Smith’s suspension puts Fox, Panthers’ offense on the spot

By Chris Cluff  |   Tuesday, August 05, 2008  |  Comments( 8 )

Carolina Panthers
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This is not what John Fox needed as he enters the 2008 season on the hot seat in Carolina.

Steve Smith, the onetime NFL bad boy who had seemingly cleaned up his act and his image, suffered a relapse and went ballistic on a teammate again, and Fox had no choice but to suspend the receiver in an effort to maintain control of his team. Now the Panthers will have to try to win their first two games without Smith, who apparently forgot all of his anger-management training in assaulting cornerback Ken Lucas during practice the other day, and Smith’s absence will put significant pressure on the rest of the offense to get it together quickly or risk a poor start that could hound Fox out of a job.

The Panthers have missed the playoffs the past two years, thanks largely to key injuries and a shaky offense. Fox changed coordinators last year and revamped the offensive scheme, but an arm injury sidelined quarterback Jake Delhomme for the final 13 games and scuttled the team’s playoff hopes. Now the pressure is on the running game to take pressure off Delhomme as he tries to regain the rhythm he had early last season. And with Smith out for the first two games, the onus is on 35-year-old Muhsin Muhammad, new arrival D.J. Hackett and second-year receiver Dwayne Jarrett to help Delhomme out.

Ever since Muhammad left for Chicago in 2005, the Panthers have been a one-man show in the passing game. In those three years, Smith had 273 catches for 3,731 yards and 27 touchdowns, while the other receivers combined for 273, 3,060 and 19. Gone are Ricky Proehl, Keyshawn Johnson, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter – replaced by the prodigal return of Muhammad, the big-play potential of Hackett and the promise of the 21-year-old Jarrett.

But are those guys much of an improvement? Muhammad’s best days are far behind him, as evidenced by his diminishing contribution in Chicago last season – 40 catches for 507 yards and three scores. Jarrett caught just six balls as a rookie last season and is still a developing prospect. In his first year as Seattle’s No. 2 wide receiver, Hackett put up good numbers when he played but couldn’t stay healthy enough to play very much.

The big question marks in the passing game put added pressure on the rushing attack, and that’s where first-round picks Jonathan Stewart (2008) and DeAngelo Williams (2006) will be counted on. In tandem with DeShaun Foster last season, Williams rushed for 717 yards (5.0 per carry) and four touchdowns. Now the shifty third-year back will share time with the more powerful Stewart (5-foot-10, 233 pounds) behind a revamped line that could have new starters at every position (although some of the players are the same).

First-round pick Jeff Otah probably will step in at right tackle, which will enable franchise tackle Jordan Gross to move from right to left and Travelle Wharton to move inside from left tackle to left guard. Ryan Kalil, the team’s second-round pick in 2007, will assume the departed Justin Hartwig’s old spot at center, and the Panthers will let massive free agents Toniu Fonoti (6-4, 350) and Milford Brown (6-5, 330) battle with holdover Keydrick Vincent at right guard.

It could be asking a lot for that unit to open the holes for Williams and Stewart and take the pressure off Delhomme as the quarterback tries to find targets not named Steve Smith in the first two games. If the Panthers are unable to put it together while Smith is suspended, they might have to suspend their playoff hopes for a third straight season.

And that’s not what John Fox needs.

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About Chris Cluff

Chris Cluff spent 10 years as an editor and sportswriter for The Seattle Times. He was a key figure in the newspaper's coverage of the Seahawks, particularly during their Super Bowl run in 2005. He also has written two books on the Seahawks: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Heart-Pounding,...
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