A rookie quarterback hasn’t just saved Steve Smith’s career, but he’s made it better than it ever was.

At the age of 32, the longtime Panthers receiver is having the best season of his career. Cam Newton’s presence has worked wonders for the veteran, who is averaging a ridiculous 20.0 yards per catch midway through the 2011 campaign.

“It’s drastically different,” Smith told the Boston Herald last week. “It’s so different, it’s making a 32-year-old guy feel like he can still play.”

Like Newton, Smith is only getting better as the season progresses. After a hot start and a short lull, he’s coming off his second straight 100-yard game. He leads Wes Welker by almost 100 yards in that category and is less than one yard per game off the pace of Jerry Rice’s single-season record for receiving yards in a season (1,848 in 1995).

Smith already has as many catches as he had in 14 games last year and nearly as many yards as he had in 15 games in 2009. If he maintains this pace, he’ll have the best season of his career with several games to spare.

“I’ve been sitting on the shelf for about two years, just collecting that dust,” Smith said last week. “Get the cobwebs off, throw on a little WD-40 and let me go to work.”

While Smith is healthier now than he’s been in years, the one glaring difference is that he finally has a quarterback in 2011. Newton wasn’t expected to come along this quickly, especially after the work stoppage delayed his offseason progress. But the No. 1 overall pick has been airing it out like no other quarterback in the league, save for Aaron Rodgers.

Newton ranks second in the NFL with 2,393 yards and fourth with 8.3 yards per attempt. He leads the league with 40 completions of 20-plus yards. His ability to keep defenses honest by posing as a threat to scramble has been a big difference maker, freeing up Smith to do his thing.

That’s gotta be refreshing for Smith, who has never worked with a pivot as talented as the former Auburn star. In his 10 previous seasons with the Panthers, the third-round pick out of Utah has been forced to catch passes from the following group of signal callers:

  • Jake Delhomme (90 starts, 81.2 career rating)
  • Chris Weinke (16 starts, 62.2 career rating)
  • Rodney Peete (15 starts, 73.3 career rating)
  • Matt Moore (13 starts, 73.3 career rating)
  • Jimmy Clausen (10 starts, 58.4 career rating)
  • Vinny Testaverde (6 starts, 65.8 rating in Carolina)
  • David Carr (4 starts, 58.3 rating in Carolina)

Newton has an 87.1 rating in eight starts, and it’s clear that he and Smith have developed a special bond that can be traced back to when Newton made the effort to show up at Smith’s camp for kids in the summer. At the time, Smith was frustrated with his situation in Carolina, but it seems Newton played a role in convincing him to stay. The rest is history.

It all makes you wonder how much better Smith would’ve been with better arms throwing his way earlier in his career.

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