It’s Good to be a . . . Panther?

Headed for a critical game with the Niners, Carolina is in playoff position for the first time in years, and for veteran wideout Steve Smith the feeling can’t be better

Steve Smith is on pace for just under 700 receiving yards, but the Panthers' success gives him plenty of reasons to smile. (Mike McCarn/AP)
Steve Smith is on pace for just under 700 receiving yards, but the Panthers’ success gives him plenty of reasons to smile. (Mike McCarn/AP)

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.

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.

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.

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25 comments
gary41
gary41

Both Carolina & the Niner's have had success recently against weaker opponents.  Defensively, Lotulelei has been a rock at right DT & with  Kuechly at MLB the Niner's are going to have a real problem running the ball & even against weaker opposition, they have not passed anything close to OK.  Kaepernick has become a mobile game manager--good enough with strong play elsewhere.  Maybe he will improve with Manningham coming on board, but this is not likely in the near term.  Crabtree has been cleared for practice, but is not likely to play any games right away.  In any case, this game is just as important for the Niner's as for the Panthers.    

unitcaptain11
unitcaptain11

It's either a huge Panthers win, or another W for the Niners as they keep on rolling. This one better be on tv!

Luckily, I have red zone. If you are a fan and don't have it, get it.  It costs me another 8 bucks a month, and I get all the other sports channels along with it.

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

What is interesting about the Jack Del Rio storyline? Is this the same Jack Del Rio of the awful Jaguars?

Peyton Manning is going to ignore him the whole game if he wants to win.


Curtis
Curtis

@John64 the 49ers win record against opponents is 18-31, and they have beaten one team with winning record, I'm not saying they are a bad team by any means, but how can you trash the panthers when the teams the 49ers have beaten are not all that impressive.

John64
John64

Whoopee, the Panthers five wins have come against the 2-6 Giants, 2-7 Vikings, 3-6 Rams, 0-8 Bucs and 2-6 Falcons.  That's five opponents with a combined 9-33 record.  I've got news for anyone who is actually thinking the Panthers are winning anything this year: Get a clue.  See how they do against the 49ers, Patriots and Saints and then get back to me.

bulletrico
bulletrico

The niners are a couple of notches above this team and anything they have seen so far... Easy win for the niners...

ccinva
ccinva

Homer fan, not a fan of Santana Moss.  But that was a tough catch, and he was about two inches from having the right foot still down when he caught it.   And contrary to what the NFLN broadcast team said, he did maintain posession all the way to the ground, so that couple of inches was the difference between a TD and an incomplete pass.   Ball comes out a split-second sooner from RG3, and that's a TD, so I don't think it's fair to put it all on the WR.   The real injustice on that series was the mugging the Vikings defender was giving Jordan Reed two plays earlier.   Kind of hard to catch the ball when the guy's trying to pull your jersey off.   One penalty for seven yards on the Vikings the entire game (a second was declined on a Cassel throwaway).   I agree with Shanny the the 'Skins shot themselves in the foot with some dumb penalties, but to only one call the entire game against the home team?   C'mon ref!   If you're going to call a bogus helmet-to-helmet on the 'Skins, you've got to call it when the Vikings D goes for knockout shots on Griffin.   Also notable was that AP had a lot more holes to run through when the Vikings O-Line realized in the second half they could grab as much jersey as they wanted without getting a holding flag.

The other problem was Shanny/Shanny Jr. stopped feeding the rock to Morris in the second half for some unknown reason.   The guy had over 100 yards in the first half, and had the Vikings front seven demoralized and sucking air.   You're up by two TDs to start the second half, so obviously it's time to go to the cutsie passes and bootlegs that nearly got your star QB killed.   Nice.

NickWilliams
NickWilliams

Why would Steve Smith be talking about Kaepernick with his other receivers? Last I checked, he was a QB, NOT a cornerback. C'mon Peter, where did that disconnect come from? Also, anyone who has watched the Panthers can tell you that the secondary is not led by Captain Munnerlyn. If anything, he is most likely to get beaten. Get it together, man!

Rumrunner11
Rumrunner11

@unitcaptain11Haha - 'It's either a huge Panthers win, or another W for the Niners as they keep on rolling'

Well, that's generally how it works, isn't it.

gary41
gary41

@mgranadosv What in the world are you talking about??  Jack Del Rio was as good a coach for the Jaguars as they could have expected.  Look at the record since.  He's a top defensive coordinator for Denver, which had been a revolving DC door for years.  He is a valuable and very necessary coach for that staff.  The concern in Denver is that he might seek another HC job elsewhere.  Obviously, he has nothing whatever to do with coaching Peyton Manning.  Before making a comment about Jack Del Rio, do a little reading and educate yourself.....     

pickle
pickle

@mgranadosv Actually when Jack Del Rio coached the Jaguars they were about as good as you could expect with their roster, they almost made the playoffs a couple times. They didn't become truly terrible until he left. Besides, he is a defensive coach anyway so will not be too involved with Peyton.

jayb674
jayb674

@John64 did you just really say that.. i'll give you Green Bay as a good team win but 5 of the 49ers wins were Rams, Texans, Cardinals, Titans, and the very good Jaguars.. i mean really dude.. 

JackCarpenter
JackCarpenter

And how many games of the panthers have you watched this year to determine that?

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@bulletrico The very same thing was said in week 2 and 3 and how did that work out for the niners?

JackWilliams
JackWilliams

@ccinva Moss was juggling the ball as he went OOB. The NFLN team meant that HAD he gotten two feet down, he was juggling the ball at that instant. The rule says you have to have possession all the way to the ground - and juggling is not considered possession. I agree that the Skins should have pounded the rock in the 2nd half as they were doing it very well.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@NickWilliams you need to wake up before using a computer. Typing in your  sleep not recommended. 

ROLL TIDE1
ROLL TIDE1

@NickWilliams it said "watched every pass against 49ers" Steve was watching how the DB's play the opposing WR's......& giving tips to Ted & Brandon how to react & get open.    COMONNNNNNNNN MANNNNNNNN

4Duke
4Duke

@NickWilliams where does it say anything about kaepernick..? or the SF receivers? i don't see it in the article at all. get it together, man!

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@jayb674 @John64 Titans and Cardinals are good teams. Niners haven't just beaten these guys they've rolled them. Same with the Panthers for that matter.    For all you naysayers, the mark of a great team is the ability to consistently dominate inferior teams.  

ccinva
ccinva

@JackWilliams @ccinva I will admit when watching the replay (only watched it once, as I was disgusted with the result, and it was late) I mainly was watching Moss' feet, but I didn't notice him juggling it.   He did fall on his back with the ball clutched to his chest, so he had it firmly by then.  Not sure how firmly he did or didn't have it as he was trying to toe-tap, but it's moot anyway without both feet down.   Either way, I don't think PK is being entirely fair on Moss, that was a tough catch at best, and unless he ran the route wrong, the ball was late coming out for him to be that close to the sideline. 

But it should have never come to that.   They completely went away from what was working in the first half.  Not gettting a TD when they had the ball at the 1 in the first quarter also hurt.   Sure would've been easier to only need a field goal at the end.

NickWilliams
NickWilliams

It was in paragraph 7 this morning. I was the first commentor. It has since been edited. PK wrote of Kaepernick's sacks and scrambles.

Rumrunner11
Rumrunner11

@WCoastPro @jayb674 @John64 Yet the original poster was using the exact opposite logic - that the Panthers hadn't beaten anyone good - as you just said in defending the Niners

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