The Carolina Panthers are strongly considering making a big mistake—trading away wide receiver Steve Smith.
For all the uncertainty about Smith’s future—much of it warranted considering his age, recent decline and checkered past, two things about No. 89 have always been obvious. He’s arguably done more with less help than any receiver in recent memory. He also made it clear a long time ago that he’s a menace when backed into a corner.
Getting it done—without much help
He is one of just five players since 2002—Andre Johnson (twice), Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Randy Moss are the others—to haul in at least 1,563 yards receiving in a season. He piled up that many while playing for Carolina’s 17th-ranked passing attack in 2005. Johnson, Harrison, Holt and Moss each had the help of passing attacks that ranked among the league’s top four.
The fact that he’s slowed down the past two seasons has only proven that he probably can’t beat regular double and triple teams forever.
At his best with his back to the wall
Long before he was a pro, Smith had to make a name for himself first at a junior college, then at Utah, because many thought he was too short for big-time football.
With such a background came a chip on his shoulder that clearly isn’t going anywhere. Still upset with his status as a third-round rookie, he took the opening kickoff of 2001 to the house in his team’s only win that season.
He was dominant—averaging 101 receiving yards per game—in the playoffs in 2003 when he and his teammates were expected to lose to St. Louis, then to Philadelphia, and then to New England in the Super Bowl.
Two years later, the Bears and their top-ranked defense were expected to shut down Smith in the ’05 playoffs. He abused Chicago that day, piling up 218 yards and two touchdowns in one of the greatest single-game playoff efforts by a wide receiver in NFL history. That capped his emphatic return one year after an injury sidelined him for all but one game of 2004.
With everyone in the league wondering if he had any business in Carolina’s locker room after he sucker punched teammate Ken Lucas in the 2008 preseason, Smith responded with a 1,421-yard season—the third most in the NFL that year—despite missing the first two games due to suspension.
Be mindful of Moss
To see what a former superstar written off late in his career can do at his best, remember Randy Moss before his trade to the Pats and compare where he was in his career with where Smith is now. 2007 was Moss's ninth season. 2011 will be Smith's 11th. Smith’s total yardage in his past two seasons (1,536) is remarkably close to Moss’s two-year total (1,558) in '05 and '06.
Moss was dealt to the Patriots in 2007 for practically nothing. Using the 110th pick the Raiders received in exchange for him, Oakland selected corner John Bowie who never made any sort of impact. Because Smith is older than Moss was in 2006 and has a more pedestrian current career yards-per-catch average—his sits at 14.3, while Moss’s at the time of the trade was 15.8—Carolina would probably be very lucky to get so much as a fourth-rounder.
If Moss’s subsequent record-setting, 23-touchdown ’07 campaign in New England is any indication, trading Smith for so little at his current age could prove extremely regrettable.
Based on his last two seasons, nobody knows for sure if he can still play like one of the league’s elite. But it's certain Smith will be furious that the question has even been raised.
By now, Carolina should know better than anybody that no player in the league is more dangerous—or valuable—than Smith when he has critics to silence. The Panthers should keep this in mind and forget about getting rid of arguably the best player in franchise history any time soon.