Steve Smith Sr. is an analyst for NFL Media, but he’s not a member of the media. He’ll correct you any time you suggest otherwise.
“My relationship with the media [as a player] is the same as when I see them now,” Smith told The Big Lead last week. “When they come, I roll my eyes. So I don’t really see myself as media.”
The former Carolina Panthers receiver joined NFL Network, a media organization, in 2017. So even if, by definition, he is a member of the media, he seems to want to take a different approach than one he sees as typical for the media.
Smith said reporters come to players with the stories already written. He said they were just trying to fill holes to finish those pre-written stories. (He accused me of doing as much when he saw I’d written down a handful of questions in my notebook.) In the past, he has grown frustrated with the media for doubting him, especially in 2014 when he was returning from an Achilles injury. He cursed at media members for their skepticism during his first press conference with the Ravens.
As an analyst, he seems to want to hold himself to a high standard, and prides himself on minimizing the “dumb questions.”
“The worst thing you can ask a player after a game-winning catch or a debacle is, ‘What was going through your head?’ Like that’s the worst question you could ask,” Smith said. “So as an analyst, you know what I do? I go, ‘How can I ask this player something that’s intriguing that the fans want to know that the media won’t?’ So I try to ask questions as a player that I think will make people stop, turn up the radio or television. … I want to bring content that, especially in locker rooms, those guys turn me up — not tune me out or turn me off.”
That’s surely why NFL Network hired him. Smith’s work ethic, passion and relentless energy paved the way for his 16-year career. He appears to apply all those same strengths in this analyst role. And his skepticism surrounding media members keeps his co-workers on their toes.
“If it doesn’t pass the smell test, he will call me on that. He wants to go another level deeper,” NFL Media reporter Mike Garafolo said during a roundtable discussion at last week’s NFL Media Season Preview event.
Smith will challenge his colleagues’ opinions on-air if he thinks they are unfounded. Last week on NFL Network’s morning show, “Good Morning Football,” he challenged Aaron Schatz, the founder of the analytics site Football Outsiders, over his and the league’s reliance upon analytics. Smith is not a huge fan.
Smith has always been a critical thinker. And yes, he’s always been a trash-talker. In his days with the Ravens, Smith admitted he “came out of the womb trash-talking.” He hasn’t had the same approach as an analyst. He’s not going to swear on-air. He’s unpredictable but not entirely out of control. That said, he’s not exactly holding punches.
“I will critique a guy, based on my relationship, based on my opinion, based on that position,” Smith said. “I will make sure that I’m very careful to critique them the same way that I would like to be critiqued. I might say to a guy, ‘I expect more out of him.’ Rather than saying, ‘Man, that guy can’t play,’ or, ‘He’s over the hill.’ … I keep that in my mind so I don’t have to dance around criticizing a player, because I’m not criticizing. I’m telling it like it is.”
He didn’t spare players like that when he was a player. That seems to have been one of the adjustments he’s made as he’s made the transitioned from player to analyst. That transition, he said, “has been like drinking water from a fire hydrant with a straw.” At the same time, his preparation to make appearances on “Good Morning Football” or “NFL GameDay First” is quite similar to what he did as a player. It’s just that he wants to get a doctorate in football after earning his masters as a player.
“Studying the game now is not something I had to dread or pull myself to do it. I do it. I want to look at the game — not just speaking from stories from when I played — but just from seeing the game from a player’s perspective or former player’s perspective. But also learning how the front office works. Learning how the evaluation period is. Learning what the combine truly is about,” Smith said.
What’s most refreshing about Smith’s on-air personality is not necessarily his criticisms for players and media members — though that’s a valuable role for former players who sometimes defend current players. Instead, his energy is contagious. When he was on the set for “Good Morning Football” last week, he was jumping out of his chair and crying and laughing amid his analysis. He still loves football, even if he doesn’t play anymore.
“I don’t have to work. I get to work,” Smith said. “I get to do this job, so I try to keep that perspective.”