Panthers Eager To See Smith Roar Back Into Action
By Blake Baxter
With a narrow victory over the Atlanta Falcons last weekend, the Carolina Panthers finished their regular season with a 12-4 record. Now, the team has something that it has not had a since the last week of September: a bye week. The win clinched the 2nd seed in the NFC, a prospect that seemed all but impossible during the Panthers last bye week. At that point in the season, Carolina was 1-2 and appeared to be a little bit of a mess. The team had a reputation for not being able to win close games, a shaky secondary that cost them in the first two weeks of the season and a coach who seemed to have a knack for playing it safe when his team needed to take chances the most.
But this was all from an outsider’s perspective. In reality, inside was a very confident locker room that believed wholeheartedly they could right the ship. The week before, the Panthers had absolutely pummeled the New York Giants, sacking QB Eli Manning seven times and shutting the offense out entirely. However, the week after the bye week, Carolina looked out of synch and unfocused as it flubbed away a winnable game to the Arizona Cardinals. Whatever team faces them in the divisional round will hope that that forgotten little piece of history will repeat itself. That seems unlikely, though, considering how good the Panthers were for the majority of the season. The January 2014 Panthers are a totally different team than the September 2013 Panthers.
With that being said, however, the Panthers have been without an important piece to their success as of late. He is expected to be back by the team's first playoff matchup, but veteran receiver Steve Smith missed the Atlanta game after being sidelined with a knee injury early in Carolina’s pivotal win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 16. Since then, Smith has not practiced with the team.
The Panthers were able to get by without him at the end of the season, but Smith will definitely be needed in the playoffs. This season, Smith amassed 64 receptions, 745 yards and four touchdowns. They are not the best numbers that he has put up in his career by any means. In fact, Smith's numbers have dropped the past two seasons. At the age of 34, it seems unlikely that they will go back up either. But Smith’s presence garners attention from opposing teams and opens up the field for other targets, such as TE Greg Olsen. In addition though, the Panthers are a young and largely inexperienced team. QB Cam Newton has had a strong season and even showed flashes of greatness, but he has never played a single playoff game. Not only has Smith been in the playoffs before, he has played in the Super Bowl. He is an invaluable part of the team, regardless of his current statistics.
Smith is already one of the best, if not the best player in the Panthers short history (just take a look at the Panthers’ Mount Rushmore). In 13 seasons, all of which have been played in Carolina, Smith has amassed enough receiving yards (12,197) to land in the Top 19 all-time and recorded enough receptions (836) to fall in the Top 25. His standout season came in 2005, when he recorded a career high in receptions (102), receiving yards (1,563) and touchdowns (12). But he was also very strong in 2003 during the Panthers fairytale run to the Super Bowl. In that season, Smith recorded 88 receptions for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns.
Smith has been a particularly strong performer in the playoffs. In the three seasons that Smith’s Panthers made the postseason (2004, 2006 and 2009), he recorded 47 receptions, 782 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games. If that trend continues, Smith will not only give the Panthers receiving corps a boost, but he will also add an exclamation point to his fine legacy. The Panthers can’t wait to have him back.