of adding still-productive veterans to its winning mix. The unexpected jolt Smith, 35, received this offseason might have been exactly what he needed, and he's freshly motivated by the possibility of a career-capping three-year run in Baltimore.
"When I got released, and how it happened, it made me feel a certain way,'' Smith said, moments after finishing an impressive OTA workout at the Ravens' team complex. "It gave me a little bit maybe that I had been missing. My wife said, 'How do you feel about that?' And my response was to start working out again every day after that. I started jogging, my knee started feeling better, and the next thing you know, I got a three-year deal here.
"After this contract with the Baltimore Ravens, I am done. I'm going to be stay-at-home dad, and I'm going to get on with the rest of my life's work. I know sometimes there are people saying, 'Oh, he needs to just let it go.' Believe me, I will. I'm going to let it go. But I'm going to take a few people down with me. Not in spite, but just fun. I'm going to enjoy playing ball again. I'm going to have fun here.''
Smith has never lacked for intensity of focus and a willingness to speak his mind, and those qualities have already endeared him to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and his new Baltimore teammates. Long considered one of the NFL's ultimate competitors, Smith has fit hand in glove into the Ravens' organizational mindset. Harbaugh has admired Smith's game as far as back as when he came out of the University of Utah as Carolina's third-round pick in 2001, and he's almost giddy at finally getting Smith in a Ravens uniform.
"I love him,'' Harbaugh said. "There're guys in the league you hope some day to get a chance to coach, and he's been one of those guys for me. I always told him when we played against him, 'One of these days, I'm going to get you.' And now that we have him out here, he's exactly who he presents himself to be. He is who he says he is, and that's the thing I love about him. There's no BS there. This is the guy we wanted, and he's in heaven right now. I think what he's seeing is this really fits him well, especially the competitive part of him. He feels like everybody around here thinks like he thinks. Now, is he going to say some things and be himself? You know what, I hope so. I told him, 'Be yourself. Be your best self.'''
As soon as Smith reached the free-agent market, Harbaugh was in recruitment mode, inviting Smith to his home for some food and a late-night visit, where new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and new Ravens receivers coach Bobby Engram were also part of Baltimore's sales team. But by the time it was over, it was Smith who had sold Harbaugh on the idea of making a seamless transition to Baltimore, and helping fill the passing game void created when the Ravens traded postseason stalwart Anquan Boldin to San Francisco last offseason.
"More than anything it was just to see where he was at,'' Harbaugh said. "It was going to be a new offense for him, it was going to be a new city. I wanted to find out where he was with the whole Carolina thing and how things ended there. How he was going to deal with it. Some things we can move on from, some things we can't. Was he going to be able to move on from that? But he convinced me he had, absolutely.''
Smith recalls the conversation at Harbaugh's house being interrupted only by the need for sleep.
"Coach Engram and coach Kubiak picked me up from the airport about 11 [p.m.] and I didn't get back to the hotel until 2:30 [a.m.],'' Smith said. "We spent a few hours just talking, sitting at his table. Coach Kubiak asked me some questions. Coach Harbaugh asked me some questions. But then I asked them some questions. So it was an interview process for both parties. They were feeling me out and I was feeling them out. They wanted to know how much longer I wanted to play, and where do I see myself fitting in here, coming into this organization with this group of guys?
"Free agency is like dating. I've been married for 14 years, but it's like dating because all you have to have is one that believes in you. And if it's the right one, it can be a great thing.''
Though Smith owns every major receiving record in Carolina franchise history -- 836 receptions, 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns -- his mindset in coming to Baltimore was to best discover how he could blend into a Ravens program that has produced playoff berths in five of the last six seasons, and won the club's second Super Bowl title two years ago. After last year's 8-8 non-playoff finish, Baltimore, like Smith, seeks redemption.
"The thing he made clear to me is 'I want to see how you do it here,''' Harbaugh said. "How do the Ravens do it?' He said, 'I want to be part of that, and then I want to add to that,' rather than him coming in and saying this is how he does it.''
Said Smith: "I'm just a new guy here. They already have their nucleus and their regimen and I have to fit into that. I have to find out where I fall into place. They don't have to fit into my world, I have to fit into theirs. So that's what I'm doing. I come in here and I put my head down and just try to show them I'm here to work.''
Smith is just the latest example in what has become a great tradition of late-career veteran acquisitions in Baltimore. The Ravens are known as a franchise willing to buy low on a veteran who has something left, and just as importantly, something to prove. Veterans like Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Trent Dilfer, Trevor Pryce, Steve McNair, Willie Anderson, Derrick Mason, Willis McGahee, Matt Birk and Daryl Smith all had success when they got to Baltimore, and Boldin fits somewhere on that list as well.
"To me, that's the thing you're looking for in this business,'' Harbaugh said. "There are guys who represent value, and you have to sometimes look past different reasons to find it. Look at what the Patriots have done with [late-career] veterans they've acquired over the years. They've done a great job with that kind of signing. You're looking for guys who can still play, and maybe they don't fit everyone's needs, but they fit us. And Steve fits us.''
Though the track record for receivers at 35 and older isn't great, no one, Smith included, expects him to put up numbers that will prove similar to the statistics he routinely produced in his prime. Smith admits he's not a No. 1 receiver any more, and his 64-catch, 745-yard season of 2013 was his least productive since 2010. But he can still do damage working the slants and comeback routes, and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has historically fed his underneath receivers often, with the likes of Mason, Boldin and tight end Todd Heap taking turns as the Ravens' go-to target.
"I've lived in that part of the field,'' Smith said. "I've made my money by running intermediate routes, running across the middle. For a long time I relied on speed. But an old [Panthers receivers] coach, Tyke Tolbert, he's in Denver now, he always told me technique will beat speed every time. You look at guys with age and what gets them out of the league? It's when they lose their speed. Because they never took the time to hone their skills and develop technique.
"Am I as fast as I was when I was younger? Who is? Unless you're on that stuff [PEDs]. I'm not running a 4.3, 4.4 [40-yard dash] at 35, and I shouldn't be. But I play the angles and I play technique and I'm going to be aggressive to the ball. And let's be honest, I shouldn't be running nine go-routes at 35 in a game anyway. If we're doing that, we're already in trouble. If your 35-year-old is the fastest guy on the team, something's wrong.''
The Ravens have deep-threat receivers like Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones to stretch the field. Smith is here to work the middle of the field and help set the tone that every ball will be fought for. There may not be a better receiver in the league in terms of the underrated skill of coming back to the ball, which is his specialty.
"That's one thing he's been talking to me about, coming back to the ball on a consistent basis,'' said fourth-year receiver Torrey Smith. "He's awesome at it. He jokes with me every time I hesitate or I don't come all the way back for it. That's probably the No. 1 thing I'm looking forward to learning from him. He's just such a competitor, and he definitely has some fire to him. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, but it's a good thing. He plays with passion and you can never have too many of those guys.''
Earlier in his career in Carolina, Smith's passion and volatile nature often proved counterproductive, and as recently as 2008 his penchant for getting in fights with his own teammates threatened his status with the Panthers. But he has largely tamed that side of his personality, and as his tenure in Baltimore begins, he talks openly of lessons learned.
"I feel like I can appreciate where I am currently without experiencing the self-inflicted wounds that I experienced in Carolina,'' Smith said. "I had those, and I had the glory days in Carolina. You have to be able to know where you came from to be able to appreciate where you are currently. ... Carolina was a great ride, and however it happened, good or bad, that's what I was and that's what I've become.
"What I did there made me valuable to this organization during free agency. So I appreciate that, and I'm enjoying everything about this new chapter. Some people consider you over the hill at 35, but yet, obviously people who watch film have seen something in me that would suggest I'm not over the hill and I still bring something to the table. I know this: I can still play ball.''
As another NFL season approaches, Smith's plan has changed, for the better he believes. One and done is something for which he's no longer willing to settle.