Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith came into the NFL in 2001. That year, his team went 1-15, and his primary quarterback was Chris Weinke. Two seasons later, the Panthers ended their season just four points short of a Super Bowl victory, as they missed winning Super Bowl XXXVIII by that much — losing the game, 32-29, on yet another of those heartbreaking last-second Adam Vinatieri field goals.
Through the next few years, Smith was as good as any receiver in the league. His best year may have been 2005, when he almost singlehandedly pulled up an average offense to meet a great defense halfway. Carolina lost the NFC championship game to the Seattle Seahawks.
Smith had a Pro Bowl season in 2008, when he caught 78 passes for 1,421 yards and six touchdowns, but the decline of the Panthers' offense in 2009 and 2010 scuttled his numbers to a large degree. Smith's 2010 season must have been a nasty flashback to that 2001 year, with Jimmy Clausen playing the part of Weinke and the Panthers finishing 2-14. He caught just 46 passes for 554 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games for an offense that looked decidedly Division III.
That rough year had Smith saying in the offseason that he wanted to be traded to a contender, but after meeting with general manager Marty Hurney this week, Smith now says that he wants to be a "Panther for life."
"For me I'm always going to be a Panther," Smith told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Thursday. "They took a shot on me when I was coming from nowhere and now I'm going into my 11th year in the league. This will be where I retire, whether that's five years from now or one year from now."
Taken in the third round of the 2001 draft out of Utah, Smith took the hard way up, and is now looking to give back. When I interviewed him in mid-July, he talked about how having a young team around him would increase his responsibilities as a mentor.
One of those young players is first overall pick Cam Newton, the hyper-talented but very raw quarterback from Auburn. And when recently asked by Steve Wyche of the NFL Network how he wanted the Smith situation to work out, Newton proved that he's no fool.
"He's extremely credible around the NFL and everybody knows about Steve Smith's situation. I'm going on to say that I really want — and not just me; so many people around the organization want Steve back. I don't know how else to put it; I put it so many different ways I'm about to speak foreign languages trying to get Steve back. But he's an excellent guy, excellent human being, extremely competitive. After talking to him and working out with him, he's just at a crossroads right now. I will respect him whichever decision that he makes, and hopefully that decision is to stay in Carolina."
Well, good news for a fan base hoping for a major turnaround — not only have the Panthers spent major coin to retain stars like Charles Johnson, James Anderson and DeAngelo Williams, but Steve Smith is coming back … and it looks to be for good.