Being the defending Super Bowl champion is tough, but being the defending Super Bowl loser is even tougher. The past three Super Bowl losers (and four of the past five) have followed with losing seasons.

And while the Carolina Panthers' season might not necessarily be headed in that direction, they got off to a miserable start Monday night when their reworked offensive line was exposed in a 24-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers and, even more significantly, they lost standout wide receiver Steve Smith.

Smith broke his left fibula when he was tackled by Packers linebacker Hannibal Navies after a short catch with just less than five minutes remaining. Coach John Fox indicated he's hopeful that Smith, who underwent surgery yesterday, will play again this season but said he doesn't know when. Such injuries typically take eight to 12 weeks to heal.

"He's not out for the season," Fox said during a news conference yesterday, "but anything short of that, I don't know. . . . Obviously, that's a blow to lose a guy like Steve Smith. He's a big-play guy for us both offensively and in the kicking game. But as is part of football, there's injuries."

Muhsin Muhammad becomes the Panthers' top receiving threat, and Fox named rookie wideout Keary Colbert, a second-round draft choice from the University of Southern California who was on the inactive list Monday, to replace Smith in the starting lineup; veteran Ricky Proehl remains the club's third wide receiver. Rookie cornerback Chris Gamble takes over for Smith as the team's punt returner.

Meantime, the Panthers must fix an offensive line that failed to handle the Packers' blitzes Monday. Tailback Stephen Davis had nowhere to run and rushed for 26 yards, and quarterback Jake Delhomme frequently was under pressure. Carolina has only one offensive lineman -- center Jeff Mitchell -- starting in the same spot as last season after an offseason reshuffling. Journeyman Matt Willig started at right tackle Monday but could be replaced this week by Todd Fordham, and Tutan Reyes could move back into the lineup for Doug Brzezinski at guard. "We'll definitely settle into a group this week," said Fox, whose team became the sixth straight Super Bowl loser to drop its opening game the following season. "We need to improve."

Developer Still Interested in Vikings

Arizona real-estate developer and entrepreneur Reggie Fowler went to Minneapolis on Sunday and told reporters invited to a morning news conference that he is still very much interested in buying the Minnesota Vikings.

Fowler, who is attempting to become the first black majority owner in the NFL, said he anticipated making a formal offer for the team owned by San Antonio native Red McCombs in the next few weeks. McCombs has said his asking price is in the $600 million range for a franchise that some believe is among a list of possible candidates to relocate to the vacant Los Angeles market.

McCombs has been trying to get a new stadium built in Minneapolis to no avail, although there are ongoing discussions with local and state officials. Fowler told reporters he would include Minneapolis businessman Denny Hecker in any ownership deal and indicated he would keep the team in the Twin Cities. Any purchase would have to be approved by three-quarters of the league's 32 owners.

Fowler told reporters he thought it was possible to buy the team and get the deal in front of owners for a vote at the next meeting Oct. 26-27 in Detroit.

"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think we had a chance," Fowler said. "We wouldn't impact our credibility. We're not just burning calories here. We're serious."

Holdout McKenzie Is Rejoining Packers

Holdout cornerback Mike McKenzie is joining the Packers today, agent Drew Rosenhaus informed the club yesterday. Rosenhaus told the Packers that McKenzie still would like to be traded, but the team appears to have no intention of accommodating that request. McKenzie is one of the NFC's top cornerbacks and considerably strengthens a defense that played well against the Panthers with Michael Hawthorne starting at the cornerback spot opposite Al Harris. . . .

According to the league, there were 15 defensive holding penalties accepted during Week 1 games, up from five during the opening weekend last season. There were five defensive illegal contact penalties accepted, the same number as in Week 1 last season. The NFL Competition Committee ordered game officials to strictly enforce the rule prohibiting defensive players from impeding wide receivers more than five yards downfield this season. Overall, the number of accepted penalties was down, to 218 this season from 240 last season, during Week 1 games, according to the league. . . .

Second overall draft pick Robert Gallery began his Oakland Raiders career on the bench but replaced right tackle Langston Walker late in the first half of Sunday's loss at Pittsburgh. Gallery only began practicing at right tackle last week after spending his preseason splitting time at left tackle, the position he was drafted to play, and left guard, but he fared well Sunday. He also played at left guard. . . .

No one around the league is questioning Tennessee's decision to release Eddie George and go with Chris Brown at tailback. While George looks old and slow in Dallas, Brown had 100 rushing yards in the first half of Saturday's victory at Miami before hurting his left ankle and leaving the game. It was the first 100-yard rushing performance by a running back against the Dolphins since December 2002. Brown's 52-yard run in the second quarter was the longest by a Titan since George had a 76-yarder as a rookie in 1996. The Titans expect Brown to be ready to play Sunday against Indianapolis.

Tennessee agreed yesterday to a one-year, $760,000 contract with veteran kicker Gary Anderson and plans to have Anderson handle field goals against the Colts while Craig Hentrich takes care of kickoffs as well as his usual punting duties. With Hentrich's sore back much improved, the Titans are releasing kicker Aaron Elling, who served as Saturday's punter as well as place kicker. Elling excelled, averaging 45.3 yards on his six punts in Miami.

There's a Catch

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 49ers and General Manager Terry Donahue have agreed to a four-year contract extension. His deal was to expire next offseason. . . . The Giants believe 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, which knocked Feagles temporarily unconscious, was a helmet-to-helmet blow. . . . Philadelphia is moving former Pro Bowler Jermane Mayberry from left guard to right guard to replace Shawn Andrews, the first-round draft choice whose rookie season was ended Sunday by a fractured fibula. Artis Hicks moves in at left guard, where he made three starts last season when John Welbourn was hurt. . . . The Eagles signed running back Dorsey Levens and offensive tackle Ian Allen. Levens played for Philadelphia in 2002 and rejoined the team last month before being released Sept. 5. Both signed one-year contracts.

Muhsin Muhammad, left, and a Panthers trainer attend to Steve Smith, who broke his leg against the Packers.