Smith gets a grip, excels for Panthers

Big-play receiver lets talent trump temper

January 31, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - The Carolina Panthers player most likely to lose his cool did not this week in the crush of the nation's media and the glare of the Super Bowl.

Steve Smith, who punched a teammate and kicked an opponent in separate incidents over the past two seasons, has been on his best behavior for the most part.

Still, there was the silly question from an unwitting reporter who asked the third-year wide receiver if his performance in the playoffs was a breakthrough for him.

"I'm fourth in the [NFC in catches]," Smith shot back. "What are you talking about `these last few games'? I'm a baller either way. I don't need you to define me. You just haven't seen me yet. That is your fault, not my fault."

Defining Steve Smith has never been easy, even this season when his 88 receptions for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns led the resurgent Panthers. At 5 feet 9, he is an explosive receiver with exceptional speed and big-play ability, as witnessed by his game-winning 69-yard, catch-and-run touchdown in overtime to beat the St. Louis Rams in the playoffs.

He also gets high marks for helping the team break a three-game losing streak late in the season and get some stability back for the postseason.

"We developed another dimension of plays and expanded the offense [during that time]," left tackle Todd Steussie said. "We became a little more balanced.

"If I had to pick one guy, I'd give a lot of credit to Steve Smith. The last couple weeks, there's not a scarier receiver on the field than Steve."

The problem is, Smith sometimes scares his own teammates. Like the locker room rant he staged early in the season after the Panthers rewarded defensive tackle Kris Jenkins with a lucrative new contract. Smith, whose contract is up this year, ripped management.

Or the Nov. 2 loss in Houston, when Smith kicked Texans defensive end Jerry DeLoach and drew a critical unnecessary roughness penalty.

But the most troubling incident involving Smith came a year ago, when he broke the nose of teammate and practice squad player Anthony Bright when the two were in film study. The Panthers suspended Smith for one game, and he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. He later underwent anger-management counseling, a response of his own choosing, he said.

Yet, Smith, the father of three children, clearly has the support of the organization.

"Steve Smith is one of the finest fathers and husbands and sons that you will ever be around," said offensive coordinator Dan Henning. "Steve Smith, like a lot of players in this league, came up from nowhere. He came up from an environment where probably 75 percent of the guys he grew up with are still down and out, and maybe in jail, and not been able to do what Steve Smith has been able to do.

"He has had to fight his way right through everything to get where he is. He is not hard to relate to. He is very emotional. He is very paranoid over certain things because of the way he grew up."

Smith, 24, grew up in Lynwood, Calif., outside Los Angeles, where he was an All-State receiver in high school. He teamed with Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson at Santa Monica Junior College, then starred at Utah as a pass receiver and kick returner.

A third-round draft pick of the Panthers in 2001, Smith made the Pro Bowl his first season as a kick returner, averaging 25.6 yards per return. In three seasons, he has returned six kicks or punts for touchdowns, and has amassed 5,801 combined yards.

New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison this week called Smith "the heart and soul of their offense."

"He's a small guy, but you see him time and time again, a [defender] on his right shoulder and he's making plays," Harrison said. "He's a tough guy. Someone will hit him, [and] he'll get up and slam the ball down. ... He's not afraid to come across the middle."

Tomorrow against the Patriots, Smith will line up against Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law in one of the Super Bowl's most titillating matchups.

"It's a chance to show I can play at this level against any corner, to show I'm patient enough to win," Smith said.

Steussie, for one, said Smith and the Panthers have a pretty good shot, even if the Patriots attempt to double-team the talented receiver.

"It's pretty hard to double him," Steussie said. "He's matured as a receiver. He finds ways to slip in between the zones. I've heard people say we can erase Steve from the equation [because of Law], but I wouldn't count Steve out of that matchup."

Game data

Matchup: New England Patriots (16-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (14-5)

Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston

When: Tomorrow, 6:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Patriots by 7

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