CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers veteran wide receiver Steve Smith is aging gracefully, conjuring up comparisons to NFL great Jerry Rice.
Now equipped with a high-profile quarterback and an offensive coordinator who prefers a downfield passing game, Smith is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in his 11th season with the Panthers. He leads the NFC in receiving yards with 530 and is on pace to shatter Rice's single-season record of 1,848 yards.
Rice was 33 when he set that mark in 1995. Smith is 32 and appears re-energized running routes in Carolina's new passing offense and playing alongside budding rookie star Cam Newton.
"It's incredible to start out in your 11th season doing what he's doing," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said of his teammate. "A lot of receivers by this point in their career become possession guys or No. 3 receivers, but he's not showing any signs of slowing down."
Smith became the franchise's all-time leader in receiving yards with his performance Sunday against Chicago. He caught eight passes for 181 yards, surpassing Muhsin Muhammad. It marked the third time in four games Smith has topped 150 yards receiving.
Smith has repeatedly brushed off questions about breaking Muhammad's record, preferring to keep his focus on helping the Panthers rebound after a 1-3 start that includes three close and bitter defeats.
"You want to enjoy the feeling of winning," Smith said. "Stats are kind of a consolation prize. 'We made the game exciting' — you don't want to be the group where that's all you have to say. It's a nice way of saying you didn't get it done."
Gross, who has been teammates with Smith in Carolina since 2003 and played with him in college at Utah, knows the complex Smith about as well as anyone in the Panthers' locker room.
He said what makes the four-time Pro Bowl selection so great is his desire and work ethic. Those two characteristics have allowed him to persevere through some tough times with the Panthers, including last season when he was held to 545 yards on the year.
"He definitely has can-do attitude to say the least," Gross said. "And he's always prepared and practiced like you're supposed to, so the proof is in the pudding. He'd done things the right way for a long time."
As for his fast start, Gross said, "I don't think he does anything to surprise me anymore, but he continues to impress me."
New Orleans coach Sean Payton, who knows a thing or two about offenses, has a firsthand knowledge of what makes Smith ticks.
"I know this, I enjoyed coaching him at the Pro Bowl a lot more than I enjoy going against him," Payton said.
Payton's Saints have struggled with pass coverage this season, allowing the opposition 254 yards per game through the air while surrendering eight passing touchdowns in the first month of the season.
He sees Smith as a dangerous weapon.
"He's got his swagger back," Payton said. "He's creating havoc for defenses. They do a great job of mixing up the route combinations for him and you see the same speed and burst. ... He has great hands and he's so fast coming out of his breaks."
Said running back DeAngelo Williams: "He plays the game with so much passion."
Gross said he can sense Smith is enjoying himself more in the new offense.
"You know when he acts a certain way he's having fun, and he's been acting that way lately," Gross said.
You can see that on the field, too.
Smith is celebrating after almost every catch either by spinning the ball or with some sort of a body gesture.
"If I make a catch, I'm excited," Smith said. "Some people might say, 'Why does he do that every time? Can't he just catch the ball and go back to the huddle?' Honestly, I'm 32 years old, I'm 5-foot-9 and three-fourths and 192 pounds. I'm not a prototypical wide receiver, so it's an honor and a privilege, so I enjoy it. I'm excited. . Act like I've been there before? I'm not going to do it.
"I'm going to act like it's my last play because you never know. I'm going to show enthusiasm. That's just me. If you don't like it, listen on the radio so you don't have to watch it."
Williams said Smith hasn't lost a step at all over the last decade.
In fact, he thinks he's getting better with age.
"I don't think you can put an age on talent," Williams said. "If you're talented, you're talented. And that's what we fall victim to in the National Football League is when you get old they kind of write you off. You can't write him off."