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Smith sees progress, promise


CHARLOTTE - Wide receiver Steve Smith's resurgence began in the first quarter of the Panthers' first game this season, and now his team is progressing in similar ways with the regular season having reached the fourth quarter.

The Panthers enter Saturday's home finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as winners of three of their last four games, including a 28-13 road victory over playoff-bound Houston last week.

"It was a giant leap because we finished it out and put multiple nails in the coffin," Smith said. "Their coach gave us our due. He didn't pin it on anything except our ability to make plays and their inability to stop us. We did that defensively, on special teams and on offense. It was pretty good."

Despite signs of a strong finish, the Panthers (5-9) can't make the playoffs. Smith, however, still sees plenty to accomplish before the season is over.

"Now we need to really believe in what we are achieving, to really believe that it isn't a fluke or accident," Smith said. "We also need to examine what's happening and exactly why it's happening.

"A lot of times when you win, you don't want to examine the success. You always want to dissect things when you lose, but I think you take the same approach win or lose. That helps a team start to get over the hump and realize how good they can be."

Smith made an early statement that 2011 was going to be different, hauling in a 77-yard touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Cam Newton in the season opener. Smith hasn't stopped making plays, ranking third in the NFL with 1,299 receiving yards and fifth among wide receivers with 72 receptions.

It's a far cry from last year, when hit caught 46 passes for 554 yards for a 2-14 team. Those are personal lows, not counting his rookie season in 2001when he was used as a kick returner or the broken leg that wiped out his 2004 season.

"I don't want to say I'm pleased with it because we could have done a better job in some instances – going back to the Tennessee game (a 30-3 loss) for example," Smith said. "But to compare, unless you're dead-even with where we were last year, you'd pretty much be pleased with anything."

Smith's success hasn't simply exceeded last season's performance. He's having his best year since he caught 78 passes for 1,421 yards in 2008, the last in a stretch of four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

!Not bad for an 11-year veteran who will turn 33 in May.

"I'm just here to keep up with these young guys," said Smith, who needs five receptions to pass Muhsin Muhammad for the franchise's all-time mark. "One of the things that separates a veteran from a young guy is that a young guy has speed, but very few come out with good technique.

"I'm not as fast I used to be when I was 12, but I've learned technique.  If you have technique and speed, you can do the little things that count."

One of the keys to Smith's success has been the presence of Newton – and vice versa. Smith said that Newton has continued to grow as the season has progressed, and not just in terms of his understanding of the offense.

"When you're a quarterback, right or not, you are artificially made a leader. If a guy becomes that, then he becomes it; if not, that becomes pretty evident," Smith said. "Cam has leadership potential and also leadership qualities because of the person he is."

Newton, like Smith, craves team success, so much so that after the victory over Houston he referenced how the Panthers could still be in playoff contention they hadn't squandered a large lead a week earlier against Atlanta.

Soon enough, though, the Panthers will again be on even footing - 0-0 like everyone else.

Smith can't wait.

"Some people may say that we aren't playing for anything," Smith said. "But we are playing for the next two Sundays and then the first Sunday in September."

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