Ageless Steve Smith continues to amaze

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith ranks 31st in the NFL in receptions, 40th in receiving yards and 50th in touchdown catches this season, but when it comes to clutch wide receivers in the league few are better than the 13-year veteran.

That never was more evident than on fourth-and-10 with 2:33 remaining in the Carolina Panthers' 20-16 victory over Miami on Sunday.

Almost everybody at Sun Life Stadium knew the odds favored the ball going to the 34-year-old Smith.

And the Dolphins still couldn't stop him.

Smith caught a line-drive pass from quarterback Cam Newton, stayed on his feet as both defenders went down and picked up a few more yards for a 19-yard gain that sparked the last-minute, game-winning touchdown.

Smith also made a clutch third-down catch on a perfectly-run out pattern earlier in the half. He had a nine-yard catch on third-and-8 as the Panthers tried to run out the clock against San Francisco three games ago that coach Ron Rivera called "as clutch as any I've been around."

“Steve likes to say in big games, big players make big plays,” Rivera said. “And that’s true. Steve is one of those guys."

Smith may not be as lightning fast as he was as rookie in 2001. He may not be able to leap quite as high. But there are few that run more precise routes and are as strong as this 5-foot-9, 185-pounder know as "Mighty Mouse."

"One of the national networks called him ageless," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "That's a good description for him."

Smith does appear ageless. He takes care of his body better today than ever with a strict diet and stringent workout. Before Wednesday's practice he went for a run and had an acupuncture treatment.

He hopes such things help him play another two or three years before he retires to be a fulltime father -- he has three children -- and sit in the stands to cheer for his oldest son Peyton on the soccer field.

He'll probably need three more years to achieve his goal of finishing in the top 10 in the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. His 823 catches are 159 behind tenth-place Randy Moss. His 12,033 yards has him 1,744 shy of No. 10 Henry Ellard.

If work ethic and determination are a factor, and it always is with Smith, he'll make it.

"I look at Jerry Rice and to be, not in the same category, but on the same list . . . I'm on that list, and that's pretty cool," Smith said of Rice, the league's all-time leader with 22,895 yards and 1,549 catches.

Part of what helps Smith play at such a level is his former teammate and now position coach, Ricky Proehl, another ageless player. But what really drives Smith to play at such a high level is his children are at an age where they can appreciate it.

"The winning makes it everything, but you know what, there's nothing better than going to work and your son gets to observe you," Smith said. "I don't know if anybody saw, but I was wrestling with my son before the [Monday night] game.

"Just being a dad, getting to experience my career with him . . . that's what it's about, man."

Smith's statistics this season won't overwhelm you in terms of the league's elite receivers. He has a team-best 51 catches for 581 yards and three touchdowns.

But 19 of those for 228 yards have come on third and fourth down. Newton has targeted Smith thirty-two percent of the time on third down.

He is he go-to guy.

"It's his mentality that he brings into the stadium each and every day," Newton said when explaining how Smith is able to remain so clutch. "He's not a regular player. In cartoon world, he would be a super [hero]. His mentality is different. His approach is different.

"What gets him going the most is when people say he can't. Him at the age he's at right now, he's still defying the odds on so many different levels."

Said Shula, "He's just so tough to cover. Yeah, he's one of our bell cows."

You know you're respected when you continue to consistently draw the opponent's top defender. You know you're playing at a high level when you consistently beat that player.

There's no better example than two weeks ago, when Smith had four catches for 62 yards against New England shutdown corner Aqib Talib. But bigger than the receptions were the two penalties -- a 15-yarder for unnecessary roughness and a defensive holding -- that Smith lured Talib into.

Talib finally had to leave the game with a hip injury, enticing Smith to say, "Ice up, son. Ice up." The next week there were "Ice up, son" T-shirts in the Charlotte area.

Smith called it another notch in his bedpost. He must have gone through a dozen or so beds in 13 years the way he's abused defenders.

During Wednesday's "Mike & Mike" ESPN radio show Smith was reminded he ended the career of cornerback Fred Smoot with his effort in a 2005 game against Minnesota.

Smith, after listening to Smoot's trash talking during pre-game warm-ups, had a franchise-record 201 yards receiving and a touchdown in a 38-13 victory.

"He was coming out of Mississippi," Smith said. "He was considered a really good cornerback. After coming into Bank of America Stadium, things just went downhill from there."

Smith's career has remained on an upswing, at least enough that he was invited on the "Mike and Mike" show for the first time in his career. He let the hosts know it, too.

"It's only taken me 13 years to get the nod," Smith said with a sarcastic but playful tone. "I appreciate the opportunity."

The Panthers appreciate Smith, particularly in clutch situations.