- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has told me more than once this season that he believes reporters have an agenda when we enter into the sanctity called the open locker room period. He insists that, for the most part, we already have made up our minds what we're going to write and just need a few supporting comments to fill in the blanks.
Well, there was no agenda Monday.
At least by reporters.
Smith seemed to have one, though. He turned the attention from Sunday's 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, from his two drops that might have changed the direction of the game early, by calling umpire Dan Ferrell "garbage" for calls he did and did not make.
Smith all but dared commissioner Roger Goodell to fine him, saying he makes enough money to pay whatever the league throws at him.
Maybe I'm giving Smith too much credit here, maybe it wasn't his intention, but this was brilliant.
Smith had everyone gathered around him focused on the repercussions that most certainly will come from his comments, instead of on the gloom and doom surrounding Carolina's third consecutive 1-3 start. He put a target directly on himself, taking it off quarterback Cam Newton for his four turnovers and the offensive linemen for the seven sacks they surrendered.
It was the ultimate end-around by a player who claims that's all he got to do during his first year in the NFL because former Carolina coach George Seifert didn't think he could play receiver.
Think about it. This was the same player who jokingly said Newton played horrible after he'd thrown three touchdown passes and run for another in a 38-0 victory over the Giants.
This was the same player who said the Panthers would meet Seattle again deep into the playoffs after a disheartening 12-7 loss in the opener.
Smith enjoys the mental warfare of the open locker room period. After talking about how an Arizona defender tugged on his jersey and "hugged on" him -- among other things -- he was asked about Arizona's physical man coverage.
"I didn't say physical," Smith said. "I said I got leg-humped. I wouldn't characterize that as physical."
Smith, 34, understands the mental aspect of football better than most. He believes the game is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental, which on many levels it is.
The five-time Pro Bowl player has come a long way. When he entered the league in 2001 as a third-round pick out of Utah he often let his fiery temper get the best of him, not only with opponents but teammates.
In 2008, he and cornerback Ken Lucas squared off during training camp, with Smith punching his teammate in the eye and getting suspended for two games. In 2002, he was suspended for hitting teammate Anthony Bright in the team's film room.
On Sunday, Smith showed his fighting spirit by fighting back from his dropped passes to keep Carolina in contention until everything fell apart in the second half. He fought to show his teammates he wasn't giving up, so they shouldn't either.
"In the past, that would have been the beginning of a disastrous game for me," Smith said of dropping what could've been a 4-yard touchdown catch on Carolina's first possession. "Emotionally, I would have become unraveled. ... Things would have been done on the sideline."
But a teammate reminded Smith that the Panthers needed him.
"I said, 'All right, gotcha,'" Smith said. "There are moments that training and working hard comes in where you've got to get to the things that are real about you."
Smith couldn't carry the Panthers to the win, but he tried. And when it was over he shouldered all the blame, even though there was plenty of blame to go around.
The Panthers aren't 1-3 because Smith dropped a touchdown pass. They are 1-3 because they haven't learned to overcome one or two mishaps and win like good teams do.
Because they aren't mentally strong.
Smith understands that. He saw the magic of the 2003 season when Carolina had eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime en route to the Super Bowl. He experienced the mental toughness it takes to get there. So he showed mental toughness on Monday.
"Today is a tough day to be a Carolina Panthers fan; today is a tough day to do radio if you're a Carolina Panther," Smith said as he prepared to do his weekly show for a local station. "They're grabbing all their pitchforks and naming all the people who didn't [play] well, which is justifiably so.
"But as a player, you have to take the negative just like you have to take [the positive] if we won."
So Smith fell on the sword. He took one for the team.
Maybe he really does have a beef with Ferrell, whom he referred to repeatedly as No. 64 of the officiating crew. Whatever Smith's agenda was when he brought Ferrell into the equation, it changed the direction of the interview.
It's what people will be talking and writing about until the Panthers leave for a Sunday showdown against the 1-3 Minnesota Vikings, or at least until the NFL decides to fine Smith.
And then people will be talking and writing about the fine.
Intentional or not, it was brilliant.