It wasn't long ago that Steve Smith's future with the Carolina Panthers was in question. Toiling behind poor quarterback play on a suffering team, Smith's career had shifted into neutral.
The five-time Pro Bowl receiver was well past his 30th birthday during a 2010 campaign in which he posted an uncharacteristic 554 receiving yards. Smith openly questioned his role with the team, and more than a few people wondered what was left in his tank.
Enter Cam Newton, a revelation under center, who found Smith deep over and over in 2011. In Rob Chudzinski's high-octane attack, the pair sizzled from the early moments of Week 1 and never looked back. Smith's career was again very much alive.
With the Panthers signing Smith to a three-year contract extension, the team is wisely ensuring that Newton's favorite target will remain in Carolina for years to come.
Newton hit Smith 79 times for 1,394 yards and seven scores in 2011, and when Newton openly called for the Panthers to revamp a damaged self-image -- urging the team to turn up the volume and play up to his "level" -- it was Smith who defended his young quarterback. It was Smith, underneath it all, who agreed with every word.
The Panthers sit out there as a dangerous team in the NFC South. They played without fear in 2011, and so much of that had to do with the youth and energy of Newton -- and a revitalized, plugged-in Smith. Carolina is banking on this connection for years to come.