That was apparent as cameras caught Payton and Carolina's all-time leading receiver embraced in a private moment at about the 30-yard line following the Saints' 31-13 victory at the Superdome two weeks ago.
It went beyond the gracious "good game'' pat on the back.
You could see the admiration both had as they stood inches apart.
“He’s one of my favorites,'' Payton said during a late Wednesday afternoon conference call. "We had him at the Pro Bowl; I coached a handful of those players in ’06 and it was more just he and I visiting.
"He’s a great competitor, and someone that I love watching play. I wish he wasn’t in the division [NFC South]. It seems like he’s been there forever.''
Understandable. Payton began coaching the Saints in 2006. In the 14 games against the Panthers, Smith has 66 catches for 997 yards and eight touchdowns.
Not overwhelming. But it probably felt more so early in Payton's career. In the coach's first two games against Carolina, Smith had 17 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns. In 2008, Smith had 11 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown as the Panthers swept the Saints.
"Listen, I can’t think of how many games where he’s just been a thorn,'' Payton said. "Then having a chance to coach him for one week, his competitive fire, his desire to win; all those things are amazing.''
Smith has been a thorn in the side of a lot of coaches. Since coming into the league in 2001, he has 835 catches for 12,153 yards.
As for the fire, Payton saw that up close coaching the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season when his quarterback, Drew Brees, was injured on the second series and backup Marc Bulger coming off an injury didn't want a lot of snaps.
That left the bulk of the snaps to Dallas' Tony Romo.
"I remember probably in the third quarter of that game, Steve hadn’t gotten the ball yet, and having a little talk with Tony and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to find a way to get 89 a throw here, or he’s going to tear your head off,' '' Payton recalled with a laugh.
"He’s just that competitive. He’s someone that I appreciate as a coach watching, and someone I would say I’ve followed more than other players in the division.”
And no, Payton wouldn't reveal exactly what he was telling Smith two weeks ago.