Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has never been shy about getting in the face of an opponent – usually a defensive player who’s bigger than he is – to make a point.
But it was Smith’s pointed words to teammates last month that have resonated with a Panthers’ team in the midst of its best season in five years.
A few days after a 22-6 loss at Arizona left the Panthers at 1-3 and with the prospects of another playoff-dooming slow start, Smith asked players to stick around after a Wednesday practice and told them something had to change.
The Panthers (7-3) have reeled off six consecutive wins since Smith’s practice-field speech and are aiming for their first playoff berth since 2008.
Smith’s receiving numbers and yards-per-catch average might be down, but the fiery, 5-foot-9 wideout remains the Panthers’ emotional leader.
Smith was reluctant to get into the particulars of what he said that October day. But the basic message was if the Panthers didn’t start winning, the front office would make changes.
“It was more about what we are and how hard we have worked. And understanding ultimately what would happen to us if things don’t change,” Smith said Thursday.
Free safety Mike Mitchell said Smith talked for about five or 10 minutes, and left an impression.
“When Smitty says something, he’s a passionate guy, it resonates with you,” Mitchell said. “And everything he said I thought was real. I think everybody on our team understood the message. And we’ve won every game since.”
Smith’s 13th season with the Panthers – he’s their longest-tenured player – has had its ups and downs. He dropped a touchdown pass early in the loss at Arizona, and has seen his average dip to 11.1 yards per catch – 5 yards fewer than his 2012 average.
But Smith remains the Panthers’ leading receiver with 46 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns, and came up with key receptions the past two weeks in wins against San Francisco and New England.
Smith, 34, said he feels fortunate to be among the few remaining active players from the draft class of 2001.
“Yeah, I’m out of my prime as far as catching 100 passes or 90 passes for 1,700 yards or 1,500 yards,” Smith said. “But I displayed last week I can still run, I can catch the deep ball when I get the opportunity.”
Smith got behind Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib for a season-long, 42-yard catch Monday night that was the big play on the Panthers’ first touchdown drive. But most of the TV highlights replayed Smith’s shoving and facemask-grabbing matches with Talib, which started when Talib held on to Smith’s leg well after the whistle following a Smith reception.
Some critics point to Smith’s in-game antics – the trash-talking, the celebratory ball-spins – as showboating or taunting. But Smith’s teammates and coaches say they like the way he plays – and that’s all Smith cares about.
“I know at times people feel, ‘He’s too extra or he does this too much, he does that,’ ” Smith said. “At the end of the day, those people’s opinions don’t carry as much weight as the guys that are in here that depend on me.”
Smith, who grew up in Los Angeles and played collegiately at Utah, said his aggression stems from what a former teammate once called a “Napoleon complex.”
“I enjoy playing the game, and I’ve always played it aggressive,” he said. “When I was younger playing in junior college and high school, I always had to do a little extra because, as they say, I’m not the tallest. So I always took pleasure in blocking and trying to do extra things.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Smith fires up the Panthers with his style of play.
“He lifts the sideline up,” Shula said. “He’s physical, he’s explosive, he’s sudden. That’s two weeks in a row where he’s come up with some big plays for us to help us win.”