CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers receiver Steve Smith said there was a time when he was consumed by his goals, one of them being making the Hall of Fame.
Make no doubt it; he’d still love to wind up there.
But the 12-year NFL veteran has mellowed some, taking a little more time to enjoy the twilight of the NFL career as he quietly strives to become the first player ever drafted by the Panthers to make it to Canton, Ohio.
“When you are so focused on goals you start to miss other things,” Smith said. “So I’m enjoying not missing the other things. I’ll allow the other things to be discussed when I’m done playing.”
In the meantime, the 33-year-old Smith plans to continue to spin the ball after catches and irritate defensive backs who attempt to shut him down.
That’s no easy task.
Smith’s latest 100-yard receiving game Sunday against Atlanta was the 43rd of his career, putting him in the top 10 in NFL history.
He currently ranks 26th all-time with 11,277 yards receiving and 32nd in receptions (759). He needs 197 catches and 2,500 yards receiving to move into the top 10 in both categories.
Those around him believe he’s more than capable of reaching those marks with a few more seasons playing alongside Cam Newton.
“He still plays like he’s 22,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Despite being at the tail end of his career, Smith is still Carolina’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver.
He leads the Panthers in receptions and enters Sunday’s game against San Diego one yard shy of his seventh 1,000-yard receiving season. When Newton needs a big play, more often than not he’s looking Smith’s way.
And how can you blame him?
“You know what’s interesting about Steve is the way he practices,” Rivera said. “He still practices so hard and you actually have to ask him to take reps off. ... Then he’ll go back in right away and go 100 miles per hour again. It’s just who Steve is, and that’s why he’s had so much success and has lasted as long as he has.”
Chargers coach Norv Turner compares Smith to Henry Ellard, another seemingly ageless receiver who turned in a 1,000-yard receiving season at 35.
“My experience with receivers like Steve is once they get to a point and they haven’t slowed down, it seems like they go forever,” Turner said. “The thing that Steve has aside from all his athleticism - his great speed, his strength, his ability to cut - is just has that attitude that’s so competitive that he’s going to go out and be successful.
“And I think when you’re getting ready to play against him, you better understand it’s going to be a dogfight, it’s going to be competitive, it’s going to be toe-to-toe for 60 plays and you’d better be ready to meet that challenge.”
Panthers fourth-year cornerback Captain Munnerlyn called Smith is the best receiver he’s ever faced “by far.”
“That’s great for me because I practice against him,” Munnerlyn said. “It makes the game on Sunday way easier for me.”
Munnerlyn said he hasn’t seen Smith lose a step.
He said he’s still the quickest receiver on the roster and the toughest to defend.
“He’s amazing. Being that age, he can still run.” Munnerlyn said. “That’s the scary part. Honestly it doesn’t seem like he’s slowing down anytime soon.”
Former Tampa Bay and Carolina receiver Mark Carrier played in the NFL until he was 32 and can’t imagine playing at the level Smith is right now.
Carrier said at some point in time the body begins to wear down, but Smith doesn’t seem affected by any of that.
“I think his competitiveness is what drives him,” Carrier said.
Smith has made plenty of mistakes off the field during his time in Carolina, but he’s matured into a team leader and captain.
He continues to pass his knowledge along to the younger receivers on the roster.
“We’re all in awe of the way he plays,” said Panthers rookie receiver Jared Green, a member of the team’s practice squad. “But he also gives us a systematic and academic approach to the game and to our playbook. Without him, I don’t think we’d learn all of the things we have as quick.”
As for his own future, Smith said he’s not sure how much longer he’ll play.
But he’s not thinking about retirement.
He still likes playing.
But he loves proving people wrong even more.
“People will say well, he got (1,000 yards) but he’s lost a step and he’s not that and he isn’t this,” Smith said. “But there aren’t too many 5-foot-9 receivers who are 33 years old that are getting 1,000 yards or were at the Pro Bowl last year.
“So I guess I’m doing OK. Not bad.”
Smith said he’ll take time to savor this Sunday’s game against San Diego as it serves as a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in inner city Los Angeles, so he’ll have a rare opportunity to play in front of his parents and some friends.
As for where he ends up, Smith said that’s a discussion for another day.
“When I’m done playing I’ll sit on my porch with a little iced tea in my hand,” Smith said. “I will see where I end up when the end comes.”
And until then?
“I’m just going to keep spinning that ball,” Smith said.