The NFL will hear Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith's appeal of a pending four-game suspension next week.

Smith, who leads the Vikings in rushing and in yards receiving, faces a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The appeal hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, said Doug Hendrickson, his agent.

That means there is a chance Smith can play in Minnesota's next game, at Houston on Oct. 10, though that is not a guarantee since a decision could come only a day or two after the hearing. Or it could take a week or two, allowing Smith to continue suiting up well into October.

If he is suspended, the Vikings will still have Michael Bennett, their No. 1 back, who is expected to return in time for the game at Houston after missing the first three games with a sprained knee.

"We're hopeful that it'll be overturned, but we'll just have to wait and see," Hendrickson said.

Panthers Fine Smart

The Carolina Panthers fined running back Rod Smart for missing practice when he was stuck in Florida during Hurricane Jeanne.

Smart returned to his home in Lakeland, Fla., during Carolina's bye weekend, intending to return last Sunday night. When the forecast for Jeanne worsened, he tried to leave Florida a day early. But the Tampa airport was closed and Smart found himself stranded in Florida and unable to return in time for Monday's practice.

From his conversations with Coach John Fox, Smart said he assumed he was not in trouble for missing practice.

"It was like, 'Are you okay? Is everyone doing okay? Are you safe? Get here when you can,' " Smart said yesterday, summarizing his conversation with Fox.

"Then yesterday, they said, 'Make sure you look at your paycheck, it's going to be a little light.' "

Smart didn't know how much the Panthers were fining him, estimating it would be between "$5,000 and $10,000."

Rattay Returns

Quarterback Tim Rattay expects to return to the San Francisco 49ers' starting lineup Sunday after a two-week absence. Rattay separated his throwing shoulder during the season opener Sept. 12. He returned to practice Wednesday and threw for the first time without taking pain-blocking injections. He had no soreness yesterday.