Center of attention
Most people probably remember Rod Smart from his days known as "He Hate Me" in the now-defunct XFL. Even though he is in the NFL and now has the name Smart on the back of his jersey, the running back/kick returner hasn't lost his cult celebrity status. Aside from maybe Carolina Head Coach John Fox and quarterback Jake Delhomme, Smart appeared to be the most sought after interview at Carolina's portion of media day at Reliant Stadium on Tuesday.
Completely encircled by endless reporters, Smart and attention-getting, overly exuberant partner, safety Jarrod Cooper, answered questions about the back's previous life as the comic-book like XFL character.
"Hey, Deshaun we need that podium," Smart yelled from the floor to Carolina running back Deshaun Foster, one of 10 Panthers seated at podiums along the field. "We need that. We are trying to represent, baby."
Smart, who returned 41 kickoffs for 947 yards (23.1 avg.) and carried the ball 20 times for 49 yards, also joked about his personal world of hate continuing by the fact that he didn't have one of the podiums available for the more sought after players.
"They hate me. They didn't give me a podium," Smart later said.
Cooper than ran by Fox's podium yelling, "Who's your favorite player, John Fox?"
There is no question the two relatively unknowns had some of the most fun of any of the Panthers at media day, something Smart has brought to a rather laid back Carolina team.
"I love the guy," defensive lineman Brentson Buckner said. "Before I ever met him, that's the only thing I remember about the XFL. He had the jersey on and they interviewed him after a big run. He brings a lot of fun to the team. He brings a lot of character to a team that's real bland. You look at the Carolina Panthers and you wouldn't think you have a guy like that on the team, but he gives us some kind of identity."
On the line
Many in the media believe that Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVIII will be decided in the trenches in a battle between the Panther strong defensive line and a New England offensive line that has added three new, young starters over the course of the 2003 season. One would expect the nod in that battle to go to the Carolina group that includes two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and former rookie of the year Julius Peppers, but the members of the group don't necessarily see it that way.
"We don't have any advantage," Buckner said. "Their quarterback hasn't been sacked during the playoffs. He hasn't been touched. That's one thing about football, football is not about who makes the most money or who has the advantage in the newspaper. It's about who goes out and executes the best on the field. If you watch film their offensive line is executing better than anybody in the NFL right now. Their quarterback has not been touched. The running backs have big, gaping holes. They play well as a unit. So the advantage doesn't mean anything. That's what the people in the press want to write and talk about but we know we have to go out there and play because those guys come to play every Sunday and their record shows it."
Buckner believes that means he and his teammates must get penetration in the game and pressure New England quarterback Tom Brady.
"You can't allow him to be comfortable," Buckner said. "You see what he does. 14 straight games he was comfortable in the pocket. The quarterback touches the ball every play and if you can affect him when he touches the ball it gives you a better chance to win.
"But he also does a good job protecting himself. He's not going to hold the ball. He's not going to allow you to hit him. He'd be crazy to allow people to come in and hit him. He does a good job of getting rid of the ball and allowing himself not to be hit. They work well together. They give him enough time and that ball is coming out. He's not going to sit there and pat the ball and take unnecessary hits."
One member of the seemingly endless media on the field at Reliant was Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Warren Sapp, working for the NFL Network. Sapp's appearance went without event at the Patriots session, a team he made some disparaging remarks about on ESPN just last week. His work also went without much note with the Panthers, another team that Sapp has feuded with in the past.
"If he's getting paid I ain't hatin'," wide receiver Steve Smith said.
"The only thing I get out of that is that means we are representing the NFC and the Bucs are not," Buckner said of Sapp's work as a TV reporter. "From what I understand he is doing a great job at it. If he was sitting up here, that means I'd be sitting at home."
Not bad for a rookie
Life is pretty good these days for Panthers cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr. After playing in all 16 games this season with three interceptions, the third round pick's production has exploded in the postseason with three interceptions in the NFC Championship against Donovan McNabb and four interceptions overall.
"I learn something new every week whether it's a different receiver or a different coverage," Manning said of his growth over the course of the year. "I am learning stuff every week. It's great. It's a great learning experience. I get a chance to get it early. My rookie year I am thrown in the fire and I get a chance to experience it early. It's going to really help me out in the future."
But that doesn't mean Manning has been elevated to veteran status just yet.
"I am still a rookie, these guys won't let me forget that," Manning said. "I am still a rookie. But I am having fun and enjoying the success."
Quotes and Notes
While the apparent let-them-play style of officiating that officials appear to be taking this postseason has drawn criticism from some, the players seem to be able to handle it. "They are going to play whatever they can get away with and believe me I am going to do whatever I can get away with also," Smith said of the battle between receivers and defensive backs. "Officials are human. They are going to miss calls and they are going to make calls. Sometimes they are going to say bogus calls. But you talk to the official and ask him what's going on? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? I just talk to them to see what I can get away with also." … Many of the Panthers, like many NFL players would, appeared at media day with plenty of jewelry on. Buckner, who admitted to wearing more than $200,000 worth of bling, topped the Carolina display of jewels. "Some of the guys are probably trying to hide it because they don't know if there are some thieves lurking out there," Buckner said. "I wear it every day. Coach Fox tells us to, 'Be who you are. Don't get down there and change.' So I wear jewelry every day and this day is not going to change." … Manning, an impressive athlete, stole more than 100 bases in his baseball career at Edison High School in Fresno, Calif. He also played four seasons of minor league baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization. "I could smash the curve ball," Manning said. "I couldn't hit the knuckle ball. That goes in slow motion. You think it is a fat watermelon out there and that thing breaks on you and you miss everything."