Sports

Smith, Williams form one of the NFL's top duos

CHARLOTTE - Being a Carolina Panthers teammate of DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith makes Jon Beason biased, but he is unapologetic.

He calls them the best running back-wide receiver combination in the NFL.

Beason, a linebacker, bases the premise on the fact that Smith has been one of the league's elite receivers for years.

And, he says, none of the other receivers in Smith's rarefied air are teammates of a running back who rivals Williams.

"Every offensive coordinator would die to have a receiver as dominant and a running back as dominant," Beason said of Smith and Williams.

Nationally, they have been noticed.

ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia quarterback Ron Jaworski calls Smith and Williams, who ran for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, "a lethal combination."

Jaworski's new broadcast mate, former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, has talked for years about how scary it is to face Smith. Now, he lauds Williams as well.

Gruden said during the telecast of the Aug. 22 Panthers-Dolphins exhibition "his people" believe Williams is the best running back in the NFL.

And Gruden said a highlight tape of Smith's 10 best plays would rival any player in the NFL.

"I think he's rare," he said.

PLAYING BIG

Smith and Williams, who say they are friendly teammates but not close friends, walked off the practice field together recently for a simultaneous interview for this story - at Smith's request.

"You want to elevate your game when you're around him," Williams said of Smith, whose emotional leadership he compares to what fiery linebacker Ray Lewis brings to the Baltimore Ravens' defense.

Smith expressed guarded appreciation for the comment.

"I try not to get caught up in that," he said.

Both Smith and Williams are listed as 5-foot-9, relatively short for their positions and their status in the NFL.

"When people see me or meet me in person, they say, 'Man, I thought you were bigger,'" said Williams. "I say, 'We don't play this game vertically.' That's one of the pluses to the National Football League. It's not a basketball game. We play this game horizontally."

Williams and Smith both use past slights as motivation.

"I was too small to be a feature back," said Williams. "I'm too small to pick up blitzes. That's what pushes me to be as productive as I can possibly be at this position."

CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER?

Smith said he does not agree with the widely held notion that he plays with a chip on his shoulder, pointing out no one expected him to become a star receiver when he entered the NFL as a third-round pick in 2001.

"Nothing against DeAngelo, but I wasn't a first-round draft pick," he said, referencing Williams' selection as the 27th pick in the 2007 draft.

"When they brought me in, they said I'm here to play special teams a little bit and a few offensive plays. That's what literally I did for a while. I was not allowed to play wide receiver."

Smith was selected to the Pro Bowl his rookie year as a specialist after returning two kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns. He caught 10 passes in 2001 and 54 in 2002 before bursting on the scene in 2003 as a receiving star.

Now, Smith is seeking his sixth season with 1,000 or more yards receiving.

Williams set a team record for most rushing yards in a season last year despite sharing carries with Jonathan Stewart.

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Williams and Smith say they are more different than similar. Williams is boisterous and playful, while Smith calls himself introverted. Williams is single. Smith is married and a doting father of three.

"DeAngelo is a big kid," said Beason. "If you're going to walk in the room, you're going to know exactly where he is ... because he's got that loud voice. He likes video games. He's a funny guy, a good dude.

"Smitty is a committed family guy. I think growing up tough out of L.A. (with a challenging) family situation made him really embrace his family. He really enjoys it and it's something that's dear to him. He's a true husband and father."

Williams says he can foresee himself as a family man-someday.

Williams is not as close to Smith as he is to Stewart, though Smith has been intentional recently about taking a more active role in Williams' career.

"I don't ever have him over for Christmas dinner or anything like that," said Smith. "(But) in this last year, I've opened myself up a little bit more to DeAngelo, which makes it a little bit easier for him to talk to me.

"I help him out with the stuff that I failed with, all the mistakes I made early in my career. I've got to be honest, I told him things in confidence about what success has brought me, and how it has hurt me, to try to get him not to make the same mistakes I made when I was young."

Williams said he appreciated the input.

"Not a lot of guys in his position are willing to sit down and take time out of their day, or time out of their practice to sit down with a younger guy and give them helpful information," he said.

MUTUAL APPRECIATION

Their mutual admiration goes beyond the obvious.

Smith's favorite play by Williams was one in which he contributed - a 69-yard touchdown run in a 17-6 win at Oakland last year. Smith ran with Williams downfield and served as a guide and blocker.

Smith was impressed that Williams acknowledged his extra effort publicly.

"I think that's great," said Smith. "I like that."

Williams' favorite play by Smith was not a dramatic game-winner, like the ones Smith had last season against Green Bay and New Orleans, but a touchdown reception in a 2007 loss to Houston.

"The reason it was one of my favorite plays was because it was late in the fourth (quarter), we were already down and I don't think we had a chance of winning that game," said Williams. "But just his determination - he broke like eight or nine tackles - for me, that was huge."

Williams was a rookie that year and got his first glimpse of Smith's well-documented work ethic in practice. Now, Williams runs all the way to the end zone almost every time he breaks into the secondary during practice.

BEST IN THE LEAGUE?

So where does the other stand in the NFL, in their opinion?

Smith is careful to make sure that Williams' ascension does not get overstated - including by Gruden.

"I don't think (Williams) is the best back, just to make him keep working," said Smith. "If somebody tells you you're the best back or the best wide receiver, now what? Once you're there, you don't have to do anything. But if you always have competition, you're always working toward something."

Smith was reminded he has been called the NFL's best receiver many times. He shrugged, but Williams chimed in: "I'm one of those who thinks so."

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