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Panthers turn back the clock with Muhammad

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -Jake Delhomme was watching television in February when he saw the crawl that Muhsin Muhammad had been released by the Chicago Bears.

Less than 20 minutes later, the Panthers quarterback was on the phone with teammate Steve Smith, plotting a way to get Muhammad back in Carolina.

"We were saying we got to somehow get it done, because we know how much he means to this offense," Delhomme said. "We were selfish. He can help me and Steve. We wanted him to be back."

About a week later, Muhammad signed with the Panthers, who never effectively replaced him when he left for the Bears four years ago. Even though he is 35 and coming off one of his least productive seasons, the Panthers hope their franchise leader in catches and yards receiving can help end two years of offensive ineptitude.

"It's been a little while since I've been in Spartanburg," said Muhammad, Carolina's second-round pick in 1996. "A lot of things have changed, but a lot of things have stayed the same. It's the same field, got the same quarterback, same little buddy on the other side making big plays, so it's a lot of fun."

Smith clearly relishes having his friend as teammate again, too. After Muhammad was let go in a salary-cap move after the 2004 season, the Panthers tried to replace him at the No. 2 receiver spot with Keary Colbert, Keyshawn Johnson, Dwayne Jarrett, Colbert again and Drew Carter.

Nothing worked. The Panthers reached the NFC championship game in 2005, but Seattle ended Carolina's season by using double and even some triple teams on Smith.

Carolina hasn't been back to the playoffs since, and Smith's numbers have declined with all the attention from opposing defenses.

Enter Muhammad - again.

"He and Steve get along great," Delhomme said. "They respect each other the utmost. It's fun to watch. It's two professionals. I know I wasn't here for Steve's first couple of years, but I saw a transformation for when I got here to now. Guys have told me what a difference he's been since his rookie year. I just think he was around Moose so much, he's a pro."

The Panthers insist they aren't concerned with Muhammad's age. Never a speedster, Muhammad has been best known for his precision route running and being one of the NFL's best blocking receivers.

Muhammad started all 16 games for the Bears last season, but was held to 40 catches, the fewest since his second year in Carolina. Still, it was clear as he ran routes at practice Sunday that he remains in top condition.

"Me and Moose were working out in the offseason and I see him put 375 (pounds) on the bench press and do it about eight times," said safety Chris Harris, who played with Muhammad in Chicago for three years. "I was like, 'Wow, I couldn't do it. And I'm 25.' He's very impressive."

Muhammad will have some competition for the No. 2 receiver job. Carolina also signed former Seahawk D.J. Hackett in the offseason, and Jarrett is hoping to recover from a dismal rookie season.

"You've got to have more than one receiver who can play this game. That makes it very hard to defend," Muhammad said. "It makes it very hard for a defense to take one element away. I think we have the potential to get the ball down the field. The offensive line looks pretty stout. They should be able to keep Jake healthy and we'll have a great opportunity to win."

Delhomme's recovery from ligament-replacement surgery in his right elbow is one of the keys to the Panthers' season. Delhomme's arm has looked strong so far, and he's clearly comfortable with the 6-foot-2 Muhammad opposite the 5-9, speedy Smith.

"I know how to win. I know how to be a leader," said Muhammad, who is 64 yards shy of 10,000 yards receiving. "I know how to win, how to play this position, and I know how to work hard, and I think those things right there are intangibles that are hard to coach. You have to really show that and how to get it done, so I think those are some of the things I can bring."

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