Panthers Football: An older and wiser Smith?
By Mike Cranston
SPARTANBURG, S.C. ó In his transformation from a brash, fiery and sometimes immature youngster into a fiery, yet more reserved and controlled veteran, Steve Smith is thinking about his legacy.
It started in the offseason, when the Carolina Panthers receiver printed a list of the NFL’s career leaders for yards receiving. At the bottom of the page, which shows Jerry Rice way ahead of Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce and James Lofton, Smith typed the words, ‘Where will I be at the end?’
It continued when Smith had dinner recently with Michael Irvin, who overcame his own off-field trouble to finish with 11,904 yards receiving, good for 17th on the list and about half of the 29-year-old Smith’s total.
“He is a man who has faults, has failed and has stood up and said, ‘You know what, I failed,’ ” Smith said of Irvin, the former Dallas Cowboys star. “Does that mean you go in a shell and wither away? No, he’s taken it all in stride and moved forward … Everybody makes mistakes. I have had the opportunity to meet and learn who he truly is, for more than 10 minutes.”
It was Smith’s theme during a rare, lengthy interview with reporters Monday. Entering his eighth season, Smith knows he has a checkered history, which includes attacking a teammate during a film session in 2002.
He’s lost his cool on the field, leading to costly penalties. But the three-time Pro Bowl pick believes reporters dwell on his past.
“When I was 22 I was a different guy, so I’m not trying to spin anything,” Smith said. “You spend two hours with somebody and now you know them ó that’s not the case. I’ve been married eight years, and I’m still learning my wife. Impressions are important, but when you sit down with someone for 10 minutes or 45 minutes you have no way to know what’s in that person’s heart.”
As Smith spoke, about 50 underprivileged kids were munching on lunch nearby after watching Smith and the Panthers practice. Smith organized the trip as part of the charitable foundation he works tirelessly for.
It’s all part of the complex Smith, who will spend hours volunteering and helping kids, then snap at reporters or criticize a teammate. Yet it would be a short list identifying players who work harder.
“When I met him we were in college, and he’s come a million miles since then,” said Panthers tackle Jordan Gross, Smith’s teammate at Utah. “But Steve is still himself. The reason he’s such a good player is that fire he has. I think he’s done an outstanding job of using it to his advantage when he can and kind of keeping things under control off the field.”
There’s no doubt the 5-foot-9 Smith still has the motivation that helped him go from a difficult childhood to a junior-college player to a star at Utah and now one of the game’s top receivers. Smith was forced to prove his worth countless times in practice, and it’s been tough scaling things down now that’s a proven veteran with 431 career catches for 5,927 yards.
“As you get older you have to resist the temptation to overdo it, to go out and prove to everybody that you still have it,” Smith said. “That’s the biggest thing I have to fight is to go out there and try to take all of the reps.”
Despite playing with four quarterbacks last season, Smith still caught 87 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns, two years removed from leading the NFL in catches, yards receiving and touchdowns.
Now with Jake Delhomme back from elbow surgery, and old friend and receiver Muhsin Muhammad re-signed in hopes of reducing the number of double teams Smith faces, he could boost his number this year.
He needs to more than double his current yards receiving total to make the top-10 on the career list. It’s why he’s spending each practice this camp trying to perfect a different route in the playbook.
Only when asked if he’s set a goal to reach a certain spot on the all-time list, the snippy Smith returns: “Only time will tell where I will be. It doesn’t matter where I would like to be.”