WR Smith rejoins confident, unbeaten Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith's first day back from suspension lasted only a few hours.

Smith rejoined the Carolina Panthers on Monday morning, only to be seen leaving Bank of America Stadium around noon, carrying two cardboard boxes and joking with teammate Damione Lewis.

Thanks to his teammates' perseverance, Smith got to be a part of "Winning Monday," too.

Coach John Fox cuts short the film session and lets players leave early the day after victories. When the Panthers suspended Smith for the first two games after punching teammate Ken Lucas in training camp, the prospect of anything less than a full day on the job following those games seemed remote.

But after Sunday's dramatic 20-17 win over Chicago, the Panthers are 2-0, full of confidence and eager to welcome their dynamic and sometimes troubled star receiver back to a team that senses it can do something special this season.

"Some of these things make you better, make you stronger," Fox said. "I think the type of guys we have in that locker room, I think an unfortunate incident is made into a positive. I think the fact that we were able to win two games without him makes us all better, him included."

Smith did not speak to reporters on Monday, but his teammates seemed excited to add a three-time Pro Bowl pick to a unit that beat San Diego and Chicago with dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks.

"For us to go out there and do what we are doing these past two weeks, that just gives us more confidence," said rookie running back Jonathan Stewart, who scored the game-winning touchdown against the Bears. "And of course when Steve gets here, he's going to be fired up."

It would be hard to believe the morning of Aug. 1 that the Panthers would be in this position. Moments after Smith punched Lucas while the cornerback was on one knee with his helmet off, Smith had to be pulled away from an angry mob of defensive players. Fox had to warn his players after the practice not to retaliate against Smith.

Since then Fox, Lucas and Smith all helped turn the ugly incident into something that has brought the team together.

Despite being Carolina's leading receiver for three years, Fox had to suspend Smith to avoid losing his team. Smith apologized and Lucas accepted. The scene of Smith and Lewis joking Monday was a symbol of how the Panthers have overcome something that could have ruined their season.

"I think all of that's over, in my mind," Fox said. "I think it's over in our team's mind. I don't know about your minds, but it's over with us. All the talk has been done."

After being able to move the ball against San Diego, the Panthers clearly missed Smith against the Bears. Without having to worry about the speedy, big-play threat in the receiving game, Chicago put eight, nine and at times even 10 men in the box to stop the run. The Panthers had two first downs in the first half and were plagued by penalties. But the defense kept them in striking distance.

Finally, the Panthers started to move the ball behind the bruising Stewart, who consistently broke tackles. The Panthers used screen passes to open the passing game, and safety Chris Harris' 10th forced fumble in 17 games gave the Panthers a short field for the first of two fourth-quarter TDs.

Showing no ill effects following ligament-replacement surgery in his throwing elbow, Jake Delhomme found a way to win a second straight game without his favorite target.

"The offense bailed us out last week. I think the defense bought time for our offense this week," Fox said. "That's what this game is about. Now we're getting ready for Minnesota."

It's probably fitting that Smith's first game back Sunday is against the Vikings. It was where Smith returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in his first NFL game in 2001.

Smith was just a return specialist then. He didn't develop into a top receiver until 2003, the year the Panthers went to the Super Bowl -- and the last time they started 3-0.

"We've been lucky to make a few plays. Hopefully we'll continue to do so," tight end Jeff King said. "We get Smitty back next week. Hopefully we'll keep rolling."

Notes: Fearing a fine from the league, Fox declined to give his opinion after watching the film of Lance Briggs' hit to Delhomme's head in the third quarter Sunday. But he hinted they'll send a copy of the play to the league for possible discipline. "It's something we'll address, look at it and go from there," Fox said. ... The Panthers appeared to come out of the game with no significant injuries. ... The team has until Wednesday afternoon to clear a roster spot for Smith, who was on the reserve-suspended list.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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