- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When you talk about the passion that has enabled the Carolina Panthers to reach .500 six games into the season for the first time under third-year coach Ron Rivera, you start and end with wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith showed it after a 12-7 loss to Seattle Seahawks in Week 1, defiantly proclaiming Carolina would meet arguably the best team in the NFC again deep into the playoffs, even though the Panthers haven't been to the postseason since 2008.
He showed it after a Week 4 loss at Arizona that dropped Carolina to 1-3, calling umpire Dan Ferrell "garbage" for missing several plays, understanding it could cost him a fine from the league.
He showed it again during and after Sunday's 30-15 victory over the St. Louis Rams, unleashing a profanity-laced assault on cornerback Janoris Jenkins for allegedly trash-talking about Smith's wife during the game.
"And if I see him on the street I'm going to bust him in the f---ing mouth," Smith said afterward.
At times during Smith's career the passion has been misguided, particularly when he has turned his feisty attitude on his teammates. But there is no denying the 13-year veteran embodies the fight the Panthers (3-3) need if they hope to turn their fortunes around.
His 800th career catch said it all.
Smith caught the pass from quarterback Cam Newton just inside the St. Louis 10, then left Jenkins and safety Matt Giordano face down on the Bank of America Stadium turf with the types of moves he has made look routine throughout his career.
The 19-yard touchdown answered a quick score from St. Louis to make it 27-12. In the past, the Rams' score might have led to a comeback and ultimately close loss for a Carolina team that is 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera.
Smith didn't let it get close.
"That's the mark of a football team is that you answer, you don't just sit there and take it," said Rivera, sweat dripping from his forehead after a game in which five personal fouls were called.
Smith doesn't take anything. He showed that on his touchdown celebration. He first pointed at Jenkins, understanding it could draw a taunting foul, which it didn't. He then did an imitation of a Deion Sanders touchdown dance. Smith explained later, "He thinks he's Deion. He's not."
That passion continued on the sideline as Newton, not realizing it was Smith's 800th career catch until he saw it on the big screen, ran over and tried to hold his favorite target's arms into the air in "rejoice."
"He snatched away from me and turned around, still talking to a person I don't know and saying a lot of things," Newton said with a laugh. "We all know that's Smitty, man. I'm saying it out of a comedic way, but I love that guy and have learned so much from him and will continue to learn from him."
Most of what Newton has learned is the passion it takes to play the game at the highest level.
Occasionally from Smith, that'll be in the form of what Newton called "explicit words" such as the ones delivered to Jenkins.
"That's just Steve," Newton said. "That just goes to show you what type of teammate he is. Man, he leaves it all out on the field. He plays with so much passion it just drips on to the next player and it affects a lot of people."
It has helped put the Panthers in position to get above .500 on Thursday night at Tampa Bay for the first time since 2008.
"We're a team that is tight-knit," Smith said. "We were chippy with each other in camp. Nobody messes with the big brother, little brother. That's only me. We're going to look out for each other no matter what."