Volatile Smith feeling no pressure in return

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith marked his return to the Carolina Panthers Wednesday by making spectacular catches in practice, joking with teammates, avoiding reporters -- and making a posting on his blog that claims he wasn't entirely at fault the first time he attacked a teammate.

It was all part of a bizarre day as the Panthers' top playmaker practiced for the first time since ending his two-game suspension for breaking Ken Lucas' nose with a sucker punch in training camp. It was the second time in his volatile career that he's rearranged a teammate's face.

Career Statistics:
Receptions: 431

Yards: 5,927

Touchdowns: 37

The Panthers went a surprising 2-0 without their three-time Pro Bowl pick, and insisted again Wednesday the ugly incident was behind them.

"I truly forgave my teammate, my brother," said Lucas, who underwent minor surgery to set his nose. "I've truly forgotten about it. The only time I really talk about it is when somebody brings it up and I try to shoot it down as much as possible."

Smith never appeared in the locker room during the media's access period Wednesday, not even for his tradition of setting off an earsplitting air horn to shoo reporters out when time is up.

But Smith did make a blog posting on his charity Web site, Athletes United for Youth. In it he chastised people for bringing up his past, which includes attacking practice-squad player Anthony Bright during a film session six years ago.

"Yes, I made a mistake in November 2002," Smith wrote. "I will say for the first time that somebody did take a swing at me then, for all the people who want to say I pummeled a teammate six years ago."

Smith was suspended one game for that incident and received counseling for anger management. A civil suit filed by Bright was settled out of court. Bright, who is no longer in the NFL, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Smith's history of losing his temper, which has included an ejection from a game in 2005 for bumping an official, is why the Panthers acted swiftly after he punched Lucas while the cornerback was on one knee with his helmet off during a break in practice on Aug. 1.

Smith lost more than $200,000 in base salary during the suspension, but rejoins a team full of confidence after staging fourth-quarter comebacks to beat San Diego and Chicago.

"I'm in a good place," Smith wrote in his blog. "I'm stress free, and I'm not worried about the non-important people, the people who want to degrade, demean, the people who try to kick me when I'm down. I want to be around people who are encouraging and see the truth and good in everybody."

Smith, the team's leading receiver the past three years, seemed to show no rustiness in practice. He was jovial with teammates and showed off the explosive speed Carolina missed during his absence.

"It was nice having him out there," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "He does have a presence, I don't think there's any doubt. He showed he was the same old Steve. It's only been two weeks we haven't seen him. It was a nice addition for us."

Since the start of the 2005 season, Smith ranks fifth in the NFL with 3,731 yards receiving, and tied for sixth with 27 touchdown catches. With Muhsin Muhammad, D.J. Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett splitting time at receiver in Smith's absence, the Panthers lacked a big-play threat while he was out.

Yet they still were able to stun the two-time defending AFC West champion Chargers on Delhomme's 14-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Dante Rosario as time expired. Muhammad and tight end Jeff King had key catches in Sunday's winning drive against the Bears, capped by Jonathan Stewart's 1-yard TD run with 3:52 left.

The Panthers' success without Smith lessens the load for him on Sunday at Minnesota, where Smith began his NFL career in 2001 by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

"The team is 2-0. That says this about this team: no Smith, no problem," Smith wrote. "I come in now and I'm just a guy. I don't have any pressure. I don't have to do anything extra. I catch balls and go home.

"This is the least pressure I've felt in my eight-year career."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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