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At the Top of His Game With less lip and more production, wideout Steve Smith helped Carolina dump Dallas


As wide receiver Steve Smith raced toward the west end of Ericsson
Stadium, his eyes focused on a cluster of Carolina Panthers fans
cheering louder and louder as he came closer. Adjusting his
stride before reaching the six-foot, three-inch-high retaining
wall, he leaped into their arms, disappearing in the mass of
crazed humanity. The Panthers had just beaten the Dallas Cowboys
29-10 in last Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff, and this was
Smith's way of thanking the home crowd for its support. "I'd been
hearing that our fans weren't feeling loved," he said in the
locker room later. "So I wanted to show them a little love."

Smith already had given the fans plenty to celebrate. The
big-play threat in a conservative, run-oriented offense, the
third-year veteran out of Utah torched the Dallas secondary with
a team-high five receptions for 135 yards. He set the tone early
by turning a short catch into a 70-yard gain that led to a field
goal, and his leaping 32-yard touchdown catch early in the third
quarter gave Carolina a comfortable 23-3 lead.

The Panthers will need more of the same from Smith when they hit
the road to play the St. Louis Rams in an NFC divisional playoff
this Saturday. Containing Carolina running back Stephen Davis,
who rushed for 1,444 yards in 2003, is an essential element in
every opponent's strategy, but shutting down the 5'9", 179-pound
Smith has become just as important. He finished the season with
career highs in receptions (88), yards (1,110) and touchdowns

It's a bit surprising that Smith evolved into such a dynamic
offensive weapon this year. Taken in the third round of the 2001
draft, he used his raw speed to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl as a
kick returner his rookie year, but as a receiver he lacked
maturity on and off the field. He ran sloppy routes and dropped
too many passes, finishing with just 10 catches. Once he realized
that he could not rely on natural ability alone to get open,
Smith became more diligent in his game preparation and execution.
As a result he had 54 receptions in '02 and this year showed a
knack for making the difficult reception in a crowd and for
gaining valuable yards after the catch. However, he's still
working on controlling his emotions. Last season he was arrested
after an altercation with practice-squad player Anthony Bright
during a film session. A misdemeanor assault charge against Smith
was dismissed in November 2003, but he was suspended one game by
the team and attended anger management classes. This season he
lashed out at the organization because he felt slighted during
negotiations for a contract extension, and then committed a
costly personal foul when he kicked Houston Texans defensive end
Jerry Deloach late in Carolina's 14-10 loss.

"I embarrassed myself, my family and the organization, and I
learned I had to change," says Smith. "When you make mistakes
that big, you're not going to repeat them because you simply
can't afford to."

At least one teammate sees a change for the better. "We don't
have to calm him down as much during games," says center Jeff
Mitchell. "We used to have to tell him to shut up a lot, because
he would start talking crap to linemen we were trying to block."

Following his leap into the crowd, Smith led teammates on a
victory lap around the field. He has every intention of making
more noise this postseason. "People might not respect our offense
in the playoffs, but we don't care," Smith said. "We're planning
on breaking the door down." --Jeffri Chadiha

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO CATCHALL Smith, going high over Terence Newman for a touchdown,gained 135 yards on five receptions.