CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Smith never had a chance to celebrate his 600th career catch. He was too busy feeling dejected and small.
It's been a bizarre and frustrating 2010 for Smith, the Carolina Panthers' four-time Pro Bowl receiver. From breaking his arm playing flag football to watching his quarterbacks struggle amid mounting losses to being sidelined for a game with a sprained ankle, Smith is short on wins and numbers this year.
Sunday's loss to St. Louis was the low point despite his milestone.
Smith's fourth-quarter fumble in Carolina territory set up the Rams' clinching score in their 20-10 win. Smith also had two drops, with one particularly embarrassing.
"When I came across the middle and I was stumbling a little and the ball hit my facemask, man, that was horrible," Smith said. "I'm 5-9, I probably felt like I was 3-foot-2. I wanted to crawl into a hole."
It overshadowed his season-high nine catches for 85 yards, the last of which was the 600th of his 10-year career.
"I was made aware that was my 600th catch, but it such a crummy game it was bad," Smith said. "I've got nine more games to change that. We've got nine more games to change the way, if we win or lose, how people will see the Carolina Panthers."
Right now that vision is pretty bleak. The Panthers (1-6) are the NFL's lowest-scoring team and Smith's numbers prove it. Mostly because of poor quarterback play by Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen and inexperienced receivers behind him, Smith has been held to 26 catches for 309 yards. He has two touchdown catches, but none since Week 2.
"A couple of years ago I would have been upset and been all mad. I was just like, you know what, you've got to keep plugging away," the 31-year-old Smith said. "A successful person has never told me they've learned so many things off their success. They've learned more off the mistakes and the shortcomings."
Smith has had plenty of those moments spliced between his acrobatic catches and leading the NFL in catches, yards receiving and touchdowns in 2005. He's twice been suspended for attacking teammates and violated his contract in the offseason when he broke his hand playing in a recreational flag football league.
After missing all the preseason, Smith was sidelined again in Week 5 with a sprained left ankle. He returned and volunteered to return punts, something he made the Pro Bowl for a rookie in 2001.
But nothing has seemed to work in Carolina's miserable season, and Smith benched himself from his punt return job late in the loss to the Rams because he felt he was wearing himself out.
Smith was hard on himself after the game, blaming himself for the loss. Turning philosophical this week, which the moody Smith often does, he gained a different perspective on Carolina's miserable season.
"I was like, 'Man, when it rains it pours,'" Smith said. "Then I watched Dallas and they're not doing as well as they were projected. And I saw a few of their turnovers. When you are losing and things aren't going right, those things happen, it happens. But when you're winning all those things turn your way. That's where we are. That doesn't mean you throw in the towel."
Smith said he has the "opportunity to energize" the team and prove the Panthers haven't quit, it's just uncertain how much Smith can do.
Facing constant double teams because opponents don't respect the rest of Carolina's receivers, Smith has had few chances. When he has gotten free, Moore has often not seen him.
"You've got to find those opportunities when you don't have him doubled or bracketed, whatever you want to call it," Moore said. "We're assuming most of the time he'll be bracketed somehow. You just have to be aware when he's got single coverage on him."
It would be a good idea. Only Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis and Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona have more yards receiving than Smith since 2005. But playing on mostly struggling teams, Smith's numbers have declined each year since he last made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and he's clearly frustrated.
There was a discussion in the locker room this week about players attending a Charlotte Bobcats NBA game. When a player asked Smith if he was going he shook his head.
"When I'm losing," Smith said, "I don't go out in public."
Notes: Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (foot) missed practice again Thursday and appears likely to miss his second straight game Sunday against New Orleans. ... LB Dan Connor (hip) practiced in full after being limited Wednesday. ... Heavy rain forced the Panthers to practice on a small indoor field at the Charlotte Sports Center.
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