yahoo_stevesmith4Steve Smith has been one of the best receivers of his generation, and he's done that with perhaps the least amount of help any elite receiver has had in the last decade. Among the quarterbacks who have thrown to him, there's been just one Pro Bowl season (Jake Delhomme, 2005), and never a complementary receiver of note since Mushin Muhammad went to Chicago after the 2004 season. He was drafted by the Carolina Panthers just in time for their 1-15 season in 2001, and he was the team's offensive catalyst in the following half-decade, when the franchise almost won one Super Bowl and came up a game short of going to another.
In recent years, Smith's challenges have been different, but similar in some ways — after a number of personnel misfires from the Panthers' front office, the team finished 2-14 in 2010 and John Fox, the most successful coach in team history, left for the Denver Broncos. If he stays with the Panthers in 2011, Smith will be in line to catch passes from three different primary quarterbacks in three seasons — from Delhomme, to Jimmy Clausen, to first overall pick Cam Newton. Smith still has it on the field, but the stats don't always tell the story because the guys throwing to him have been a mixed bag in recent years.
But when we recently talked to Smith about his offseason and a host of other things, the main focus was about the off-field challenges he's been facing. In the first part of this two-part conversation, we started out by talking about his recent work with Powerade, and then, things got deep. In part 1 of our talk, Steve talked about his wife's recent health scare and the transitional nature of the Panthers' recent moves. In the conclusion, Steve discusses his former head coach, talks more about the Panthers, and reflects on regrets and legacies.
Shutdown Corner: Are you a mentor to those young receivers on your team? Because you've got some guys on that team with some talent to climb up the depth chart in the right kind of system. Is that a role you take on?
Steve Smith: People have said that 'Steve's not the type of player you want mentoring young guys,' but I mentor guys. I try to be a good influence. I give them my input when they ask, and sometimes, I give them my input when they don't ask. Sometimes, I just sit on the side and watch. I think that a lot of times, people judge a mentor by how well that person [he's mentoring] does.
They say, 'Look how he handled this guy or that guy,' but the one thing I do know in Carolina is that there are two receivers linked to me who mentored me. The first was Ricky Proehl, a good friend who's now on the Panthers' coaching staff. And then, Mushin Muhammad. The reason Mushin Muhammad is considered a great mentor is why? You look at his understudy -- his apprentice, which was me. I'm not considered a good leader because, who are my understudies?
SC: That's true to a point, but you can only meet someone halfway.
SS: I think I meet people a little more than halfway. But I guess that because of production, or lack of production for a couple years prior to this year, I get that. And I take that — whether I'm a mentor by people's perceptions or not, there are still a lot of guys on the team and in the league that I talk to and answer their questions. But I don't really worry about what people say about me being a mentor because of somebody's production. If that's all you're going to use to value somebody as a mentor, I think that's very shallow. I think people should talk to the people I try to help if I'm a good mentor or not.
SC: You were there from the end of the George Seifert era in 2001, when the team went 1-15, and through the beginning of the John Fox era, where the Panthers made the Super Bowl just two years later. What was it about that team that allowed such a turnaround, and are those aspects present in the current Carolina team looking to rebound from 2010's 2-14 season?
SS: I mean, that's a hard question, because there are a lot of things that went into those couple of years that we haven't been able to do right now [because of the lockout] — just to see where everyone is. It's one thing to go and run routes against air; that's great. But you see how a guy really responds when you've got Charles Johnson banging heads with you. To see how a guy responds in the heat of battle. Nobody's gotten the opportunity, so it's unfair to compare an era where we went to the Super Bowl, and the playoffs a few times, some Pro Bowls and all that stuff. Just a different … it's an unfair scale.
SC: If Brandon Lloyd were to call you up, or another Denver Broncos player were to call you up, and ask you what to expect from John Fox as his head coach, what would you tell him?
SS: My thing with Coach Fox is that I respect him as a man — I respect him as a coach, but I have greater respect for him as a man. The last couple of years, what he's been through as a coach, he's done nothing but address these players as men. In my opinion, this last year was probably his most vulnerable time. And the last time I remembered, coaches aren't generally that vulnerable. I think he learned a lot last year, and the John Fox that Denver's getting in 2011 — it's probably a little bit unfair, because of the process and all the adversity, and all he's had to coach through … I think they got a better John Fox. You put anybody through adversity; you get a better perspective when you have a new identity.
SC: Have you been able to talk to (new Panthers head coach) Ron Rivera at all?
SS: I've talked with him a little bit, and after that, it's just been about hanging out with my wife.
SC: You'd obviously still want a Super Bowl ring, but that aside, what else do you want to accomplish in football that you haven't?
SS: One of the things I would like to accomplish is that for the last 10 years, I really haven't talked to a lot of rookies through training camp. It's really hard, because a lot of those guys get cut. I can remember that almost all of the wide receivers we drafted or were undrafted — there was a guy named Kevin Coffey from Virginia, and after he got cut, it was very difficult, because we hung out for so long.
So, I didn't talk with a lot of the rookies and free agents until after final cuts, because I just didn't want to get emotionally attached. That's one thing I lost out on — there's probably about 10 or 12 guys over the last 10 years, but I've missed out on [developing relationships with] a lot of those rookies. I missed out on maybe 100 relationships, and you never know how that would have turned out. That's one of the things I want to accomplish in the next few years. It's not so much that I can teach those young guys something; I think maybe they can teach me something.
Life is a process — you always learn something. Ricky Proehl told me that the first year he got here in 2003. He told me that playing football's like being a computer — you always have to upgrade your software. And if you don't, they will replace you. That's how I look at the young guys now — like they could come in and show me something different. What I'm trying to do now in camp is to try and be a light in a dark tunnel. That's high on my priority list now — to not miss out on those relationships.
SC: Correspondingly, what would you like to accomplish in life — either now or after football?
SS: I would measure success off the field by … when I pass on, that my children would say, 'He's the best dad, and he taught me all I know.' I think that's the most important thing — how I've impacted my children in a good way. Because then, it starts to have a generational success, and I'm not talking about success jobwise. I'm talking about a happy home.