Already 2-0, Panthers get back game-breaking receiver

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith's return to the Panthers this week has been treated like the circle of life, in a football microcosm.

It ends, for the most part, any more focus on Smith's training-camp attack on teammate Ken Lucas, which resulted in a broken nose for Lucas, a two-game suspension for Smith and unwanted controversy for the Panthers. It begins a potential upgrade for a team that survived Smith's absence to win its first two games but is better served with its best player back in the mix.

"It was an unfortunate incident, we dealt with it and we moved on," said Carolina coach John Fox, who, with team management, decided to impose a team sanction on Smith. "We're way past it right now."

On the surface, it seems so. Being 2-0 helped the situation.


Had Carolina not managed to rally over San Diego and Chicago, doubt could have permeated the psyche, no matter how strong the mental makeup of players and coaches. No need to worry about that now, though.

"It was a challenge that we put to the players," Fox said. "We knew it was going to be tough without Steve. We played two very good teams. Guys had to step up, at receiver, on defense. We had to step up. That was the challenge. It's not over by a long shot. We've got to keep working but it says a lot about those guys in there, starting with Ken Lucas. Lesser men wouldn't have handled things like he did."

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Shortly after the incident, Lucas privately met with Smith. He then publicly announced his forgiveness, diffusing a situation that could have torn at the fabric of the team. He reiterated his point this week.

Smith said he and Lucas, never particularly close, fostered a friendship after the incident. That bridge might help ease potential tensions, but the best way to get beyond the negativity is to produce on the field and be a model teammate from this point forward, Smith said.

"If I allow my past to stay in the back of my head all the time, I'll miss out on the future and the present things that are happening," Smith said Thursday. "I made the mistake twice. I don't plan on making it a third."

Smith also broke the nose of former teammate Anthony Bright in a film-room fight in 2002, an incident the Panthers factored in when handing Smith a two-game suspension for the Lucas punch.

Besides knowing he must keep his temper under control, Smith must also be aware that though he is valuable, football and life will move on with or without him.

"Going into the season we had a very confident football team," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "We believed in what we were doing. We had the right guys. To pull out two wins against two very good football teams only adds to it. Now we get Steve back. That makes us better. We've still gotta work. Yeah, he is a great football player, but we have to have the same work ethic we had all offseason."

Tight end Donte Rosario and wide receiver D.J. Hackett -- players who could have been overlooked with Smith in the lineup -- have combined for 14 catches and a touchdown. Muhsin Muhammed, back with Carolina after a three-year stint in Chicago, has stepped forward to lead Carolina with 11 catches for 115 yards. An emerging running game with a strong offensive line and a rugged tandem of DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart emerged.

"For the wide receivers, it showcased what everybody else could do," wide out Dwayne Jarrett said. "With Steve being out, a lot of players had to step up, myself included. We tried to help the team make those plays Steve usually makes. It shows the character of our receiving corps and we're strong out there."

The always reliable defense has been solid. Not great, but solid enough to make plays when it had to. Kicker John Kasay did some heavy lifting as well, making all six field goal tries when the offense, which has scored just three touchdowns, bogged down.

"When we put guys in a role where they had to be dependable -- where they had to be go-to guys -- it was important because, generally speaking, they weren't go-to guys before with Steve here," Muhammad said. "Everybody on the team became a go-to guy in certain situations. That gave Jake an opportunity to gain confidence in other players. That gave coaches an opportunity to gain confidence in making a certain call. That was big for us to have all those elements and people on the team gaining confidence.

"With Smitty back and getting the attention he's going to draw, we know we can go to this guy or that guy. That makes the offense a lot more a balanced. Throw in the fact that we have a running game and things are a lot more balanced."

Incorporating Smith onto the field, Delhomme said, should be as easy as it's been incorporating him back into the same locker room he's been absent from since the start of the regular season (Smith was allowed to participate in the preseason). He will start and likely be paired with Muhammed. The offense won't change much, but it wisely will change.

Carolina must take advantage of one of the NFL's best receivers. Plus, the Panthers, though unbeaten, are hardly an offensive juggernaut. They rank in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories. In terms of the passing game, they rank 18th, with an average of 174 yards per game.

Smith's presence alone should help. He will prompt defenses to game plan for him and deflect some attention from other receivers and the Panthers' running attack. That's a check in the plus column for Carolina heading into Sunday's game at 0-2 Minnesota. Smith also gives Carolina the breakaway threat it doesn't have. Check No. 2 in the plus box.

"Everyone is expecting and wondering where I fit in," Smith said. "I'm a part of this team. I don't need to fit into something I'm already a part of."

Though Smith can appear aloof and moody, his teammates know he is one of the toughest hombres in the business who can make things happen when all else fails.

"We have added a serious weapon," Muhammed said. "We had guys who could make plays, get the job done and play well enough to win. With Smitty back in the mix, it adds a whole other dimension to our team that present a lot of teams have matchup problems."

The Panthers know that Smith's return doesn't guarantee success. It could cause an immediate hiccup as far as they know. Regardless, they want to move on, and, in the words of Muhammad, return to flying under the radar, where they operate best.

"We're just interested in getting better," he said. "Steve makes us better."

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