Panthers wideout Steve Smith has been confused a lot this week.
In a good way.
Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has spent the first two weeks of OTA (organized team activities) practices installing tweaks and twists to further diversify the NFL's seventh-ranked offense in 2011.
Anyone who thought the coach known as “Chud” was going to roll the balls out this spring and maintain the status quo should check with Smith, a veteran who made a handful of mental mistakes Wednesday after missing a couple of days last week to attend a relative's graduation.
Smith said he is comfortable enough with Chudzinski that he told him: “Whoa, this is a little bit too much for me this week.”
Not that Smith is complaining.
“I'm encouraged by that,” he said.
It took about two training camp practices last summer for Smith to realize this was not Jeff Davidson's offense anymore. Smith praised the way Chudzinski lined him up all over the field rather than planting him wide on one side for 60 plays a game, as Smith said John Fox's staff often did.
Smith responded with 79 catches and a Pro Bowl berth a year after a career-worst season had him talking about finishing his career somewhere other than Charlotte. With Cam Newton firmly entrenched as the franchise quarterback and Chudzinski back after interviewing for three head-coaching jobs, Smith signed a three-year contract extension in April that should allow him to retire as a career Panther.
Smith is in a happy place – at long last.
“I'm doing good, not bad for a 33-year-old,” Smith said after Wednesday's optional practice.
“I run around. Let the young guys get in, but also get out there and catch and get our timing back and get it up to speed. Run the new plays. I probably had several mental errors. That's expected early. Get them out now before the season starts.”
Smith is not fond of the characterization that Newton's arrival rejuvenated him. But beginning with their private workouts last summer during the lockout, it was clear Smith was happy to have Newton throwing to him rather than Jimmy Clausen.
After Newton's record-breaking rookie season, Smith finds it refreshing that Newton still is looking for ways to improve. Smith views Newton's comment that he was a “bad teammate” in 2011 when he took defeats too hard as another positive sign.
“We're all harsher critics on ourselves. So it doesn't surprise me him saying that because how hard he is on himself,” Smith said. “I think that's good for him to say he has some things to work on. I think that's progress and a show of growth and maturity.
“A lot of times with a guy like Cam (having) early success so quickly, we don't want to be harsh critics or we don't want to analyze what we consider the weaknesses we know are there. It may not be glaring. It may be something small. But it's huge to him.
“I think the biggest thing is for him to acknowledge it, not behind closed doors but out. I think that's him saying, 'Hey, there's some things I can improve on, whatever it is.' … I like that.”
Smith also likes the confidence he hears around the locker room. Linebacker Jon Beason has said it's not enough to make the playoffs; he wants the Panthers expecting to make a deep postseason run.
“I feel with some of the guys we've got, we can improve. If we can improve, I think there's nothing wrong with anticipating and expecting improvement, (which) would ultimately result in going to the playoffs,” Smith said.
“Once you're in the playoffs, it's like buying a ticket in the Lotto. It's one out of a million. But if you've got that ticket, you have a greater chance of getting a jackpot than you do without buying a ticket.”
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Man, this is gonna be an exciting season.