As wide receiver Steve Smith raced toward the west end of Ericsson Stadium, his eyes focused on a cluster of Carolina Panthers fans cheering louder and louder as he came closer. Adjusting his stride before reaching the six-foot, three-inch-high retaining wall, he leaped into their arms, disappearing in the mass of crazed humanity. The Panthers had just beaten the Dallas Cowboys 29-10 in last Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff, and this was Smith's way of thanking the home crowd for its support. "I'd been hearing that our fans weren't feeling loved," he said in the locker room later. "So I wanted to show them a little love."
Smith already had given the fans plenty to celebrate. The big-play threat in a conservative, run-oriented offense, the third-year veteran out of Utah torched the Dallas secondary with a team-high five receptions for 135 yards. He set the tone early by turning a short catch into a 70-yard gain that led to a field goal, and his leaping 32-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter gave Carolina a comfortable 23-3 lead.
The Panthers will need more of the same from Smith when they hit the road to play the St. Louis Rams in an NFC divisional playoff this Saturday. Containing Carolina running back Stephen Davis, who rushed for 1,444 yards in 2003, is an essential element in every opponent's strategy, but shutting down the 5'9", 179-pound Smith has become just as important. He finished the season with career highs in receptions (88), yards (1,110) and touchdowns (seven).
It's a bit surprising that Smith evolved into such a dynamic offensive weapon this year. Taken in the third round of the 2001 draft, he used his raw speed to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl as a kick returner his rookie year, but as a receiver he lacked maturity on and off the field. He ran sloppy routes and dropped too many passes, finishing with just 10 catches. Once he realized that he could not rely on natural ability alone to get open, Smith became more diligent in his game preparation and execution. As a result he had 54 receptions in '02 and this year showed a knack for making the difficult reception in a crowd and for gaining valuable yards after the catch. However, he's still working on controlling his emotions. Last season he was arrested after an altercation with practice-squad player Anthony Bright during a film session. A misdemeanor assault charge against Smith was dismissed in November 2003, but he was suspended one game by the team and attended anger management classes. This season he lashed out at the organization because he felt slighted during negotiations for a contract extension, and then committed a costly personal foul when he kicked Houston Texans defensive end Jerry Deloach late in Carolina's 14-10 loss.
"I embarrassed myself, my family and the organization, and I learned I had to change," says Smith. "When you make mistakes that big, you're not going to repeat them because you simply can't afford to." At least one teammate sees a change for the better. "We don't have to calm him down as much during games," says center Jeff Mitchell. "We used to have to tell him to shut up a lot, because he would start talking crap to linemen we were trying to block."
Following his leap into the crowd, Smith led teammates on a victory lap around the field. He has every intention of making more noise this postseason. "People might not respect our offense in the playoffs, but we don't care," Smith said. "We're planning on breaking the door down."