Carolina Panther Steve Smith "Braces" for a Great 2010

Rick WeaverCorrespondent IAugust 21, 2010

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 13:  Steve Smith #89 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates after he scored a 41-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter against the New England Patriots on December 13, 2009 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

If you are a football fan and have been anywhere near a television with ESPN or the NFL Network on, or if you have listened to much sports talk radio, then you probably know that Carolina Panthers wide receiver, Steve Smith, broke his arm this past offseason. 

If you have heard the reports about his arm, it is likely you have also heard his age mentioned.  Smith is now 31 years old. So why do writers and sportscasters like to throw in the fact Smith is now 31?  It may just be guilt by association.

Age means a lot in the NFL—for most positions, that is.  When a running back gets close to the dreaded 30-year-old mark, it usually means his career is near the end.  While some running backs do make NFL rosters into their early- to mid-30s, most do not. 

The toll on a running back's body is just too harsh.  After years of abuse, the running back's knees, ankles, and legs are usually not in very good shape when they reach the age of 30. 

Even for free-agent running backs who have reached 30 and are still capable of playing, teams tend to back away unless they find themselves desperately needing a running back.

A prime example is the NFL's eighth all-time leading rusher, LaDainian Tomlinson.  Better known as "LT," Tomlinson had a down season last year.  It just so happens that last season "LT" turned, you guessed it, 30 years old. 

After a mediocre season from LT, the San Diego Chargers simply cut the future Hall of Famer at the end of the season. 

After a month on the free agent market, Tomlinson was taken by the New York Jets to be a No. 2 or tandem back.  This meant for the first time in his career, Tomlinson would not be a starter. 

Now, Tomlinson is not the normal player.  He was cut after a season on which he scored 12 touchdowns and was still a viable player.  Most of the NFL's other running backs do not get the chance "LT" had.

In today's market, there is not one single starting running back who is 30 years old or older.  The closest thing the NFL has to an effective "30 something" running back who gets a lot of carries is Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, who is now 33 years old. 

The Miami second string or tandem back has had one thing very few NFL players ever get to have, and that was a two-season vacation. 

While Williams was out of football deciding the meaning of life, it seems as if he was able to save himself two years worth of wear and tear on his body, thus making his so-called "playing age" like that of a 31-year-old man.

Again, Williams is not the "norm" and at 33 he is anomaly in today's NFL. 

With all of the age emphasis in football seeming to be on the 30-year-old milestone, a lot of players have gotten lumped into the age discussion when they should not be. 

Some NFL linemen play into their 30s at a high level, there have been members of defensive secondaries who have played their best football into their 30s, and there is no need to even mention Bret Favre.

NFL kickers are commonly in their middle to late 30s when they have some of their most productive seasons. Kickers take little to no abuse. 

Smith's own Panthers teammate, the soon to be 41-year-old John Kasay, is still a very effective kicker.  While no longer handling kickoff duties, Kasay is still considered a top kicker.

In the first 2010 preseason game, Kasay had a productive night, going 2-for-2 with his longest field goal of the night being a 45-yarder with distance to spare.

But kickers never get thrown into to the "30 years old means the end" conversation like most NFL players do.

But the fact is, the wide receiver position is one of those positions where some of the receiver's most productive years do not even occur until the players are well into their 30s. 

As a matter of fact, some of the NFL's greatest wide receivers were into their 30s before they had their very best seasons. So, the next time you hear Steve Smith is 31 years old, think to yourself, this man is just now hitting his prime.

If Smith's new quarterback, Matt Moore, can pick up where he left off last season and if Smith can avoid using his twice-broken arm as a pry bar, then Smith may just be in line for one of his better seasons as a pro.

Though there are no starting running backs over 30 in the NFL, some of the NFL's better starting wide receivers are in the "30-something" age group.

Names like Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Donald Driver, Derrick Mason, Hines Ward, and soon to be "30-somethings" Andre Johnson (29) and Wes Welker (29) are all receivers who gained over 1,000 receiving yards last season.

If Steve Smith needs one statistic to hang his hopes on for a great 2010 season, it is the fact that two of the top four wide receivers in the NFL had an average age of 30.5 years old. 

Also, half of the top 10 wide receivers are between the ages of 29-34 years old. So, the average age for half or five of the top 10 wide receivers in the NFL is 31.2 years old.  Does that sound like a number Steve Smith knows?  You bet he does. 

If Smith's fans who are still doubters need a little more to chew on in order to feel good, then some of the following facts may help pump you up to watch for one of No. 89's biggest seasons to be on the horizon.

Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. Rice led the NFL in receiving yards and yards per game from the ages of 31-33.

When Rice was 31 years old, he led the NFL in receiving yards, touchdowns, and yards per game and was named the "AP's Offensive Player of the Year." 

Rice went on to have his greatest season for receiving yards (1,848) when he was 33 years old and he had his greatest season for total receptions (108) when he was 34 years old. In fact, Rice was not finished yet. Rice went on to post 1,211 receiving yards at the age of 40!

Even Steve Smith's mentor and former teammate, Mushin Muhammad, led the NFL in receiving when he reached the ripe old age of 31. 

Muhammad was followed that season by the league's second-rated wide receiver, Joe Horn.  Horn just happened to be a year older than Muhammad at 32 years old.

Actually, the list of accomplishments for wide receivers producing some of their most productive seasons on into their 30s is a long one. 

So, as far as worrying about the Panthers' greatest wide receiver entering his 10th season at 31 years of age—it is probably just a waste of time. 

Smith has a passion for the game like very few others do.  While many NFL superstars are vacationing in exotic locations during the offseason, Smith was locked up in a tightly contested game of flag football in 98 degree heat, on a south Charlotte YMCA field. 

Unfortunately, that passion caused Smith to miss his team's recent training camp as he re-broke his arm while trying to catch himself after diving for a pass.

The only real concern for Smith going into this season was whether his arm would be healed in time for the first game.  By all accounts, the arm is fully healed and Smith is already receiving passes, but not taking any hits just yet. 

To be sure a helmet to the arm hit would not re-injure Smith's arm, the Panthers' head trainer, Ryan Vermillion, came up with a rigid Kevlar molded forearm brace for Smith to wear this season. 

The padded brace is strong enough to stop a bullet, so the chances look good for Smith's arm to absorb almost anything some free safety may want to throw at it  this season. 

With the Panthers' schedule being what it is and with the seemingly new stability surrounding the once-erratic play at quarterback, I would tend to believe Smith has the makings of a banner year ahead of him.


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