Stretching after practice Thursday in Charlotte, indestructible 34-year-old Panthers receiver Steve Smith found himself looking at the sky and thinking about how long it’s been since he was in a meaningful game this late in the season.
“I’m literally laying there,” Smith told me an hour after the stretch, “and I’m looking up, and this thought came to me: It’s good to be a Carolina Panther.
“You know how great that is? You know how great it is to go through a two-hour practice and instead of thinking the work I did today is not just because I signed a contract, but because we actually have a chance? Nothing to a football player is more degrading than going into a game hoping things don’t blow up into a disaster in the first quarter, or, for me, wondering if I’m going to catch more than one pass today. You start thinking, What did I do to deserve this?”
Not this weekend. For the first time in five years, the Panthers are least two games over .500 after eight games. (They were 6-2 then; they’re 5-3 now.) And just like in 2008 they go to the West Coast for game nine, hoping to stay relevant in the NFC playoff race. In 2008 it was a trip to Oakland and a 17-6 win en route to a 12-4 season—the last time Carolina made the playoffs. This year it’s a trip to face mighty San Francisco (and well-rested San Francisco, coming off its bye) in what is by far the glamour game of the weekend. Carolina is one game behind New Orleans in the NFC South. With New England and two Saints games on the schedule in the second half in addition to the 49ers, the Panthers will have to win one or two of these four challenge games to be serious contenders down the stretch.
Strange, obviously, to see Carolina in the game of the weekend. But watching the Panthers the last month, it’s no fluke they’ve won four straight. Led by a maturing quarterback, Cam Newton, Carolina’s playing efficiently on offense (“Whatever works, we use, and right now, it’s all working,” said Smith) without as much deep throwing as Newton is used to. On defense, a strong pass rush (Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson); a star-in-the-making defensive tackle in Star Lotulelei; an instinctive middle ’backer, Luke Kuechly; and an improving coverage group led by cornerback Captain Munerlyn have led the way. Who could have imagined, after the struggles of last season, and after the endless search to find a wideout partner for Smith so the Panthers didn’t have to overwork their running backs, that they’d have scored 35, 30, 31 and 34 points in a four-game middle-of-the-season stretch? Average margin in those four wins: 20.5 points.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. “Think about it,” Smith said. “It’s been five years since we were in this position. Cam’s in some college somewhere—Florida, Blinn [junior college], I don’t know. [Newton was a Florida sophomore in 2008.] Star’s probably just getting out of high school then. He’s probably working some after-school job. Luke’s trying to become a great college player. Those guys have become key guys for us, and they’re all so young.”
Smith turned into a player-coach a couple times this week. During walk-through sessions before practice he stepped across from his fellow Panthers receivers and said, “This is what I see from the film.” He showed Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., among others, what he’d picked up from studying San Francisco’s cornerbacks. Smith said he watched every pass thrown against the Niners this year, and picked up some tips about the San Francisco corners that he passed along to his receiving mates.
I asked Smith if the Panthers were ready for a game of this magnitude.
“I think this team is ready to play a game like this,” he said. “The intensity of it will be good for some of our young players. It’ll wake some of them up. I think it’ll be a chippy game, which is in my element. Good old-fashioned football.”
The key, to me, will be Carolina playing as well against Frank Gore as it has against the rest of the league’s backs in the first half of the season. If Carolina can duplicate its 3.7 yards-per-opponents-rush, the Panthers have a chance to open all the eyes that are still closed on this team.
About Last Night …
Minnesota 34, Washington 27. Could there have been a more agonizing loss for Robert Griffin III? Who, by the way, gets very little of the blame for this loss? Second-and-goal from the Minnesota 4-yard-line, 38 seconds left, Vikes up 34-27. Three straight balls Griffin puts on the hands of his receivers. Two incompletions, and one in which Santana Moss catches but can’t get both feet down in the end zone. Washington is 3-6, with San Francisco and Kansas City on the sked in the next month. Not promising.