NFL: Smith decision a good one for Panthers
By John Delong
CHARLOTTE ó When the Carolina Panthers suspended star Steve Smith for the first two games of the regular season, debate raged over whether the punishment was proper.
There was no question that Smith had to be sanctioned for punching teammate Ken Lucas during an incident at training camp, when Lucas was kneeling with his helmet off and Smith proceeded to break Lucas’ nose.
But were the Panthers penalizing the entire team for one man’s actions? Were they risking losing their first two games without their Pro Bowl receiver? Were they putting their entire season in jeopardy, since traditionally they have not recovered when they have dug themselves into holes early in the season?
Why not fine Smith instead and make him pay for his indiscretion by writing a check?
Why not do as some college coaches do and just hold Smith out for the first play of the opener at San Diego, or the first series, or the first half, or even a couple of preseason games?
Why not, as Lucas suggested, forgive Smith and let him play on the belief that Smith was sorry and had learned a valuable lesson already?
But the Panthers made the right decision. Anything less than a two-game suspension would have compromised the franchise’s integrity, would have divided the team, and would have sent the wrong message to Smith. Forcing him to write “I will never punch anyone again” on the blackboard 89 times was never the right way to handle this.
And now that the Panthers are 2-0 with wins over San Diego and Chicago, the Panthers can feel even more secure in knowing they did the right thing.
They will go into the next 14 games, starting with Sunday’s trip to Minnesota, a better team for the entire ordeal.
Coach John Fox didn’t put it exactly that way during earlier this week. But he offered up the notion that it turned out to be a win-win situation because the team faced adversity, dealt with it, and overcame it.
“As I mentioned way back when, some of these things make you better, make you stronger,” Fox said. “I think with the type of guys we have in our locker room, an unfortunate incident was made into a positive. I think the fact that we were able to win two games without him makes us all better. Him included.”
The “him included” part is something that Fox didn’t want to elaborate on, but it’s obvious.
The ship didn’t sink without him. Smith won’t be coming back to save the team now, he’ll be coming back to add to it, to give the offense another weapon, to keep the momentum going. He’ll be part of the team, an important part, but not above the team and its rules. He’ll be hungrier, more determined to succeed.
And there may be a tangible way he will benefit from the first two games because the Panthers were able to establish other players whose success will help him get open. The Panthers established the run without him, against defenses stacked with eight-man fronts. And they established their tight ends as viable receiving threats to go with the other complementary wide receivers.
Smith will help them, of course. His return gives the Panthers big-play ability on every down, gives quarterback Jake Delhomme a bona fide deep threat, and gives the offense far better balance.
“He’s arguably one of the best receivers in the game,” Fox said. “He’s fast, he’s strong, tough. He brings a lot to the table.”
The one thing that Fox and General Manager Marty Hurney don’t seem to be enjoying is the fact that, for one week at least, Smith’s return will be the story. It can’t help but be. And once Sunday’s game starts, all eyes in the Metrodome will be focused on Smith and how he performs. That’s a potential distraction, even if his teammates have forgiven him and are welcoming him back enthusiastically.
Don’t bother telling Hurney he made the right decision from the start and has been vindicated by the two opening wins, either. Even though it’s true.
“Everything’s separate,” Hurney said. “The suspension is separate from the two wins. We’re faced with difficult decisions all the time. You take each case and make each decision based on what you think is best for the team and the organization at that particular time.
“I think what it really does is, it says a lot for our players and our coaches. We still had confidence we were a good team. It happens all the time in this league, in the case of injury or whatever ó when somebody’s out, other guys step up and get the job done. I think that happened in this case. We played two very good teams and played well enough to win. Different guys stepped up and made plays, even from Week One to Week Two. So we’re fortunate we’re 2-0 and we’re fortunate we’ve got Steve coming back and everybody’s looking forward to having him back. But it’s still a team game, and everybody’s got to stand up and do their part.”
So far, they have.