Steve Smith is starting to climb the NFL’s all-time receiving charts. But the Panthers’ longest-tenured player says he won’t worry about his career accolades until he’s retired and sipping iced tea on his front porch.
“Until then,” Smith said, “I’m going to keep spinning that ball.”
Smith’s ball spin is his signature move, done after big catches and usually accompanied by barking at a defensive back or the opposing sideline – and sometimes his own. Since the Panthers’ dreadful 2010 season, which made Smith question if he wanted to stay in Charlotte, there has been a lot of ball-spinning the past two years.
Smith enters Sunday’s game at San Diego a yard shy of 1,000 receiving yards, which would be his seventh 1,000-yard season and second in a row. With back-to-back, 100-yard games the past two weeks against Kansas City and Atlanta, Smith has 43 for his career – tied for 10th all-time among NFL receivers.
Smith, 33, is 26th all-time with 11,277 receiving yards and 32nd with 759 catches. Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes those numbers should at least put Smith in the conversation for Canton with a few more productive seasons.
“I might be a little presumptuous, but he could be one of the representatives for this team in the Hall of Fame eventually,” Rivera said. “I think he’s earned it. To join the clubs that he has as far as total yardage, 100-yard receiving games, it speaks well, first of all, for his longevity. And second, for his ability to make these kind of plays and do these things year in and year out.”
Unlike other players, Smith said he won’t lobby for Hall of Fame consideration.
“If it comes, that’s great. I’m not going to Donovan McNabb myself. I’m not going to say what I deserve,” he said. “I think what I deserve is the opportunities that I’ve gotten by working hard. But I wouldn’t say I deserve it. I mean, stats are there. I just want to play. I enjoy playing.”
With no NFL team in Los Angeles, Smith will play the closest thing to a home game Sunday at San Diego, about two hours south of his L.A. hometown. Smith bought tickets for 50 friends and family members to attend the game.
“I haven’t played in that stadium probably since college,” Smith said. “So it’s pretty special to play in front of my mom, play in front of my dad in the same stadium.”
Smith missed the Panthers’ 2008 trip to San Diego while serving a two-game suspension for punching teammate Ken Lucas in the face. It was the second time Smith was suspended for hurting a teammate in a fight.
Smith seems to have mellowed somewhat in recent years, although he still snaps at reporters, opponents and teammates on occasion. Rivera holds up Smith’s intensity level as an example for young players to follow.
Rivera pointed to the way Smith was still playing hard near the end of a blowout loss to the Giants in Week 3, and admits he sometimes has to ask Smith to dial it back in practice.
“He still practices like that, too, and we have to ask him to take reps off,” Rivera said. “We’ll ask him and he’ll back down and he’ll go back in and run those reps 100 miles an hour. It’s just who Steve is, and I think that’s why he’s had so much success and lasted as long as he has, because he takes it as a professional.”
Chargers coach Norv Turner said Smith’s tenacity sets him apart.
“The thing that Steve has aside from all his athleticism – his great speed, strength, ability to cut – he just has that attitude that is so competitive that he’s going to go out and be successful,” Turner said. “And I think when you’re getting ready to play against him, you better understand it’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be competitive. It’s going to be toe-to-toe for 60 plays and you’d better be ready to meet that challenge.”
During the Panthers’ opening possession of the second half last week against Atlanta, Smith was lined up wide left when quarterback Cam Newton broke loose on a zone-read play. After blocking cornerback Dunta Robinson, Smith ran ahead of Newton and threw a block that occupied two defenders and allowed Newton to finish his 72-yard touchdown run.
Rivera didn’t need to show his players the video of the block because it had been on “SportsCenter” for two days. But Rivera mentioned it to them.
“That just shows you how unselfish of a guy he is,” Rivera said. “I awarded him the game ball for it, too, because it was a great effort play and those things need to be pointed out, especially to the young players.”
Smith doesn’t want to discuss his Hall-of-Fame credentials, but he doesn’t mind an I-told-you-so conversation. In the Panthers’ locker room recently, Smith jokingly said his wife was going to bake a “humble pie” to be distributed among media members who doubted his effectiveness.
“I love proving people wrong. And I enjoy playing,” Smith said. “Just another year to have 1,000 or 1,100, 1,200 (receiving yards), whatever it is at the end.”
“People say, ‘Yeah, he got that. But he’s lost a step. He’s not this. He isn’t that,’ ” Smith continued. “There’s not too many 5-9 wide receivers, 33 years old that are getting 1,000 yards. Or were at the Pro Bowl last year. So I guess I’m doing OK. Not bad.”
Smith’s Pro Bowl appearance last season was his fifth, tying him with defensive end Julius Peppers and kick returner Michael Bates for the most in team history. Smith owns all of the Panthers’ major receiving records, and is second to former kicker John Kasay in games played.
Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, whose son, Jared, is on the Panthers’ practice squad, said Smith’s accomplishments are all the more impressive because he often lacked a strong supporting cast. Smith never played with a franchise quarterback until the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall last year.
“He’s definitely done a great job in his career, and some years it was lean going over there,” said Green, who retired in 2002. “Sometimes he had strong support, sometimes he didn’t. But he always knows how to rise up to the top.”
In that respect, Green compared Smith to Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Houston’s Andre Johnson as receivers who have had successful careers despite suspect talent around them. Smith played half his career with Jake Delhomme as his quarterback, and endured seasons with Rodney Peete, Vinny Testaverde and Jimmy Clausen.
And with the exception of Muhsin Muhammad, Smith has been without a high-impact complementary receiver – the same situation Detroit’s Calvin Johnson has faced, according to Green.
“When you are sometimes the guy – look at Megatron, two to three people covering you and you’re still performing, I think that’s the essence of a star, or a player that is at another level beyond everybody else,” Green said.
Green has seen Smith play more this season than in previous years because Green has a rooting interest in the Panthers. Green didn’t want to speak to Smith’s chances to make it to Canton, but said he likes the exclusive nature of football’s Hall.
“You’re not going to waltz in there,” Green said. “You’re not going to get in there because your daddy knows (somebody).”
A tough goal
That seems particularly true for receivers, who have fewer Hall-of-Fame members than every other position group. Only seven receivers who started their careers after the 1970 merger have been enshrined, and just two were first-ballot selections – Steve Largent and Jerry Rice.
Cris Carter, who has missed out on the Hall in the five years he’s been eligible, said last year he thinks voters undervalue the receiving position.
That’s not a debate Smith cares to join.
“The Hall of Fame used to be one of the top things on my list of goals. But sometimes if you’re so focused on goals, you start to miss other things,” Smith said. “So I’m enjoying not missing the other things. And the things you discuss when you’re done playing, I’ll allow that to be my focus when I have all that idle time.”
Rivera, in his second season with the Panthers, doesn’t think Smith has lost a step. That said, Rivera wishes he’d worked with Smith longer.
“Kind of like that fine wine, he has most certainly improved with age,” Rivera said. “My only regret is I will not have had him in his prime, in terms of his ability. But man, the things he could accomplish could be big-time.”
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