So Let’s Talk About Steve Smith versus Michael Irvin, and Under-Appreciated Wide Receivers




The Big Lead

Last night, there was some serious receiver-on-receiver crime on the television, as Michael Irvin forgot about Steve Smith as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, and Steve Smith shot back at Michael Irvin.

It was an amusing exchange, from a safe distance. Steve Smith is one of the most competitive, intense people and you know that there was no joking going on there. Michael Irvin immediately knew that he had stepped in it because you see him get up out of his chair. This wasn’t the first incident between the two, as last year Smith was mad at Irvin for mocking his outfit.

But I’ll be honest with you. I’m kind of pained by this. Steve Smith is so under-appreciated for what he did as a receiver that he was completely under-appreciated by one of the other all-time under-appreciated receivers. Michael Irvin and Steve Smith are basically different-looking clones of each other. Receivers from another mother. Both played most of their careers on run-heavy, low volume passing teams, and were dominant despite not playing on offenses that aired it out like the Greatest Show on Turf or Manning’s Colts.

How dominant? I’ll go back to two articles from Chase Stuart. First, on Michael Irvin:

Over the weekend, I wrote about the year-by-year leaders in receiving yards per team pass attempt (RY/TPA) and Receiving Yards per Adjusted Team Pass Attempt (RY/aTPA), which are two simple but effective ways to measure receiver play. RY/TPA simply takes a player’s number of receiving yards and divides it by his team’s number of pass attempts; RY/aTPA adjusts for missed games.

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So for six straight seasons, Irvin was either the best in football in RY/TPA or RY/aTPA, or the second-best in football behind the greatest receiver ever. That is an unbelievable streak of dominance that is unmatched by anyone other than Rice and Don Hutson.

The only other receiver to lead the league three different times in those RY/TPA and RY/aTPA measures mentioned by Chase, besides Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice? That would be Steve Smith.

Here’s Chase on Smith:

Smith lost prime seasons at age 25 (broken leg), 30 (Delhomme PTSD), and 31 (Clausen/Moore dumpster fire). At age 24, he had a breakout season punctuated by an outstanding postseason. Then, from ages 26 to 29, he was historically excellent whenever he and a halfway respectable quarterback shared the field. At ages 32 and 33, he’s been very productive on run-heavy teams: only Jerry Rice and Don Maynard have gained more receiving yards at those ages than Smith.

Smith, like Jimmy Smith, may never make the Hall of Fame. But for a very long stretch he was one of the best players in the game, and only bad luck prevented him from having a more remarkable career. When Ronde Barber said that Smith — and not Rice, or Randy Moss, or Calvin Johnson — was the toughest receiver he ever faced, I wasn’t surprised. Smith, in a bigger market and with even halfway decent quarterback play (not to mention being hampered by FoxBall), would be a Hall of Fame lock.

Michael Irvin was a huge part of the Dallas passing attack. Steve Smith was an even bigger part of his teams’ passing attacks. I took the top eight seasons for each (since Irvin’s career was cut short, and he had eight years of 962 or more receiving yards).

Here are their raw stats from those eight seasons.

Michael Irvin: 662 catches, 10,292 receiving yards, 50 touchdowns

Steve Smith: 658 catches, 9,812 receiving yards, 58 touchdowns

Like I said, wide receivers brothers from another mother. And while Steve Smith played more recently, as overall passing numbers climbed, he actually accounted for higher team shares of those stats. That’s what happens when not only is most of your career spent with Jake Delhomme, but also several other quarterbacks who were nowhere near Delhomme.

In Steve Smith’s best eight seasons, he accounted for 29% of all catches, 36% of all receiving yards, and 39% of all receiving touchdowns on his teams. For Irvin, those numbers are 27%/36%/35%.

Now, Steve Smith’s time in Baltimore is not included in those numbers. But at age 35, Steve Smith accounted for 23% of all catches, 27% of all receiving yards, and 22% of all receiving touchdowns. From age 30 to 32, Anquan Boldin accounted for 19% of all catches, 23% of all receiving yards, and 20% of all receiving touchdowns for Baltimore.

Like I said, Steve Smith was under-appreciated, so much that the guy who was Smith before Smith doesn’t even remember him. Smith was Irvin with the longevity; Irvin was Smith with the better teams and quarterback and rings.

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