Steve is back to being Steve again.

Credit: Carolinahuddle.com

I love Steve Smith.

I have been one of his biggest fans ever since I started following football & the Carolina Panthers as a teenager. He is actually part of what drew me to the Panthers. And for that alone Steve, I thank you.

Smitty, as he is known to many, has intrigued me since day 1 & still, every Sunday he amazes and leaves myself & others, in disbelief. Every Sunday, he brings it. Every play, he gives his 110% with the same fierce, fire, intensity and determination that makes him one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the league today. On any given play, he can turn a defense inside out.

He is electrifying, mesmerizing, a freak in a league of athletic monsters. He is passionate, he has swagger and he wears his heart on his sleeve as we’ve come to learn and respect. He is often outspoken, always great for a quote or a sound bite. He yaps, but he backs up his talk with his on-field play. He is definitely not someone you’d want to cross the wrong way but also, one of those guys you’d want with you walking down a dark alley at night for protection.

At 32, he is on the downside of his career yet here he is, leading the NFC in receiving yards with 918 receiving yards, 2nd in the NFL only to Wes Welker after the bye week. He has 46 receptions for a 20 yard per catch average and 4 receiving TDs to go along with his average of 114.8 yards a game. He has been revitalized by rookie sensation Cam Newton, after having Jake Delhomme and numerous band-aid QBs throw to him over his career. Finally, after Delhomme he has a QB that can get him the ball and put in a position where he can make a defense hurt with one move. He can run any route, crossing over the middle daring the defense to lay a lick on him (only making him madder, which if you ask DeAngelo Hall, Fred Smoot or any CB in the league, never ends well) or a smoke screen pass that turns into a 20 yard gain, stiff-arming defenders along the way or, the deep ball which Smith has caught a lot of this season with 4 catches over 40 yards and 19 catches over 20 yards.

After a nightmare season in 2010 with another rookie QB throwing to him, as well as Matt Moore, the Panthers struggled and stalled, and so did Smith’s season. Many though Smith had lost a step, was done and on the verge of leaving town with him almost being traded. Smith ended up with 46 catches for 554 yards and 2 TD’s. This season to date, he has the same amount of receptions, almost double the yards and double the TDs. No doubt 2011 will be a big rebound season and will land him a nomination for Comeback Player of the Year – an award he’s already won once after breaking his leg in 2004-05, only to win the triple receiving crown the following season.

Many believe that had Steve Smith had Tom Brady throwing to him (or any elite QB), he’d be a Hall of Famer right now. Maybe, but I also believe that his career in Carolina has served him well and made him a better player. Had he been in New England or Indianapolis, he may never have seen the 2005-06 season that he did, becoming one of the many few WRs in NFL history to win the triple crown of receiving. (Most yards, most receptions and TDs in a season.) Smith is on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer, but he’ll need to hit a few marks and check off a few boxes before then.

Already, his season is getting praise, much due to the play of QB, one who can feed him the ball and put him a position to make a play and do his thing. And the media is taking notice of all that. Outlets and websites are talking about his possible Hall of Fame entrance one day, and SI’s Peter King has him on the Mid-season All Pro team at WR along with Wes Welker & Calvin Johnson. He’s probably not the only one. No doubt, he’s well on his way to another Pro Bowl and probably numerous other awards. But it’s not new to Smith and it won’t be the last time he grabs the spotlight for his work on field.

Smitty is currently ranked 37th in career receiving yards in NFL history with 9,802 yards.  There are currently 5 active players are ahead of him: Hines Ward, Derrick Mason, Reggie Wayne, Chad Ochocinco and Falcons TE and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. None of those players except Gonzalez is a lock to make the Hall.

If Smith wins a Super Bowl ring, it’ll be heavily taken into consideration by the panel. Wayne and Ward both have rings, Mason has consistently put up steady numbers but has always been under the radar as a top WR and Ochocinco’s career was similar to Smith’s until the past few seasons where his career has appeared to stall and his career is all but on the downside. This group of players is in the category of “Almost.. but needs more work.” Give each of these players a few more seasons to check off criteria boxes and they may move up the future Hall of Famers list.

With Cam Newton at QB, Smitty has already said in numerous interviews that he wants to play another 3 or 4 years and with the way he takes care of himself, he definitely could. With Newton throwing to him, he could continue to post 1000+ yards for the next 4 or so years, potentially adding on 4,000-5,000 yards to his career numbers. Those kind of numbers will move him past 10,000 yards and up the list of already enshrined/future Hall of Fame players. Even if he moves to the slot, the connection that Smith and Newton have will continue to grow in the future seasons.

After QB Jake Delhomme, Smith struggled to connect with new QBs who came in to fill Jake’s shoes. Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen and a host of other 3rd string fill-ins who played QB while the injured and the just plain awful QBs who were supposed to be ‘the future’ instead made the Panthers decide to draft Newton 1st overall. The connection and relationship Smitty and Jake had on and off the field, was almost like man-love. A tough ask, it wasn’t until Newton came in this offseason that the old man and the new guy started to get along like a house on fire. So far, the bond that has been made has been special, reminiscent of the Jake-Steve connection that lead Carolina to a couple of playoff appearances including Super Bowl 38. The connection of fiery, angry, passionate, chip-on-the-shoulder Smith and Jake, the gunslingin’ country boy from Louisiana who made his way into the league in similar fashion to Kurt Warner, from NFL Europe and backup to starter in a Super Bowl.

Now it’s Cam and Steve and so far, the results speak for themselves. An uncanny duo, one would think before the season started that perhaps Newton’s favorite target would be a TE or a slot receiver. But the rookie made a connection with 89 often and early, with the 2 working out during the summer. One thing that impressed Smith of Cam was his work ethic and his up-bringing; the support from his father Cecil – something coach Ron Rivera has praised often too of the young QB. Both players are similar, yet so different. Smith is 5-9, Newton is 6-5 but is probably closer to 6-6 and they’re birthdays are 1 day apart in May; Smith is May 12, Newton is May 11. Both want to win and are the face of the franchise. Both have that hunger, that drive; the work ethic. They both have their haters, but they also have a very large following. If the rest of the team can improve and get it together in the next couple of seasons, look for Newton and Smith to be the next big duo in the NFL, leading the way and helping Smith become a legit Hall of Fame candidate.

Right now though, Smith is on track to break Jerry Rice’s single season receiving record of 1848 receiving yards. No doubt, he’ll have some stiff competition from Welker who is also having an outstanding season with New England. Smith has to get 930 yards in the back end of the season while Welker only needs 60 yards less. The Patriots offense has struggled at times this season & if they really get going, watch out. However, they’ll be playing in severe weather conditions later on in the season which could hurt Welker’s chances. The Panthers however will be mainly around in the south and in domes, helping Smith’s chances. Another factor could be that the Panthers defense isn’t the greatest, so if they get behind in games, it will make the offense have to air it out and games could turn into a shootout, which again helps both Newton & Smith’s yards. Good news for fantasy players this season if you have either Brady & Welker or Newton & Smith.

Smith could potentially, hit 2000 yards if he increases his current pace of 100 plus yards per game to at least 135.25 over the next 8 games. He already has 7 100 yard receiving games this year, but will need to turn those 100 yard games into 150, 180 yard games if he has any chance of hitting 2k yards. He’ll probably have to have a 200 yard game at some point, or at least a few 160-180 yard games to close the gap. Rice had a huge game when he had 14 catches for 289 yards vs. the Vikings in ’95, helping him hit the 1,848 yards he had for the record-making season. While it may sound out of reach & realistically it probably is, it does say something about the current trend in the NFL with so many QBs and WRs putting up big numbers & having 2 great receivers on track to come close or even maybe surpass the great Jerry Rice and his single-season record.

But this season should come as no surprise to you if you know the Steve Smith story. Fact is, there’s not much more I can tell you that will surprise you. Just in case you don’t know the full story, here’s a brief recap of one of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL.

Drafted in the 3rd round out of Utah, the 5 foot 9 wide receiver came into the league as a returner, a specialist and his and the legend was born the first time he touched the ball in the NFL, as he took it back the other way for a 99 yard TD return in the Metrodome vs. the Vikings. That rookie season, he made the Pro Bowl as a returner.  As soon as Panthers GM Marty Hurney drafted him, they knew they had something special. It wasn’t until a few seasons later when he began to develop into a wide receiver, that the fruits of labor began to show. Soon, he was a #1 receiver. With Jake Delhomme at QB the Panthers would make a trip to the big dance in 2003-04, with Smith’s play at WR along with Panthers legend, Muhsin Muhammad and veteran wide receiver Ricky Proehl (now an offensive assistant with the Panthers). Smith helped his status as an elite WR when he caught a beautifully thrown TD pass from Delhomme in Super Bowl 38 vs. the Patriots and went on to have a monster game. His legend actually began in the Divisional Playoffs a couple of weeks earlier vs. the Rams, when Smith caught a 69 yard TD pass from Delhomme in double OT, the play famously dubbed “X-Clown” where Smith can be seen, arms outstretched as he ran into the endzone.

Following the huge 2003-04 season, Smith then went onto suffer a broken leg in week 1 action vs. the Green Bay Packers, ending his season for 2004-05. Muhsin Muhammad went onto having a fantastic year in Smith’s absence, however Smith more than made up for it in 2005-06 when he helped the Panthers reach the NFC Conference Championship, leading the NFL in all receiving categories and getting All-Pro and Pro Bowl nominations as well as co-Comeback Player of the Year (with LB Tedy Bruschi.) From there his legend grew and grew. A top fantasy stud, he continued to have solid seasons in ’06, ’07 and then had another breakout season in 2008 as he helped steer the Panthers back to the playoffs. Following that he had solid seasons until 2010 as he had his worst statistical season and the Panthers went 2-14.

And then 2011 happened and we sit here, talking about Smitty as a possible Hall of Fame candidate & for Panthers fans like myself, it’s a great thing to see 89 dominating again. We know the story, we know the journey. We know his talent level and what he’s had to overcome. His incidents, his past. We felt sorry for him, having to go through last season as we all felt it. We don’t blame him asking for a trade. But then you see the kind of player he is, the kind of teammate he is to the rookie QB and even though the team only has 2 wins in 2011, Smith is back and having fun. He’s going out there, making plays as if he’s just a kid playing some ball in the park. The competitive fire still burns and like it’s been said before, Newton has been a fountain of youth for Smith who is still troubling defenses who now can’t commit 2 or 3 guys to Smith because of the threat of Newton who can hurt you with his arms or legs. Now it’s a different offense and it’s one that is tailor-made for Smith and if he keeps on doing what he’s doing and putting up astronomical numbers and helping Carolina win along the way, then we couldn’t be happier as fans of the Panthers and of Smith.

During the last game vs. the Vikings, Smith had a controversial and costly holding penalty against him as Newton scrambled to get the ball into the endzone. The Panthers were driving, down by 3 and needed a FG to tie it. Smith blocked a defender, before running to take out another as Newton dove, trying to break the plane of the endzone. He was called on the first block, a hold. The Panthers eventually settled for a FG, a 31-yard chip shot only to have Olindo Mare shank it wide. The Panthers lost and Smith gladly vented to the media afterwards about the call. In a few words he said, “..for a 70-year-old man gimping down the field, I guess that’s what the ref saw.”

Classic Steve. Classic 89. That’s the bottom line.

As far as I’m concerned, Smitty has given a lot to this team and will continue to do so. As a veteran and a leader, I for one applaud him for telling it like it is & frankly, he can say whatever he wants to say. We need guys like him, keeping us on our toes and being blatantly honest in a league full of political correctness and pussy-footing. If every guy had the fight, the tenacity the passion and love for this game that he does, the game would be in a better place. He only wants the right calls made and he knows the referees missed a call there that should’ve been put down to a football play. Just let them play, in those instances. But hey, that’s football in 2011 and we’ll agree to disagree. Removing my homer glasses for a second, we can’t really sit here and say that Smith should’ve made it a legal block. As a professional football player, he’ll tell you until the day he dies that that was a legal block & he’s probably right.

But like I said, that’s Steve Smith for you. As long as he is yapping and getting angry – doing what he does best with that swagger of his every Sunday, then all you can do is watch and enjoy the rollecoaster ride of emotions that he’ll take you along for.

Who knows how many fights Steve Smith has left in him. Who knows how many yards, how many seasons he has left. All we know is that he is a damn good football player who is underrated, under appreciated and has been since he was drafted into this league.

He’ll still carry the chip on his shoulder, even when he stands up there at Canton as his bust is unveiled. He’ll still carry the chip, because people love to hate on 89. But he’s used to it. He’s used to getting back up after a big hit from a LBer after he crosses over the middle, spinning the ball celebrating a first down. He’s used to owning DBs and LBs, literally knocking them on their rear as he continues to show that he has one of the nastiest stiff-arms in the NFL. He is used to it all, even after 11 NFL seasons.

That’s just Steve Smith in a nutshell. Chip on the shoulder with that swagger, used to showing the doubters wrong, used to putting on a show every Sunday.

And for that alone; for that entertainment that you provide us Steve, I once again thank you.

From every Panthers fan worldwide, we thank you for being you, for being special and for giving us your all, for giving us hope for the future.. for giving us greatness.

I for one can’t wait to see how the rest of 2011 turns out for Smitty. But watch closely because it may just be record-breaking.

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