In the past four years, the Panthers have brought in receiver after receiver, to audition for the role of taking the load off of Smith's shoulders. Mainly the big, tall, possession receivers who can block down field and make tough catches on third down, to complement the short, speedy guy who can stretch the field, make acrobatic catches, and somehow send guys twice his size into the turf with his stiff-arm.
On paper, it makes perfect sense. When building a team, ideally you want a quick guy who can sprint down the sidelines and make diving grabs, and a bulkier guy to make big blocks and tough catches in traffic. Why hasn't it worked?
Keyshawn Johnson was supposed to be that guy, as he had been so many times throughout his career, but he wasn't as effective as the Panthers had hoped so they cut him to bring in Dwayne Jarrett. This move was not helped by Keyshawn basically telling everyone something along the lines of "he's the same type of player I was! except younger and in the beginning of his career instead of older and rapidly declining!"
If any of us were to perform the way Jarrett has in the first two years of a new job, we would have been fired a long time ago. Fortunately for him, this is professional sports, where as long as you perform well enough in college you get a free pass to not care about doing anything for the first year or two. (Sean May has somehow stretched his "year or two" of doing nothing into "year or four" which is pretty rare.)
There was also DJ Hackett, who was a disappointing and eventually cut, and the return of Muhsin Muhammad, who through the process of elimination secured the number two spot for the 2008 season. Moose had a decent year for a guy his age, but he still wasn't creating as many plays for Smith as coaches and fans would have liked to have seen.
I have a couple simple theories why the Panthers haven't found that elusive complimentary receiver to draw defenders away from Smith so he doesn't have three guys molesting him in midair every time he goes up for the ball.
Delhomme has problems checking down and taking his eyes off the primary receiver. We see it all the time, every time he drops back in the pocket and stands around way too long, he's not scanning his eyes around the field, he's just waiting for Smith to shake his defenders and get open. (Which drives me crazy because his lack of mobility is frightening, and this usually results in a cringe-inducing sack or fumble, or both. I say "cringe-inducing" for two reasons, one because of the obvious loss of yardage or turnover, the other because for some reason watching Delhomme getting slammed to the turf by a huge black man is kind of like watching it happen to your dad or your friend's dad, or any average middle-aged white guy, it's just awkward and painful.)
I compare this to a game of backyard football with your friends. You're the quarterback and you've got three receivers, one is an athletic guy with good hands, the other two are fat. When you snap the ball, you never really pay any attention to the fat guys as they lumber around the field, even though the athletic guy has two or three defenders on him. You just wait as long as you possibly can for the athletic guy to run around until he's somewhat open, then you throw a bomb in his general direction.
This is what Delhomme does with Smith most of the time, especially if it's late in the game or an important, game-changing drive.
Think about it, when did Muhammad have his breakout season where he led the league in receiving yards? The season that eventually sent him to the Chicago Bears? It was 2004, when Smith was out for the season with a broken leg and he was the primary receiver. When Keyshawn Johnson showed promise in the beginning of the 2006 season, it was mainly during the first two weeks when Smith was out with a hamstring injury.
Did Moose really step up his game in 2008 when Smith was suspended two games for punching Ken Lucas? Or was he just reaping the benefits of being the Panthers primary receiver? Donte Rosario showed some promise in Smith's absence also, but he dropped off pretty quickly after that.
Speaking of Rosario, the Panthers haven't had an effective pass-catching Tight End since Wesley Walls. Fans keep waiting for either Rosario or Jeff King to step up and take some pressure of Smith, but maybe they just aren't getting enough looks to get into any sort of rhythm. It also explains why DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart aren't utilized as receivers coming out of the backfield as much as they probably should be.
The second part of my theory is actually much simpler than the first. I've already mentioned Steve Smith's ability to make amazing, jaw-dropping catches when it appears there's no way he could have made a play. I can't even begin to count the number of times he has bailed Delhomme out on big drives during big games. Maybe that's why his numbers are always so much higher when comparing them to the next guy. A wild, inaccurate pass thrown in Steve Smith's direction is actually a completion more times than not. A wild, inaccurate pass thrown any where else is just a wild, inaccurate pass that usually ends up bouncing off the turf or in the hands of a defensive back.
This brings me to another quick point: all these crazy, over the top catches that Smith is forced to make have to be taking a toll on his body and a few years off of his career. I mean, how many times have you seen him completely stretch out for a ball and come down awkwardly on his shoulder and just lay there for a few seconds? Or go up for a ball with two guys on him and get completely body-slammed into the turf? That's why I love the guy though, he literally puts his body on the line to catch any ball that comes anywhere near him at any time during the game.
Believe it or not, I'm not a Delhomme-hater, and I know I'm one of the very few Panther fans that can say that. I think having an emotional, fiery leader who has the respect of all of his teammates is more important than a lot of people realize. If you take away that disastrous playoff performance against Arizona, and I realize that's a lot to take away, the guy has been pretty clutch.
As I mentioned before, Smith has bailed him out countless times, but can you blame the guy for heaving one up in Smitty's direction? I would too, probably even more than Delhomme does. Which is why, barring a huge step up from Jarrett, I don't think the Panthers are going to find the perfect complementary receiver who draws attention away from Smith anytime soon.