Steve Smith is without a doubt the most recognizable player in the Carolina Panthers 18-year history. While it may be true that Cam Newton has surpassed him in TV ads and billboard appearances since he joined the team last season, there has been no other player who has achieved as much with the Panthers as Smith.
With Smith still holding his own amongst the top receivers in the league there have been questions about his Hall of Fame resume, as there usually are when great players are in the home stretch of their career. It is always tough to predict the behavior of the voters who determine which players make it into the hall and which players find themselves hanging around on the outside looking in.
Let's go inside the numbers and break down Smith's chances of sporting the iconic yellow blazer in Canton when he's ready to hang up the cleats for good.
In his 12th season in the NFL, "Smitty" just ensured his seventh career 1,000-yard receiving year on Sunday in San Diego. With the introduction of Newton to the Panthers offense, Smith's career has seen a rejuvenation that some outside of Carolina thought would never come. Remember that Smith endured an opening day, season-ending injury in 2004 as well as two years with lame duck quarterbacks in 2009 with Jake Delhomme in his infamous downward spiral and in 2010 during the disastrous Jimmy Clausen experiment.
That removes the three seasons that break up Smith's seven 1,000-yard seasons. Potentially, given Smith's averages during his previous years with Delhomme at quarterback and the likelihood that he would perform at least that well with a serviceable quarterback, we could be discussing his 10th consecutive 1,000-yard season.
If Smith were to retire at the end of this season, his resume would almost certainly fall short of Hall of Fame standards. Currently, he sits at 29th all-time in receptions, 26th in receiving yards, 60th in receiving touchdowns, and 22nd in receiving yards per game. However, if he were to perform for only three more seasons at the average pace of his 10 years as a full-time starter (including 2009 and 2010), his place among the greats would look much more enticing.
His rankings in the three triple crown categories would be more respectable, and his all-purpose yardage ranking, currently 18th, would raise to fifth behind only Jerry Rice, Brian Mitchell, Walter Payton, and Emmitt Smith. Everyone on that list but Mitchell is a Hall of Famer.
His triple crown rankings would be ninth in receptions, sixth in receiving yards, and 20th in receiving touchdowns. There is no shame in that resume as he would find himself among the elite receivers in the history of the game.
The main factor working against Smith is the low number of receivers who have actually been inducted into the Hall of Fame. To date, only 16 players are listed as wide receivers in the Hall, and only four played after 1990; Rice, Michael Irvin, Art Monk, and James Lofton.
The next, perhaps most obvious, factor working against Smith is the fact that he doesn't have a Super Bowl ring. Rice, Irvin, and Monk all have three and Lofton played in three. Smith played in Super Bowl XXXVIII and scored a touchdown, but the Panthers couldn't avoid a last minute game-winning Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri one-two punch.
While many believe Cam Newton has the ability to take Carolina back to the game's biggest stage, it is hard to tell if it will happen while Steve Smith is still in the black and blue.
Unless Smith adds some jewelry to his collection, he will find himself in a log jam of very good wide receivers who have been bypassed by Hall of Fame voters which tend to bypass receivers on their ballots. Names like Cris Carter, Henry Ellard, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, and Andre Reed lie ahead of Smith on the waiting list.
The element that could work to Smith's advantage most is the human element. At some point, even the most casual football fan has to wonder "What if..." when it comes to Steve Smith's career. What if he were given a chance to play with one of the better quarterbacks of his generation, say a Brady or Manning? What if he never broke his leg in Week 1 of 2004? What if the Panthers hadn't wasted an entire season from top to bottom in 2010?
Those are all very valid circumstantial questions that, when paired with the fact that the 5'9", 185-pound Smith was drafted to be nothing more than a kick returner in 2001, could bump him up on voter's ballots.
It's safe to bet that, regardless of whether his bronze bust is enshrined in Canton, we will one day see a statue of Steve Smith outside of Bank of America Stadium shrouded in his favorite number of all: 89.