Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell told Muhsin Muhammad he had something special in store for him if LaFell got into the end zone in the Week 3 game against the Giants.
Muhammad, a Panthers wide receiver from 1996-2004 and 2008-2009, had just banged the ‘Keep Pounding’ drum before the home game when LaFell approached him. LaFell told the former Panther that if he caught a touchdown pass, he’d do Muhammad’s famous ball-between-the-legs touchdown celebration.
Sure enough, LaFell did the celebration after hauling in a 20-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
“I say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I like the way Brandon plays,” Muhammad said.
The gesture was a reminder of the days of Muhammad, and it was symbolic of what veteran receiver Steve Smith said at training camp this summer: For the first time since the 2003 trio of himself, Muhammad and Ricky Proehl, the Panthers have three talented wide recievers in Smith, LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr.
In 2003, Smith, Muhammad and Proehl combined for 2,336 receiving yards, which made up 72.1 percent of Carolina’s receiving total.
This year entering Sunday’s game at Arizona, Smith, LaFell and Ginn have hauled in 352 receiving yards, good for 61 percent of the team’s total.
But it’s not just the stats that make the group special, Smith said. Having two receiving threats of that caliber around him for the first time in a decade makes everything easier, on and off the field.
“A lot of people at times think a supporting cast is about numbers or wins. But for me, I look at it as far as guys you can depend on, that you can count on, that you bond with, that you get along with,” Smith said. “There are routes where I completely understand that I’m clearing out for Brandon LaFell or I’m attracting a safety to keep it open for Ted. And I don’t have a problem with that because also it’s done both ways. When you have that kind of relationship, anything you do is for the betterment of the group.
“Just the whole experience just going through it has been really fun. Those groups of men don’t always happen, so when it does, it’s pretty cool and special and fun.”
The first group came together before the 2003 season when Proehl, a 13-year veteran at the time, signed with the team as a free agent. Smith was coming off his second season, but his first as a trusted wide receiver under new coach John Fox, and Muhammad was in his eighth year as the leader of the wide receiver group.
Smith would turn in his first of seven career 1,000-yard seasons with a 1,110-yard year as Carolina went 11-5 before advancing to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Jake Delhomme found Muhammad 54 times that season for 837 yards, and new weapon Proehl tallied 27 catches for 389 yards as the No. 3 receiver.
“Everyone knew their role on the team,” Muhammad said. “I could go get the deep balls, Ricky could go catch deep balls, but we knew Steve was our deep threat and home run hitter. Ricky was the slot guy who was going to work the middle and be a mismatch. And I was a big guy doing the blocking and doing play action passes and making some of the tough grabs across the middle. We all knew what was asked of us.”
But that knowledge came after the two veterans had a talk with the younger Smith.
“I think the biggest thing Moose and I did for Steve being so young as a receiver and wanting to learn, he’s such a competitor – probably the most competitive football player I’ve ever been around – he wanted the ball every play,” Proehl said. “And he’d get frustrated when he didn’t get it. We just had to teach him, sit him down and say, ‘Steve, this is a good thing. When Moose and I are making plays, this is going to open up opportunities for you.’”
Though Proehl would stay on the team for two more seasons, the three receivers wouldn’t play a full season together again. Smith broke his fibula in the first game of the 2004 season, and the Panthers released Muhammad before the 2005 season over a contract dispute.
The likes of Keyshawn Johnson, Drew Carter, Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett all came through Carolina but never made a substantial impact alongside Smith.
Smith even had his reservations about LaFell when the Louisiana State product was drafted by the Panthers in the third round of the 2010 draft, and it would take months before the two saw eye to eye.
The case of Smith and LaFell circa 2010 is a classic one of a brash rookie against the proven veteran.
“My rookie year, it was one of those situations where I thought I knew a lot when I really didn’t,” LaFell admitted.
As the losses mounted in a 2-14 season in 2010, Smith saw promise in LaFell, and decided his approach to the rookie wasn’t helping matters. He reassessed how he treated and talked to LaFell, and that made for a healthier relationship.
LaFell began to realize Smith’s advice early on was accurate, and from then on, he obeyed one of Smith’s principles: Rookies are to be seen, not heard.
“Now when I’m trying to listen he wasn’t trying to teach me anymore,” LaFell said. “It was one of those situations where we clashed but as the season went on I was quiet and started to open up my ears and listen more. He took me under his wing in those last eight games when we were really struggling to get me ready for the offseason going into that second year.”
The bond between Smith and Ginn did not have such a testy beginning. Ginn, a seven-year veteran known better for his return abilities, came from San Francisco, where he caught 33 passes in three years. He signed a one-year deal with Carolina this offseason and was just looking for a chance to show what he could do.
That head-down, work-hard mentality Ginn brought gave him instant credibility in the receivers room, Smith said. And when fellow receivers Armanti Edwards and Domenik Hixon struggled through the preseason with hamstring injuries, Ginn stepped up and claimed the No. 3 position.
“In talking with Ted a couple times and saying, ‘You’re going to get your chance,’” coach Ron Rivera said. “And that’s all he ever said. ‘Just give me the chance, coach. That’s all I want is the chance. I just want the opportunity.’
“I think he’s sees something here that he likes and this is the beginning of something very good for him and us as we go further together.”
Work in progress
Much like how the 2003 trio knew their roles in the Panthers’ offense, the 2013 group is learning, Proehl said.
Smith is still Cam Newton’s top target, LaFell is the unquestioned No. 2 receiver and Ginn’s speed makes him Carolina’s big downfield threat.
Smith and Ginn each have 143 receiving yards, which trails tight end Greg Olsen’s 194 yards. LaFell’s 66 yards and two touchdowns are good for fourth on the team.
Ginn is one of four players in the NFL this year with two offensive touchdowns of at least 40 yards. His ability to “blow the top off the coverage,” as Rivera calls it, has given Carolina’s offense a dimension it has lacked.
LaFell, through three-plus years in Carolina, hasn’t exactly put up gaudy receiving numbers. He has 125 catches for 1,824 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career. Despite those numbers, Smith has still stumped for the LaFell to be re-signed by the Panthers at the end of this season – the last in his rookie deal.
“He’s that unsung hero that does all the little things that nobody sees and sometimes don’t appreciate, but I do,” Proehl said of LaFell. “We ask him to do a lot of things that some of the other guys can’t do. I try to just tell him that it doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by me. It’s hard for a receiver when you’re doing the dirty work and others are getting the receptions, people start to think he’s not that good. And he is.”
That faith was reciprocated by LaFell, who said it’s easy to be coached by Proehl. And much like what he did for Muhammad two weeks ago, LaFell has a surprise for Proehl in two weeks when the Panthers host the St. Louis Rams – Proehl’s former team of five years.
“Whatever somebody does who has been around here, I’ll try to do it,” LaFell said. “If I get in the end zone against St. Louis, I got something for Ricky.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9