Panthers WR Smith, 33, keeps piling up numbers

Panthers receiver Steve Smith said there was a time when he was

consumed by his goals, one of them being making the Hall of

Fame.

Make no doubt it; he’d still love to wind up there.

But the 12-year NFL veteran has mellowed some, taking a little

more time to enjoy the twilight of the NFL career as he quietly

strives to become the first player ever drafted by the Panthers to

make it to Canton, Ohio.

”When you are so focused on goals you start to miss other

things,” Smith said. ”So I’m enjoying not missing the other

things. I’ll allow the other things to be discussed when I’m done

playing.”

In the meantime, the 33-year-old Smith plans to continue to spin

the ball after catches and irritate defensive backs who attempt to

shut him down.

That’s no easy task.

Smith’s latest 100-yard receiving game Sunday against Atlanta

was the 43rd of his career, putting him in the top 10 in NFL

history.

He currently ranks 26th all-time with 11,277 yards receiving and

32nd in receptions (759). He needs 197 catches and 2,500 yards

receiving to move into the top 10 in both categories.

Those around him believe he’s more than capable of reaching

those marks with a few more seasons playing alongside Cam

Newton.

”He still plays like he’s 22,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera

said.

Despite being at the tail end of his career, Smith is still

Carolina’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver.

He leads the Panthers in receptions and enters Sunday’s game

against San Diego one yard shy of his seventh 1,000-yard receiving

season. When Newton needs a big play, more often than not he’s

looking Smith’s way.

And how can you blame him?

”You know what’s interesting about Steve is the way he

practices,” Rivera said. ”He still practices so hard and you

actually have to ask him to take reps off. … Then he’ll go back

in right away and go 100 miles per hour again. It’s just who Steve

is, and that’s why he’s had so much success and has lasted as long

as he has.”

Chargers coach Norv Turner compares Smith to Henry Ellard,

another seemingly ageless receiver who turned in a 1,000-yard

receiving season at 35.

”My experience with receivers like Steve is once they get to a

point and they haven’t slowed down, it seems like they go

forever,” Turner said. ”The thing that Steve has aside from all

his athleticism – his great speed, his strength, his ability to cut

– is just has that attitude that’s so competitive that he’s going

to go out and be successful.

”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.”

Panthers fourth-year cornerback Captain Munnerlyn called Smith

is the best receiver he’s ever faced ”by far.”

”That’s great for me because I practice against him,”

Munnerlyn said. ”It makes the game on Sunday way easier for

me.”

Munnerlyn said he hasn’t seen Smith lose a step.

He said he’s still the quickest receiver on the roster and the

toughest to defend.

”He’s amazing. Being that age, he can still run.” Munnerlyn

said. ”That’s the scary part. Honestly it doesn’t seem like he’s

slowing down anytime soon.”

Former Tampa Bay and Carolina receiver Mark Carrier played in

the NFL until he was 32 and can’t imagine playing at the level

Smith is right now.

Carrier said at some point in time the body begins to wear down,

but Smith doesn’t seem affected by any of that.

”I think his competitiveness is what drives him,” Carrier

said.

Smith has made plenty of mistakes off the field during his time

in Carolina, but he’s matured into a team leader and captain.

He continues to pass his knowledge along to the younger

receivers on the roster.

”We’re all in awe of the way he plays,” said Panthers rookie

receiver Jared Green, a member of the team’s practice squad. ”But

he also gives us a systematic and academic approach to the game and

to our playbook. Without him, I don’t think we’d learn all of the

things we have as quick.”

As for his own future, Smith said he’s not sure how much longer

he’ll play.

But he’s not thinking about retirement.

He still likes playing.

But he loves proving people wrong even more.

”People will say well, he got (1,000 yards) but he’s lost a

step and he’s not that and he isn’t this,” Smith said. ”But there

aren’t too many 5-foot-9 receivers who are 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 said he’ll take time to savor this Sunday’s game against

San Diego as it serves as a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in

inner city Los Angeles, so he’ll have a rare opportunity to play in

front of his parents and some friends.

As for where he ends up, Smith said that’s a discussion for

another day.

”When I’m done playing I’ll sit on my porch with a little iced

tea in my hand,” Smith said. ”I will see where I end up when the

end comes.”

And until then?

”I’m just going to keep spinning that ball,” Smith said.

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