Smitty returns to practice

Wide receiver Steve Smith returned to practice Wednesday, which is good news for an offense that ranks 19th in the league after two weeks. Although the Panthers went 2-0 without Smith, it's pretty clear they need their best offensive weapon back on the field.

Smith is one of those rare players who makes everyone around him better - the offensive line, the running backs and other receivers - by simply stepping on the field. He also gives the team the deep threat they were missing against San Diego and Chicago.

The general feeling is with Smith back in the starting lineup the Panthers can only go up from here when they face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at the Metrodome.

"It was nice having him out there," said quarterback Jake Delhomme. "He does have a presence. I don't think there's any doubt. He showed he was the same old Steve (in practice)... Certainly Steve brings an element of speed, an element of explosiveness. Teams have always clouded to him, always been aware of where he's at. I think we have other guys to fill that void if teams do that."

Delhomme also pointed out the Panthers' first order of business is to run the football behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart

"The great equalizer in the NFL is can you run the football? If you can run the football, you give yourself an opportunity, and hopefully we can hang our hat on that," he said.

Smith should help the Panthers out in two areas in which they've struggled - third down conversions and red zone offense.

"Steve is a huge weapon for us, and the Vikings are probably wishing it was a three-game suspension because he's coming back with a fury," tackle Jordan Gross said.

Delhomme warned that just because Smith is back doesn't mean the Panthers can simply show up and expect to beat teams.

"You've still got to work," Delhomme said. "He is a great football player, but we have to keep having the same work ethic we've had all off-season. Keep that grind that we've been doing and go out and play good football. There are no easy ones in this game."

Panthers coach John Fox said Smith will start Sunday.

"When you've got one of your better players back it's obviously good," Fox said. "(His teammates) are excited, as they should be. I think the coaching staff is excited. Now it's back to work, getting him back oiled up."

Clearly the Panthers are eager to put the talk of Smith's suspension behind them, each giving a different version of his Aug. 1 fight with cornerback Ken Lucas being "ancient history."

When an out-of-town reporter asked Fox is he's spoken to Smith yet about the incident, Fox replied sternly, "Yeah, about seven or eight weeks ago. We are past that now."

Added Gross: "This happened so long ago. It wasn't like it was an immediate response and it just happened. We got over this two days after it happened, honestly. So there are no issues to talk about."

Lucas reiterated what he's said all along - that he has no hard feelings toward Smith and he'll be anxious to see him on the field Sunday.

He said he doesn't want to dwell on the past.

"I'm just as happy to have Steve back as anybody in this locker room, because he's going to help us win a lot of games this year," Lucas said. "I feel like the sky's the limit for us. I told him after the game, 'I'll see you on Monday and let's go get this ring together.'"

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