ATLANTA — Steve Smith’s family was in Florida this weekend for his oldest son’s soccer tournament while his team was going to be in Atlanta for a division-clinching game.
The Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading receiver was listed as out with a knee injury Friday, but instead of sitting at his south Charlotte home watching the game alone, he decided to join the Panthers on the sideline.
“Sitting at home, in an empty house, with no one around – man, you talk about lonely and discouraged? That’s where you could go real quickly,” Smith said. “I told my buddy I’m going to be the ugliest cheerleader out there.”
Smith, who sprained his posterior cruciate ligament last week against New Orleans, made it clear how thankful he was for the bye that came with Carolina’s NFC South-clinching 21-20 victory against the Falcons.
“Honestly, if we had to play next week I couldn’t play,” Smith said. “No matter mentally tough or how much I wanted to. I’m not there yet. I’m getting there. I’m not there to be able to play on Sunday.”
And Smith was more realistic than optimistic about his prospects of playing in two weeks when the Panthers will host a playoff game at Bank of America Stadium.
“The longer the better,” he said. “But a short turnaround, you can’t do it. I don’t care all the medicine, all the stuff you take, all the treatment, your body is only going to move at the pace that it wants to move at. I feel like it’s coming along. But you can’t go from not being able to run to now I’m able to walk without a gimp, a little jog, to all of a sudden I’m running these routes full speed. That’s unrealistic.”
Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl gave Smith the assignment of watching the Falcons secondary and monitoring his fellow wide receivers’ routes. When he wasn’t an acting assistant coach, Smith was seen several times on the TV broadcast encouraging his teammates.
After Cam Newton’s second-quarter interception, Smith told the quarterback, “Hey, calm down. You got this.”
“To hear that from him it does the body good for me knowing that I have his support,” Newton said. “We know that he wasn’t content being on the sideline. He’s an emotional person and we’re going to need him more than ever come game day.”
Life in this offense without Smith is not one the Panthers want to know for long. Carolina totaled 149 passing yards Sunday and just 93 when taking away DeAngelo Williams’ 56-yard screen pass that was fumbled.
Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. were the only receivers to catch a pass, and they combined for four catches and 22 yards.
“Of course you’re never going to replace a guy like Steve,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who had six catches for 42 yards. “Our offense revolves around him, and where he is in the formation dictates what kind of coverages we get. We know that. We’re anxious to get him back and hopefully this is the only game we got to play without him.”
Smith spent the week getting treatment and rehabbing. On Christmas Eve he was rehabbing from 6:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m. Sunday he still walked with a slight limp and had a wrap on his right leg.
“Walking a little bit without a hitch, so that helps, and just getting better each day,” Smith said. “I think I kind of hit a plateau a little bit, you can only do so much rehab. Hopefully starting tomorrow things will feel a little better.”
The 13th-year receiver is on a playoff team for the fourth time during his career, and time will tell if he’ll be able to participate in this year’s postseason.
But he knew he wanted to be with his team Sunday, because he feared the alternative.
“I need to be here and that was more important,” he said. “And then also, you get a little older and you start to know that times like this, if you’re by yourself, you go to that pit. You go to that woe is me. I didn’t want to go there.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9