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2006 NFL PREVIEW

No Longer a Common Name

Carolina's Steve Smith is probably league's best receiver, but remains temperamental.

September 03, 2006|Mike Cranston | Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Smith has two tattoos on his arm. One is of the square-jawed Superman, the other of the force-of-nature Tasmanian Devil.

Fitting for the complex star of the Carolina Panthers, who is perhaps the top receiver in the NFL, but also one of the league's most temperamental players.

While Dallas' Terrell Owens is the league's most talked-about receiver, Smith enters the 2006 season as the most feared. He had 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, becoming the first player since Sterling Sharpe in 1992 to lead the NFL in all three categories.

"He's got to be the best receiver right now, just from what he was able to do by himself last year," new teammate Keyshawn Johnson said. "Everyone knew they were going to throw him the football, and they couldn't do anything about it."

There's no sign success has robbed Smith of the chip on his shoulder that helped turn the 5-foot-9 receiver into a dominant force.

During his lone session with Panthers beat reporters since training camp began, Smith -- who has missed most of the preseason because of a strained left hamstring and an ingrown toenail that required stitches -- spoke with typical sarcasm.

After a reporter joked the session had gone smoothly, Smith shot back with, "Sure, I'd much rather talk to you than my wife and kids."

"When I pulled my hamstring, it was stressful," he continued. "You're all making a big fuss because I don't want to talk about the same stuff we're talking about today -- the rhetorical questions."

On the field, Smith is expert at turning the smallest perceived slight by an opponent into motivation.

"He's obviously highly competitive. That's his personality," Panthers receivers coach Richard Williamson said. "He's always been that way. He knows what he wants to do and he knows how to get it. When he studies film and looks at defensive backs, he gets himself cranked up."

Sometimes when Smith gets cranked up, bad things happen. The Panthers suspended him for one game in 2002 after he broke teammate Anthony Bright's nose in a fight during a receivers meeting. Last season, he was ejected from a key late-season game against Dallas after grabbing an official to protest what he thought was a late hit.

Of course, that fighting spirit is what allows Smith to routinely come up with the ball when two taller defensive backs are draped over him.

"He has the ability to do some unnatural things," Johnson said. "He plays like he's 6-4, 220. To me, that's impressive. He's fun to watch. I can't wait to see him in person."

Smith, 27, has spent much of his life in the role of the underdog. Growing up in Los Angeles, Smith was a speedy but undersized receiver and had to attend junior college before transferring to Utah.

He had four punt returns for touchdowns with the Utes, but wasn't taken until the third round of the 2001 draft.

Smith quickly made a mark with Carolina as a kickoff and punt returner and was the only rookie elected to the Pro Bowl that season. He earned a starting job in 2002 and had a breakout year in 2003, helping the Panthers reach the Super Bowl.

After missing all but one game in 2004 because of a broken leg, Smith was dominant last season, despite being nearly the only option in Carolina's passing game. No other Panthers receiver caught more than 25 passes.

"Steve became such a force last year that teams handled him in such a way that everything else dominoed," Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning said. "Steve is the only one that people would change the defense for."

Seattle defeated Carolina in the NFC championship game largely by using double and triple teams to shut down Smith. Not wanting to be so one-dimensional again, the Panthers signed another volatile receiver in the offseason, the 34-year-old Johnson. That has prompted questions about how he and Smith will coexist.

Johnson, approaching the end of his career, thinks it's a non-issue.

"I've been the president before. I'm just a consultant now. My term is over," Johnson said. "I'm just here to try to help Carolina win the championship so I'll get another one. If you start battling people over who is going to catch more balls, it will drive a stake through the team. That's not what we're trying to do here. Our goal is to be in Miami at the beginning of the year to play an AFC team for a world title."

Johnson's addition gives quarterback Jake Delhomme more options, but Smith remains his top target.

"He's a great player. He's somebody that can change a game," Delhomme said. "He had a mark on himself after the first two or three games of the season last year. He did pretty well then."

Since Johnson's signing, Smith has bristled at questions about their relationship. But at a Wednesday luncheon attended by fans and sponsors, Smith joked when he was asked if he can duplicate last year's statistics.

"I think I can, but we've got Keyshawn, so it probably won't happen," said Smith, drawing laughs from the audience. "But I think he's going to help get us where we want to get and that is winning the trophy, the Lombardi Trophy."

Since the film-room fight with Bright four years ago, Smith has gone to great lengths to improve his image off the field. He has set up several charitable organizations, serves as a youth soccer coach for his son and signed hundreds of autographs for fans during training camp.

But it doesn't take much to rub him the wrong way. Just ask if he's worried about missing so much of training camp.

"A year and a half ago I sat around for 10 months [after the broken leg]. I'm not going to say I'm used to it, but it's part of the game," Smith said. "If you can't deal with or overcome things that happen, then I guess I'd be a reporter."

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