I thought Steve Smith looked quick Thursday. The ground at Carolina’s practice field wasn’t as hard as it was Wednesday. And during the segment of practice the media was allowed to see, the opening segment, Smith moved a little like, say, Steve Smith.
Smith sprained the PCL ligament in his left knee Dec. 22 against New Orleans. He returned to practice Wednesday, and said his knee was 71 percent.
After Thursday’s practice the number tumbled like a bad stock or the price of gas in South Carolina.
“I’m 57” percent, Smith says. “It didn’t really go as good as I expected. If it’s a grading curve, then it’s not a setback. Are you giving me a grading curve?”
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“Then I guess it’s a setback,” Smith says.
Try to conceive of Smith sitting out Sunday’s game at Bank of America Stadium against San Francisco. Can you?
Can you, coach Ron Rivera? Is there a chance Smith doesn’t play?
“There’s always a chance,” Rivera says. “Again, it’s all about how he reacts (Friday). Steve’s doing everything he can right now. With all the treatments (head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion) and his staff are prescribing, Steve’s doing the best he can.”
Adds Rivera: “When you watch Steve and watch the way he does things, there’s a smoothness to his movements. And it’s not quite there yet.”
It might not quite be there, but Smith is. He’s 34 and the season is his 13th. Nine of the previous 12 seasons ended with him watching all of the playoffs on TV.
“Being a Panther right now is awesome,” says Smith. “Reading the (ESPN) ticker at the bottom (of the TV screen) and seeing Divisional Round – and the Carolina Panthers are there.”
Smith and his wife, Angie, went to dinner Friday.
“We do date night every Friday,” he says. “We went to a great restaurant, Bonterra, and the meal was free. We didn’t walk in expecting anything. I asked for my check like anyone else and they said, ‘No, we’ll take care of you.’ Man, that’s when you know you’re doing good.”
Would you have bought dinner if Smith and the Panthers had gone 2-14?
“Ha, of course I would have,” says J.D. Duncan, who owns the restaurant. “I respect those guys and what they do. Steve and his wife took the time to say hello. And when they’re humble like that, when they take the time to say thanks, I’m happy to.”
If somebody calls Duncan to reserve a table for 53, it will be the Carolina roster.
Unless you’re a child or a hopeless optimist, you didn’t expect the Panthers to win 12 games this season. You didn’t.
If the Panthers were a college basketball team, a good season is the National Invitation Tournament. If they were a college football team, a good season is a bowl in Charlotte. For them there is no free lunch and never a free dinner.
“You know, I never thought this day would come,” Smith says. “And just going through the year, it’s been pretty special. And you start to think about things and go, ‘Man, is this real?’ ”
Smith played in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season, the NFC Championship Game in 2005 and the divisional round in 2008.
You really didn’t think you’d go to the playoffs again?
“Yup,” says Smith. “I mean, the last time we went to the playoffs was five years ago.”
Smith is by one year the oldest of the Panthers. I suspect he’d like to play two seasons after this one. But who knows if the Panthers will replicate their good work in 2014? The next time they make the playoffs in consecutive seasons will be the first.
“I don’t want to say Steve is at the end of his career,” says Rivera. “But he’s at the sunset. And being on top again is what everybody dreams of.”
Try to envision Smith anywhere Sunday but the turf at Bank of America Stadium. He can’t will his knee to function. But you know he’ll try.
This is what you dream about?
“Yeah,” says Smith. “And you don’t want it to end.”