Prior to the start of the 2011 season, there was a lot of speculation regarding the future of Steve Smith in Carolina. The previous season was his worst statistically as a starter, recording 46 receptions for 554 yards and two touchdowns. The following offseason showed Smith putting his home up for sale, and the winds of trade talk engulfed the region.
Then the Carolina Panthers drafted Cam Newton out of Auburn. Newton and Smith soon began to establish a rapport with each other, and it seemed that the rookie's selection was instrumental in Smith remaining with the Panthers. The decision would turn out to be a good one. Smith had one of his best seasons in Carolina, hauling in 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. He would earn a trip to the Pro Bowl and later connect with Newton for a score in that game.
So, what will Smith do for an encore? The question of whether or not he would duplicate his numbers from last season in 2012 was mentioned in the previous post, “One Burning Question for Every Member of the Panthers.”
Smith is no stranger to putting up big numbers. Last year was the sixth time in his career he posted over a 1,000 yards receiving along with scoring at least six touchdowns. However, it was the first time he had posted those kind of stats with not only a new quarterback, but a rookie as well.
From 2002 (Smith's first year as a starter) to 2009, he was catching balls from former Panthers quarterback and hero Jake Delhomme. Smith had his best season ever in 2005 when he caught 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns. Smith had continued success the next four years. He averaged 62 catches and 1,143 yards between 2006 and 2009.
Despite putting up respectable numbers in 2009, in which he had 65 receptions for 982 yards and seven touchdowns, the Panthers released Delhomme and Smith found himself with what seemed like a different quarterback each week in 2010.
Smith struggled to put up numbers from the combined efforts of Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore and Brian St. Pierre in 2010. Everything changed when the Panthers selected Newton in the draft the following April.
Carolina did not have to wait long to see what kind of tandem the team of Newton and Smith would make, as they connected on a 77-yard score during the Panthers' second series against the Arizona Cardinals. Smith finished the game with eight receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns. The resurgence of Smith's career had begun.
Looking ahead to 2012, it is not out of the question that Smith can repeat or perhaps better his numbers from last year. The only two aspects that will keep him from having another great season will be missed games and not having the same chemistry with Newton.
One could argue that teams will concentrate their efforts primarily on Smith, but Newton has proved he has no problem distributing the ball to his other receivers. With that being said, Smith could possibly have a better season than last year and challenge his personal best if the other receivers prove to be as dangerous of a threat as he is on the field.
Smith's reputation has been a fiery and competitive one. He will not back down from anyone and cannot be intimidated. Despite being at a height disadvantage at 5'9", Smith possesses the ability to jump up and catch a ball. He is one of the elder statesmen of the team, entering his 12th season in the league, but at the age of 33 has shown no signs of slowing down.
He has matured greatly over the past few seasons. No longer is he the short-tempered, volatile receiver who was known for his altercations with his teammates, and he isn't one to let opposing defensive backs provoke him into an on-field fight. The latter was proved during the Panthers' first meeting with the New Orleans Saints after Roman Harper delivered a blindsided hit on Smith well after he scored a touchdown. Smith didn't let it phase him and was soon rallied around by his team.
There is no reason to question if he will repeat last year's success. He has the quarterback, the skill set and supporting cast to make it happen. He is still Carolina's playmaker and offensive captain. As long as Steve Smith wears the blue and black of Carolina, he will be a threat to any opposing secondary.