NFC South Underachiever: Steve Smith

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Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

It’s more than a little difficult to suddenly call Carolina receiver Steve Smith an underachiever because he’s been an overachiever his entire career.

He came into the league as a third-round draft pick and wasn’t supposed to be much more than a return man. He’s listed at 5-foot-9 and I don’t think he’s even that tall. But Smith has been one of the NFL’s best receivers for much of this decade -- until this year.

Through five games, Smith has been held to 21 catches for 259 yards with no touchdowns. Heck, in the good old days, Smith could put up numbers better than that in less than two games. He had 131 receiving yards in a Week 2 loss to Atlanta, but hasn’t come close to 100 yards in any other game, and was held to one catch for 4 yards in Sunday’s victory at Tampa Bay.

So what’s the problem? At 30, has Smith lost a step? Or has he suddenly lost some other skills?

No, absolutely not. Smith still is as talented and competitive as just about any receiver in the league. Smith’s slump truly is not his fault.

He came out Sunday and said he’s no longer an asset to the Panthers. That’s sort of been true for five games, but Smith sure as heck isn’t anything close to a liability. The Panthers have plenty of other liabilities and that’s why Smith’s numbers are down.

Start with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has had some absolutely miserable games. Delhomme’s been accused of relying on Smith too much in the past. I don’t think Delhomme’s relying any less on Smith this year. It’s just that there aren’t nearly as many opportunities to get him the ball.

That brings us to another liability. Opposing defenses have been able to constantly load up on Smith because the Panthers haven’t had another consistent offensive weapon. Muhsin Muhammad is the other starting receiver. He’s 36 and has lost a step -- and wasn’t all that fast when he was young. There aren’t any other receivers of note as Dwayne Jarrett officially has earned the "bust" label. In a division where pass-catching tight ends are the norm, the Panthers have plodders.

Then there’s the running game. Although DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had big games Sunday against the Bucs, they didn’t do a lot in the first four games. That’s allowed defenses to devote all of their attention to Smith.

Smith won’t truly be able to start achieving until the rest of this offense does.