Panthers trying to adjust to starís absence

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 4, 2008

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Three large boxes filled with shoes sat in Steve Smithís cluttered locker Wednesday. Smith wasnít around to open the shipment and wasnít there when his Carolina Panthers teammates voted to replace him as a team captain, either.
Farther down the same row of lockers, the man whose nose was broken by Smithís sucker-punch a month ago at training camp insisted theyíll overcome being without their three-time Pro Bowl receiver as he serves a two-game, unpaid suspension to start the season.
iIt showed the character of this team for us to have the ability to move on,î cornerback Ken Lucas said. iPeople could still be dwelling on it, but we havenít. If anything, it has brought this team much closer than where we were at first. We realize how much we care for each other once the incident happened.
iItís like two brothers fighting. Youíre going to fight sometimes with your brother, but youíre still going to love your brother.î
Lucas acknowledged players discussed perhaps seeing if Smithís team-imposed suspension could be lifted. But the Panthers practiced Wednesday without Smith, leaving them with only three healthy receivers for Sundayís season opener at two-time defending AFC West champion San Diego.
iIt has been a topic of discussion, but because of the rules, it canít happen,î Lucas said. iAll we can do is come out and win for him.î
But it was clear Smith punching Lucas while he was on one knee with his helmet off during a break in practice Aug. 1 has changed the way Smithís teammates look at him. After overcoming early transgressions in his career that included a one-game suspension for punching teammate Anthony Bright during a film session in 2002, his teammates voted Smith a team captain last year.
On Wednesday, players voted to keep quarterback Jake Delhomme an offensive team captain ó and replace Smith with veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
iItís a little unexpected,î said Muhammad, beginning his second stint with the Panthers after spending the previous three years in Chicago. iThere are a lot of great leaders on the field and guys that get it done.î
The Panthers will not only need Muhammadís leadership Sunday, but plenty of production on the field, too. Heíll start opposite either D.J. Hackett, who returned to practice Wednesday after missing nearly a month with a toe injury, or Dwayne Jarrett, who caught six passes as a rookie last year.
With Ryne Robinson and Jason Carter out with injuries, the only other healthy receiver is kick returner Mark Jones, who was signed Monday and has never caught a pass in the NFL.