CHARLOTTE -- As much as the Carolina Panthers have come to rely on wide receiver Steve Smith on the field, he knows the time has come when he's looked to in the locker room as well.
The 29-year-old wide receiver grudgingly accepts the fact he may have come to a leadership role here, and offered up a bit of evidence last week that he takes it seriously. Smith apologized for his airing of dirty laundry with teammate Dwayne Jarrett last season, saying he shouldn't have scolded the rookie receiver in front of the media.
Jarrett was talking to reporters about his lack of activity last October when Smith walked by and mentioned he should go "watch some film."
"Everybody has their mind fixed on the whole Dwayne Jarrett/Steve Smith thing, what's going on," Smith said after wrapping up a day's work at his football camp. "The one thing I did on accident, was when I told him to go watch film. I was not trying to call him out, but I did.
"And I regret it to this day. I'm upset at myself that I did. The only reason I did it, was I felt like so many things were not going right, to talk to the media at that time was not beneficial to him."
The in-passing incident was one of the first visible signals of friction between the two (there have been others), but Smith said he didn't believe there was a problem between them. Smith invited the second-round pick to his home last year before training camp began to try to offer some advice, and if anything, he might have been disappointed that Jarrett didn't follow through as planned. Drafted as a potential complement, Jarrett managed just six catches last season, and was active for only eight games as the coaching staff never felt confident enough to give him a bigger role at a time when the non-Smith portion of the receiving position was awful.
Smith made a great effort to say he still talks to Jarrett, tries to offer the help the 21-year-old obviously needs. But he also said he hasn't expressed his regret over the incident to Jarrett personally, though he intends to.
"I haven't cut anybody off on my team," Smith said. "If having expectations for somebody is bad, I guess that's it. As a receiving corps, I have expectations for me and everybody else. I guess the biggest thing, I sometimes hold other people to the same standard I hold myself. And sometimes I need to kind of taper that down.
"I have high expectations for my kids, and my wife grabs my coattails and says 'Sweetie, slow down a little bit.' I'm a fiery guy. So that's a big issue with myself I've been trying to work on, is to make sure I build guys up rather than tear guys down."
Smith acknowledged that his treatment of Jarrett was "a mistake," but he denied that the frost between them was because of Jarrett's pedigree. Smith grew up in Los Angeles, but went the junior college route to Utah, while the New Jersey-born Jarrett was a five-star recruit at Southern Cal. Jarrett was also chosen 29 spots higher in the 2007 draft than Smith was in 2001 (45th and 74th, respectively), but the fact he was the 11th receiver taken that year has always served as motivation for the Pro Bowler.
"It's interesting that people say, 'He's jealous of Dwayne,' because he's a higher pick, or he went to USC, or this or that," Smith said. "I think I've done pretty good for myself, so I'm not too jealous of what Dwayne has received. We're on the same team. He has a number, I have a number. He gets a paycheck, I get a bigger paycheck. We got our quarterback back, so I'm not focused on what I don't have.
"I have expectations, and maybe it was set too high and I reacted and responded in an ill-advised manner, and people took it and ran. But I gave them the opportunity to do it."
Smith's more reflective than many give him credit for being, but he still has certain hot buttons.
At his day job, it's guys who don't work the way he works. Away from football, it's manners.
That was easy to see after his camp, when a parade of children rolled by for autographs and pictures. The polite ones, the ones who weren't trying to hoard, were fine. But woe be to the greedy ones packing handfuls, or those who'd interrupt his conversation.
"OK, but the word is 'Excuse me,' when two adults are talking," Smith said to one tow-headed tike, lowering his glance and freezing the kid before signing and sending him on his way.
Much in the same way, Jarrett fell victim to that treatment last year.
That Smith acknowledged the incident, and his role in it, indicates some of the growth he seeks. He's worked to rein in his temper over the years, including counseling, but he's always resisted the call to the forefront of the team.
He's obviously the most productive player on the roster, but still expressed great surprise last year when he was voted a team captain, since he'd never been afforded that honor before. He laughed last week talking about his own role, saying "a lot of people probably don't like me either." He's chafed teammates with his all-out practice habits, and his competitiveness can singe defensive players if they don't bring it the way he expects.
But rather than making a show of his role, he chooses to focus his energies inward, making sure he's handling his own responsibilities, and hoping that rubs off.
"I think I'm a leader, but I'm not," he said. "You've got older guys, and they say when you get older you're a leader. I'm kind of one of those guys, I just try to play. As I'm getting older and I see this game, I just make sure my closet is nice and tight and make sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. Not because I'm trying to be selfish, but it's a short-lived game, and there's a lot of things that are here today and gone tomorrow. So I just try to make sure my end is taken care of, so when I'm called on, I hold up my end of the bargain.
"I don't focus on, 'I have to do this right because this guy is watching me.' I just try to do the job well, and be the best at my job. My whole thing is, every day when I come in there, if you're a DB, I try to beat that individual. It's not personal, that's just me. I come in there to work."