The Carolina Panthers' chances of remaining one of the league's elite teams were diminished significantly Monday night, when their reworked offensive line was exposed in a 24-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers and, more importantly, the defending NFC champions lost standout wide receiver Steve Smith to a broken left leg.
Smith broke his fibula when he was tackled by Packers linebacker Hannibal Navies after a short catch with just less than five minutes remaining in the game. Smith had surgery today, and Panthers Coach John Fox indicated he's hopeful but not certain that Smith can play again this season. Philadelphia Eagles rookie guard Shawn Andrews is out for the season after breaking his fibula during Sunday's win over the New York Giants.
Fellow Panthers wideout Muhsin Muhammad told reporters after the game Monday he expected Smith to be sidelined for the entire season. Such injuries typically take eight to 12 weeks to heal.
Smith, 25, established himself as one of the league's rising receiving stars last season. He had 88 catches for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season, and had an attention-grabbing postseason that included the winning 69-yard touchdown reception in the Panthers' double-overtime triumph at St. Louis in an NFC semifinal. The Panthers signed him to a six-year, $27.5-million contract extension (including $9 million in bonus money) in March to keep him from being a restricted free agent during the offseason. He had six catches for 60 yards Monday before getting hurt.
Muhammad, who restructured his contract just before the season after offseason speculation that he might be released, now becomes the Panthers' top receiving threat. Fox said that rookie Keary Colbert, a second-round draft choice from USC, would be moved into the starting lineup while veteran Ricky Proehl would remain the third receiver. Colbert was impressive at times during training camp and preseason, but he also was inconsistent, and was on the inactive list Monday. Holdout receiver Keenan McCardell is clamoring for Tampa Bay to trade or release him, but the Buccaneers have shown no inclination so far to accommodate that request.
The Panthers, meantime, must fix an offensive line that didn't get the job done Monday. New Packers defensive coordinator Bob Slowik took the aggressive approach that he'd promised going into the season, blitzing regularly against both the run and the pass, and the Carolina blockers didn't handle it. There was no running room for tailback Stephen Davis, who rushed for only 26 yards on nine carries. And quarterback Jake Delhomme frequently was under pressure. He was sacked twice and threw an interception while completing 23 of 39 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns.
Carolina has only one offensive lineman -- center Jeff Mitchell -- starting in the same spot as last season. Journeyman Matt Willig is starting at right tackle, and right guard Rich Tylski was retired the previous two seasons.
The Panthers decided in the offseason to move Jordan Gross from right tackle to left tackle. They released last season's left tackle, Todd Steussie, and signed Adam Meadows to play right tackle. But Meadows abruptly retired before the season because of shoulder troubles, making Willig a starter. Guards Bruce Nelson and Tutan Reyes got hurt before the season after last season's starters, Kevin Donnalley and Jeno James, exited in the offseason. Donnalley retired and James signed with Miami as a free agent. Tylski and Doug Brzezinski started at the guard spots Monday.
The Packers provided a blueprint that other Panthers opponents are likely to follow until Carolina proves that it can handle near-constant blitzes. Reyes could return to the lineup this week and replace Brzezinski, and Todd Fordham could take over for Willig. With Smith out of the lineup, defenses probably will be even more brazen about taking a gambling approach without fear of being victimized by big plays.
Carolina probably will try to get back to being the run-first team that it was last season, but defenses likely will stack the line of scrimmage to stop Davis and force Delhomme to try to win games with his patchwork set of blockers and depleted corps of receivers. The Panthers will need their defense to be dominant again after Monday's mediocre effort, in which it permitted Green Bay tailback Ahman Green to rush for 119 yards and score three touchdowns, two running and one receiving.
No one said it was going to be easy. The Panthers lived a charmed existence last year during their run to the Super Bowl, mostly avoiding major injuries and winning one tight game after another. They looked like one of the top teams in the NFC entering the season, with linebacker Mark Fields's return after missing last season while undergoing treatments for Hodgkin's disease set to bolster their already formidable defense. But now they have early-season issues, and they are the sixth straight Super Bowl loser to lose its opening game the following season.
"We've obviously got a lot of work to do," Fox told reporters after the game.
Packers CBs Solid
Green Bay cornerbacks played well Monday even without holdout Mike McKenzie. Al Harris kept Smith from being much of a factor in the game. New starter Michael Hawthorne did a good job on Muhammad, and first-round draft choice Ahmad Carroll played decently in nickel packages.
The Packers had hoped that McKenzie would report to the team just before the season. But he didn't, and the Packers probably will be content to play without him now that they've seen their defense can get by. McKenzie's camp, meantime, seems miffed that the Packers signed Harris to a contract extension before the season after refusing to renegotiate McKenzie's deal. . . .
McCardell's representatives say the Buccaneers refused a trade offer made by an unspecified team last week that would have given Tampa Bay a fourth-round draft pick for the wideout. McCardell has listed Chicago, Kansas City and Baltimore as the clubs for which he'd like to play. . . .
Bears wideout David Terrell had a career-best game -- 126 receiving yards on five catches -- in Sunday's loss to Detroit, giving the team hope that the former first-round draft selection can fill the void left by the trade of leading receiver Marty Booker to the Dolphins for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.
But Terrell also hurt the Bears with a 15-yard taunting penalty for flipping the ball to Lions punter Nick Harris, who was standing on the Detroit sideline, after a 35-yard reception. That came after he berated the officials for being called for offensive pass interference on Chicago's opening drive.
But new Bears coach Lovie Smith indicated during his news conference Monday that he is focusing on Terrell's play, not his antics. Terrell came to Smith's office Monday and promised to play smarter, Smith said.
When Smith first was hired as the Bears' coach, Terrell also visited Smith's office and asked for a fresh start, and Smith gave it to him. Terrell totaled only 86 catches the past three seasons after being picked in the first round by the Bears in 2001 out of Michigan, and there were some rumblings around the league in the offseason that he might be released. But Smith kept him, and now the Bears need Terrell to maintain his level of play and eliminate the sideshow.
Minnesota likely will be without tight end Jim Kleinsasser for Monday night's game at Philadelphia. He sprained his right anterior cruciate ligament in Sunday's win over Dallas and probably will be sidelined for one to three weeks.
The Vikings also could be without tailback Moe Williams against the Eagles because of a sprained ankle. They already are missing their starting tailback, Michael Bennett, because of a knee injury. If Williams joins Bennett on the shelf, Minnesota probably would start Onterrio Smith, who's playing while the league considers his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. He would be backed up by rookie Mewelde Moore. . . .
Veteran cornerback Jeff Burris is scheduled to work out for Indianapolis today and could be signed by the Colts, who are shorthanded in the secondary. Burris, who played for the Colts between 1998 and 2001, was released by Cincinnati and New England this past offseason. . . .
The Tennessee Titans expect tailback Chris Brown to play Sunday against the Colts. Brown sat out the second half of Saturday's season-opening triumph at Miami because of an ankle injury after rushing for 100 yards in the first half.
Tennessee still plans to sign veteran kicker Gary Anderson late this week and hopes to have Anderson handle field goals against the Colts while Craig Hentrich takes care of kickoffs as well as his usual punting duties. Hentrich's sore back is improving, but the Titans are keeping around kicker Aaron Elling -- who served as Saturday's punter as well as place kicker -- as a precaution. Elling excelled, averaging 45.3 yards on his six punts in Miami.
Rattay Hurting Again
It has been a painful stretch for quarterback Tim Rattay since being anointed San Francisco's starter when Jeff Garcia was released by the 49ers in the offseason. First came a torn groin muscle suffered during an offseason practice that required surgery. Then came a sore arm in training camp and the exhibition season. Now it's a second-degree separation of his right shoulder suffered during Sunday's season-opening loss to Atlanta.
Rattay returned to the Falcons game after receiving a pain-killing injection, and is leaving open the possibility of playing against New Orleans this weekend. The 49ers, though, are making plans to start Rattay's backup, Ken Dorsey. . . . The 49ers are close to extending the contract of General Manager Terry Donahue, whose contract expires after this season. . . .
The Giants believe that the league should fine Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter for his hit Sunday on New York punter Jeff Feagles. The Giants said after watching the game tapes that the hit was a helmet-to-helmet blow. . . .
The five receivers selected in the top 15 picks in the draft -- Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Detroit's Roy Williams, Jacksonville's Reggie Williams, Buffalo's Lee Evans and Tampa Bay's Michael Clayton -- combined for 19 catches for 213 yards and no touchdowns Sunday. That's an average of 3.8 catches for 42.6 yards per player. Reggie Williams and Evans were the least productive, with only two catches each. They had only 21 receiving yards between them. Clayton had the most receptions with seven. Fitzgerald had the most yards with 70, one more than Roy Williams -- who had the best catch, a spectacular juggling, one-handed grab. . . .
The Vikings scheduled workouts today for free-agent cornerbacks Terrance Shaw and Ralph Brown and appeared to be leaning toward signing Shaw.