SPARTANBURG, S.C. – For Steve Smith, his psychic departure from the Carolina Panthers began during the middle of the dismal 2010 season, when the frustrated wideout was openly discussing the prospect of relocation with several of his NFL peers.
As the Panthers, owners of the NFL's lowest-rated passing offense, sputtered through a lifeless, 2-14 campaign, opposing players offered Smith condolences and made outright overtures for his services.
"I had guys telling me, 'Hey, come over to my team, we could use you over here,' " Smith recalled Tuesday from Wofford College, the Panthers' training camp home. "This was during games."
Was the receiver receptive? "No comment," Smith said, laughing.
It's no secret that, emotionally, Smith is in a much better place now, as he prepares to begin his 12th NFL season. Though he retains the fury, defiance and unrelenting passion that has helped the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder become one of the premier pass-catchers of his generation, Smith is using words like "fun" to describe his current situation.
Smith, coming off his fifth Pro Bowl campaign – and first since 2008 – signed a three-year contract extension (with a fourth-year club option) in April that theoretically should allow him to finish his career with the Panthers. In a conversation outside the team's dining hall Tuesday afternoon, he gushed about second-year coach Ron Rivera, second-year quarterback Cam Newton and all things Carolina, saying he believes this team can "hopefully [go] to the Super Bowl. Why not?"
Given the way Smith felt as recently as 13 months ago, this is a change of direction more dramatic than any of the 4G-quick cuts the receiver has made during his highly productive career.
Not many outsiders saw this coming. Before last season's revival, he arguably wasn't even considered the league's best Steve Smith; his fellow receiver and namesake, now with the St. Louis Rams, caught 107 passes for 1,220 yards for the New York Giants in 2009.
As the Panthers' 2010 season unraveled, with Smith's numbers (46 catches, 554 yards, two TDs) far below his career standard, his flight instinct grew increasingly pronounced.
Late that season, according to Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen, Smith went to the home of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to request a trade, preferably to the Chargers or Ravens. The Panthers attempted to accommodate his request but failed to get an offer which the organization believed constituted market value.
After the season, Richardson fired head coach John Fox and replaced him with Rivera, whose first conversation with the unhappy wideout was somewhat promising.
"Steve was funny," Rivera recalls of the conversation. "He did all of his homework. He called other players who I've coached or who've been around me. He said, 'You know, I've talked to some of my guys about you – I'm impressed.' I told him to do some thinking and that we'd see where we stood after the lockout."
When the collective bargaining agreement expired in March of 2011 and the owners locked out the players, Smith was still in Peace Out mode. Pro Football Weekly reported that before the lockout, Smith had cleaned out his locker at Bank of America Stadium and taken down decorations in the luxury suite where his family members and friends watched Panthers games.
Looking back, Smith defends his decision to try to force his way out of Carolina.
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"To be honest, I was leery about a lot of things," he says. "It's not necessarily that I didn't want to rebuild – it's just that in this game you have a short opportunity. The day that I can't catch a football or run a route, they're gonna take Old Yeller behind the barn and blow his brains out – right?
"So why is it any different – as we call this a business – to [question the] product, to expect the assembly line to have efficient workers? The only thing I wanted to do is play football. Would you say the 2010 Carolina Panthers were a football team? I don't know what it was; all I know is it wasn't football. And so I wanted to get an opportunity, and I think not just me, other guys. There are a lot of guys who wanted to play ball."
The Panthers used the No. 1 overall pick on Newton last year, and the Heisman Trophy winner immediately began lobbying for Smith to stay, in conspicuous fashion. To Newton, this was a no-brainer.
"I mean Steve Smith is Steve Smith," Newton, the 2011 NFL offensive rookie of the year, said Wednesday. "He will go down always as a Carolina great, and for him to leave here would be a travesty and a mockery."
Newton's promise clearly made an impact upon Smith, who had publicly taken his quarterback to task late in the 2010 season, saying of then-rookie Jimmy Clausen, "He ain't at Notre Dame anymore."
He also warmed to the presence of Rivera and his new offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski. In retrospect, Smith displays no love for Fox or his departed assistants, suggesting that his ex-coaches were responsible for escalating the perceived conflict between him and the organization.
"I think the old regime did a very good job of planting whatever seed they wanted to plant," Smith says. "Things have to grow from somewhere. The seed doesn't just sprout up by itself, does it? … I know for a fact that things were said that I'll just say were interesting.
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"The one thing that I do know is a lot of people have rightfully said things about me and cast their opinions. And my actions have at times really fed into that – people say, 'Oh yeah, that's the kind of guy he is.' But I think people have used that as an opportunity sometimes to say things. I look at that and I just go, 'Hmmm, OK.' "
Fox, now the Denver Broncos' head coach, responded via text message: "He made a lot of plays and I wish him the best!"
Smith's best was on display in 2011, when he caught 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. "The lockout helped," Smith says. "It was good to get away."
Once the labor dispute ended, Smith quickly settled his differences with the Panthers. After sitting down with Rivera and telling his coach, "I'm all in," Smith tore it up in training camp and kept it rolling. Beginning with a 77-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of Carolina's first game, Smith helped Newton produce perhaps the best-ever statistical season by a rookie quarterback.
"We are a pretty young team, and he can show the young guys the ropes, and give guys like Cam confidence," Panthers halfback Jonathan Stewart says of Smith. "My first time seeing Steve Smith practice I said, 'This man is born to play football.' That's what I hope to look like when I'm his age. He's a big part of this organization. He brings a lot to the table – personality, enthusiasm and, of course, talent."
Says Newton: "He's unbelievable, man. He's more than a teammate to me; he's a big brother. And he just keeps me on the beaten path a lot of times."
Rivera believes Smith's path to the top of his profession after being drafted in the third round out of Utah in 2001 is the product of diligent work on the practice field.
"In practice, there are no easy catches with Steve," Rivera says. "On the balls that you'd think would be right to him, he'll spin, or fall away from the ball and try to catch it back behind his body, or take a different angle and lunge at it. It took awhile, but I finally figured it out and told him, 'I'm onto you – you don't make the easy catch in practice; you're trying to make the hard catch.' I'm telling you, some of the catches in practice would make ESPN's Top 10."
Meanwhile, Smith continues to move up on the NFL's career receiving charts. Last season he became the 35th player in league history to accumulate 10,000 receiving yards – he finished the season with 10,278, along with 699 receptions, both franchise records. And while he has had his share of incidents that damaged his reputation, including the infamous practice-field punch he delivered to the nose of then-teammate Ken Lucas during the 2008 preseason, Smith can hardly be dismissed as a bad seed. Last month he pledged to donate $100,000 to the victims of the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater mass shooting.
If Smith is driven by a desire to improve his public image, he isn't letting on, insisting, "The only thing that's driving me is just to have fun. That's one thing about this offense – it's fun. Any offense where the ball is being moved, it becomes fun."
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Smith took no offense to the Charlotte Observer ad taken out last month by veteran center Ryan Kalil, his fellow Panthers Pro Bowl selection, predicting a Super Bowl victory for a team that went 6-10 in 2011.
"I love what Kalil did, because I think it was the right person, and it was calculated, and he did his research and [due] diligence," Smith said Tuesday. "And why is there anything wrong with saying, 'Hey, I want to win a Super Bowl'? All 32 teams, when they open up training camp, believe that they have the right chemistry to win a Super Bowl."
So, um, did the 2010 Panthers?
"Exactly," he said, laughing. "You find out real quickly, about two-to-three games in. You go, 'You know what? It's a great thought, but it ain't gonna work out.' "
Thanks partly to the lockout – and to the efforts of Rivera and Newton – Smith and the Panthers were able to work out their differences. And other than the opposing defenders who tried to recruit Smith in 2010, just about everyone is glad they did.
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