If you had told me three months ago that the Carolina Panthers were going to start out 2-0, I would have been hesitant to agree with you.
The Panthers have started out 2-0, behind a resurgent offense that is embracing the return of their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, who missed all but two-and-a-half games of last year.
The season has started out with wins in San Diego, who was a popular Super Bowl pick out of the AFC coming into the season, and in their home opener against the Bears, who knocked off Indianapolis in a Week One shocker.
The offense has looked solid behind Delhomme and the dynamic rushing duo of DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart.
The defense has also stepped up as needed, with Chris Harris recording two forced fumbles at the best of times to assist the Panthers in the road to victory.
Okay, guys, it's official. The season can start now. Steve Smith is here.
The Panthers have done all of the above missing one key element of their game plan: Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith has sat out the team's first two games, serving a two-game suspension that was levied after a training-camp incident between Smith and his teammate, cornerback Ken Lucas, where Smith threw a punch at Lucas, breaking his nose.
The Panthers have experienced only one full season without Smith since he came into the league in the 2001 season.
In 2004, the Panthers opened up their season at home against the Packers on Monday Night Football. A chance to step up to the next level as a team and defeat Brett Favre to start the season was right on their doorstep.
That door would slam, however, when early in the game Smith went down with a broken leg that would sit him down for the rest of the season.
Smith had already reeled in six catches for 60 yards, and the Panthers' offense was looking like their only chance to stay in the game, as then-Packers running back Ahman Green was giving the Panthers a lesson in smash-mouth football and cramming it down their throat.
This delivered a harsh blow to the Panthers, especially quarterback Jake Delhomme, who threw for 3,886 yards and had 29 touchdowns to just 15 interceptions. Imagine what he could have done with Smith in the lineup.
The Panthers were written off this season for a start that equaled that of the last time Smith missed the first two games of the season, in 2006. The Panthers started off 0-2 without Smith that year, and won four games in a row following his return.
The Panthers would eventually miss the playoffs, but Smith's return to the team was an undeniable boost to the team after a poor start. His tenacity on the field and his relentless play, how he punishes opposing defensive backs, is an undeniable asset to his team.
Smith has been particularly effective in his comeback games.
In the first game of the 2005 season, after missing basically the entire 2004 season, Smith had eight catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.
That was a start to his best statistical season, where he finished with 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns, carrying the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Seahawks.
In 2006, after missing the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, Smith came out with a pep in his step in Week Three, catching seven balls for 112 yards in a victory over division rival New Orleans.
He went on to finish with 83 catches for 1,166 yards and eight touchdowns in just 14 games.
This year’s Panthers team is a squad with a lot to prove, especially on offense, where new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson is getting a second chance of sorts at his first season with Carolina.
In his debut campaign last year, he lost his starting quarterback for the season in Week Three, and the offense never regained it’s original pop, finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the second-straight year.
This year, Carolina has all of its pieces in place to make a run deep into the playoffs.
Delhomme is healthy for the first time in years, successfully rehabbing his throwing elbow from Tommy John surgery.
The running game is showing the same type of dominance that has been absent from Carolina since the 2003 Super Bowl season.
Williams and Stewart have combined for 247 yards in the team’s first two games, controlling of the line of scrimmage and opening up the passing game for Delhomme.
The defense has also held tough, coming up with big plays and big stops as needed.
With Smith back in the starting lineup, Williams and Stewart instantly become that much better.
Teams will no longer be able to stack seven or eight guys in the box to stop the run, because the safety help will have to go to double teaming Smith.
This will also cause the other receivers on the field to be more open more often, creating a fluid offense with the ability to score lots of points and establish long drives.
The offense will also be able to grind down opposing defenses, while allowing their own to rest. Smith is certainly Delhomme’s favorite target, with 31 of his 98 touchdown passes as a Panther landing in Smith’s hands, even with Smith missing a full season of action.
Smith’s return will also bolster the chemistry of a team who has really come together this season.
The altercation between Smith and Lucas could have easily torn the team apart, but Smith’s public and private apology to Lucas immediately after the incident did wonders for their relationship, and his commitment to his teammates to improve on his anger-management issues has earned him solid respect in the locker room, bringing the team closer as friends and as football players.
The Panthers are in an interesting position, a unique one for this organization. They have had seasons where they were favorites to win the NFC and even the Super Bowl, only to fall short once play began.
This year, they came in as a dark horse in their own division, let alone the NFC, and have quickly put their name in the mouths of NFL analysts around the country.
It’s hard to overlook a road win in San Diego and a victory against the Bears, a team who delivered the Colts their first September loss in four years.
Smith will do nothing but provide a momentum boost for the Panthers this Sunday in Minnesota and for every game remaining on the schedule.
If you have to see it to believe it, tune in Sunday and watch the way the team rallies around a guy with the vivaciousness of Smith. These are the stories that will be told for years to come, if this team can put together the type of season it is capable of.
**Major props to my best friend and roommate Adam Doudar for his assistance with this article**
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