The Damn! Moment of Week 9   Good, bad, ugly from Week 9   MatchSport: Animated movies   The sky is falling

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

He has provided us a Damn Moment nearly every Sunday. Yet through the season's first eight weeks, he hasn't received a single mention in this Monday space.

His touchdown catches are even more electrifying and his celebrations far more entertaining than Terrell Owens'. But this little guy is nothing but a model teammate and community role model. So who really notices or cares?

You no longer just watch Owens, you rubber-neck him. He is the most self-destructive NFL star since the Cowboys' Duane Thomas went from Super Bowl hero to outcast in the early '70s. The better Owens has it, the worse he acts. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles embraced him when many teams wouldn't have. Yet he has done nothing but spit in their faces.

Now, if Eagles coach Andy Reid is smart, he'll pay Terrible Owens to stay away from the team he has wrecked. Yes, hold him hostage the way he has dangled this team over the edge. Don't cut him now and let him get revenge by becoming a temporarily well-behaved star on another team. Ice him, then try to trade him after the season.

Once again Sunday, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Owens overshadowed my favorite little 5-9, 185-pound Damn Moment -- and Owens didn't even play. Meanwhile, Chad Johnson and Plaxico Burress stole some of little No. 89's spotlight with holy-cow catches.

Heck, Randy Moss got more attention because, once again, he didn't catch many passes. He wound up with just one, for a 7-yard touchdown. But though he's playing hurt and keeping his mouth shut, we're all ears awaiting a "get me outta here" blowup in Oakland.

T.O., Chad, Plax, Moss -- has anyone really noticed that all those big, bad receivers are being outperformed by the Mighty Mouse in Carolina blue? Surely, studio hosts have broken into more games to show his highlights than any other NFL player. Whoops, there he goes again, exploding across my screen past another overmatched cornerback for another long touchdown catch.

Yet this little guy is still the "other" Steve Smith. No, we're not talking about the retired NBA player. Quite frankly, the NFL's Steve Smith isn't even as well known as Stephen A. Smith of ESPN fame. Then again, where would Stephen A. be if he simply called himself Steve?

This Steve Smith needs a nickname. Or at least a middle initial. How about Stevie Z?

This time, against the NFL's No 1. defense at Tampa Bay, Smith shifted into a gear only he has, blew past Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber and beat safety Jermaine Phillips to take Jake Delhomme's pass in for a 35-yard touchdown. Another double team, another six.

Damn.

Carolina, 34-14.

This time, Stevie Z went Antonio Banderas on us, striking a "Legend of Zorro" pose, left hand open at his ear, and used the ball as his sword, dancing up and back as he slashed a "Z" in the air.

This celebration was as convincingly executed as it was clever. But I'd rank it only the third-best of his nine.

Yes, Smith leads the NFL with nine TD catches. He also leads in receptions and yards, even though he's the Panthers' only real receiving threat now that Muhsin Muhammad is with the Bears. Smith leads his team with 55 catches; DeShaun Foster, a running back, is second with 15.

Daaa-umn.

The Bucs knew the ball was going to No. 89 and they still couldn't keep him out of the end zone. Smith wound up with five catches for 106 yards, propelling the Panthers to their fifth straight win.

They have emerged as the NFC's most powerful team in large part because Smith has made a nine-game case for NFL MVP.

Some receivers miss a season with a broken leg and never quite regain their quickness and speed. Smith returned a better and smarter receiver, saying he spent much of last season studying what made Muhammad so good.

Now, no receiver in football runs better routes than Smith. No receiver has a better combination of can't-jam-him quickness and fly-by-you speed -- not even the Redskins' Santana Moss, who's having nearly as great a season as Smith.

Smith is a little stouter and stronger than Santana Moss. Smith plays with as much knows-he's-good confidence as any receiver, yet doesn't let it leak into the off-field arrogance that has taken down so many receivers, from Michael Irvin to Randy Moss.

Smith does most of his talking with catching and celebrating. As much as I loved Chad Johnson's river dance, it wasn't as creative and funny as Smith using the football as a remote to turn on a TV, then using the football as a phone to call a friend and ask if he just saw his touchdown.

And how great was Smith, sliding to an end-zone stop on his bottom, then acting like he was rowing, one side, then the other? He glanced over his shoulder, then began rowing furiously as if the cornerback were catching up.

Uniquely hilarious.

Smith can't out-talk Johnson -- who was his teammate at Santa Monica Junior College -- but he can out-skit him.

You can have T.O. I'll take Steve Smith because I can win with him.

Yes, in the rock-beats-scissors-beats-paper-beats-rock NFC South, the Panthers still have nemesis games left with Atlanta (home and away) and against New Orleans at Baton Rouge. But Carolina has built a tradition of finishing strongly in the season's second half, which means its 6-2 start makes it the NFC's team to beat.

Then again, Ron Jaworski said Sunday evening on ESPN that Carolina coaches had asked him in the postgame locker room to low-key his praise of the Panthers. They want their team to "stay under the radar," Jaworski said.

Their little receiver with the forgettable name actually is finally flying above it.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.