Continuing with the Carolina Panthers’ top 25 best moments, our No. 22 entry reflects on the impact of the team’s third-round draft pick in 2001: Steve Smith.
Leading up to the start of the Carolina Panthers’ 25th season as a franchise, Old North Banter is breaking down the team’s top 25 moments. Before reading about the impact of Steve Smith getting drafted in 2001, don’t forget to read our previous entry in the countdown that celebrated the 2014 season where the Queen City’s NFL team claimed the NFC South crown for the second year in a row.
Entering 2001 NFL Draft
The Panthers finished the 2000 season with a 7-9 record, placing third in the NFC West behind the New Orleans Saints and the St. Louis Rams, both at 10-6. Officially outside of the playoff picture, Carolina fell into the 11th spot in the 2001 NFL Draft.
Before the fateful selection in the third round of said draft, the Panthers had already gotten two integral pieces that aided the team’s success moving forward. At No. 11 overall, Carolina picked up Miami (FL) linebacker Dan Morgan. In the next round, Maryland defensive tackle Kris Jenkins left the board at No. 44, bound for Charlotte. Though those two aforementioned players became key components to the Panther defense, one of the definitive players in franchise history entered the fray in the third round at No. 74 overall
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After two seasons at Santa Monica College, Steve Smith transferred to Utah and established himself as a standout wide receiver in the Mountain West conference, earning All-Conference honors both years he playing for the Utes. His skillset drew Carolina’s attention, and he landed in Charlotte as the Panthers’ return specialist for his rookie year at the professional level. Smith’s first season in the teal and black began with a bang as he returned the opening kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings 93 yards for a touchdown.
Despite the Panthers finishing the 2001 season with a 1-15 record, Smith showcased his prowess in his rookie year, earning a spot in the 2002 Pro Bowl as the NFC’s kick returner. The following year, Smith earned the starting role at wideout alongside Muhsin Muhammad. However, Carolina ended the 2002 campaign as the cellar-dwellers in the newly realigned NFC South.
Smith and the Panthers saw its fortunes completely reverse in the following season. With the newly acquired quarterback Jake Delhomme under center, Carolina went from seven wins from the year prior to 11, winning the division. The “Cardiac Cats” then defeated Dallas, St. Louis, and Philadelphia to win the franchise’s first conference title, setting up with a Super Bowl XXXVIII clash against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Smith played a crucial role on the road to Reliant Stadium in Houston as the speedy receiver caught seven touchdowns in the regular season and three in the playoffs. The most impactful of those scores came in the NFC Divisional Round in St. Louis, but that moment will later get expounded upon later in the countdown.
After missing the following season due to injury, Smith returned to the field in 2005 to have his best season statistically, racking up 1,563 receiving yards on 103 receptions and 12 touchdowns, all of which led the league. The Panthers won the division for the second time in three years, but Carolina missed its chance to reach the Super Bowl as Seattle claimed the conference title with a 20-point win over the Panthers in the NFC Conference Championship.
Following the 2005 season, Smith would miss no fewer than two games in each of his last eight years in Charlotte. Released after the 2013 campaign, Smith left the organization as the franchise’s leader in receptions (836), receiving yards (12,197), and receiving touchdowns (67). Along with players such as Sam Mills, Julius Peppers, and Luke Kuechly, Smith became one of the players intrinsically linked with the Panthers franchise.
The heights Carolina reached during Smith’s time in Charlotte would have been nearly impossible to attain without him, and his induction into the Hall of Honor this year alongside Delhomme, Jordan Gross, and Wesley Walls has been much deserved.