There's no better way to feel geriatric than follow professional sports. Between rookies born in the mid-90's, to over the hill veterans at age 35 -- it's a sobering experience. Steve Smith has been defying how he's viewed as an aging receiver. It's not just that Smith is still effective, but how he remains able to play his game. While others have taken a step back into possession receiver roles, or short-twitch receivers in the slot -- Smith continues to stretch the outside, leap above defensive backs, and contort his body to catch the un-catchable. The reality is setting in that things will start to break down -- it's a part of a player's life, and we can learn something from the receivers who preceded him.
A total of 13 different receivers aged 34+ have managed to post a 1,000 yard receiving season since 2000. Another eight seasons are added to the list by the likes of Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Tim Brown among others.
Can Smith become one of these 13 receivers? He has a good chance. His 16.1 Y/R average was tied for the third-highest of his career, and Smith still managed to top 70 receptions. Anecdotal evidence shows no signs of him slowing down, and the receiver has said publicly that he believes he can play another few seasons.
The problem is determining whether Smith is in that small category of players who could repeat, or the majority who managed a 1,000 yard season after age 34, but who never reached that level again.
The one-and-done club
Marvin Harrison (2006)
95 receptions, 1,366 yards (14.4 Y/R), 12 TD
Harrison holds the record for the best single-season by a receiver aged 34+, and is the ceiling for what we can hope of Steve Smith in 2013. Harrison's fall after 2006 was precipitous, as he played in just 5 games in 2007, before an ineffective 2008 year that saw him start 15 games for just 636 yards.
Isaac Bruce (2006)
74 receptions, 1,098 yards (14.8 Y/R), 3 TD
Bruce was one of the NFL's Iron Men, playing until he was 38-years old and amassing over 15,000 career receiving yards. 34 was the final year he was an elite receiver and managed to top 1,000 yards. He started one more year for the Rams in 2007, but finished with 733 yards before heading to San Francisco for another 800 yard season.
Donald Driver (2009)
70 receptions, 1,061 yards (15.2 Y/R), 6 TD
A six-year streak of 1,000 yard seasons ended following this swan song at at age 34. Driver started another two seasons, but couldn't muster 600 receiving yards in either.
Keep on keeping on
Joey Galloway (2005)
83 receptions, 1,287 yards (15.5 Y/R), 10 TD
Not only did Galloway top 1,000 yards at age 34, it was the best single season of his career. This started a run of three 1,000 yards seasons which hadn't happened in his career up to this point. While he wasn't the best receiver on the list, Galloway is the outlier for how good he got in his mid-thirties.
Jerry Rice (1996)
108 receptions, 1,254 yards (11.8 Y/R), 8 TD
While this occurred before 2000, there's no way I'm leaving Rice off the list. After he turned 34 his production definitely dipped as he became a reliable 800 yard guy, and still managed to post another sporadic 1,000 yard seasons at age 36, 39, and 40. This is the dream scenario, but Rice's play style aided his longevity in a way that wont happen with Steve Smith.
Terrell Owens (2007)
81 receptions, 1,355 yards (16.7 Y/R), 15 TD
Owens is in a class of his own because his production never really dropped. He managed another 1,000 yards season in 2008, before heading to Buffalo and putting forth an 800 yard season with terrible quarterback play, before heading to Cincinatti and have a resurgence -- 17 yards shy from another 1,000 season.
He's out of the league because of personality issues, not talent.
What lies ahead for Steve Smith?
There's no reason to believe Smitty will take a step back in 2013. He showed no signs of slowing as the season progressed, and has remained healthy for much of his career. In order to really push his longevity the Panthers need to find a new first receiver, and push him into the slot -- but you already knew that.
Realistically I think it's safe to assume Smith's career arc could mirror Joey Galloway's, where the receiver was still able to excel as a sub-six-foot receiver in his mid-thirties. It's unrealistic to assume he can have success for another five years like Jerry Rice, but given all he's done for the organization another three seasons is plausible.
I'd like to see the Panthers reduce his role in 2014, asking him to contribute 700-800 yards, rather than leaning on him to be the team's primary receiver -- but that's a question for the future, for now lets enjoy Steve Smith's final years with the organization and hope he can add his name to the list of successful players in their thirties.