posted on Sep, 16 2004 @ 10:38 AM
Steve Smith had surgery Tuesday on his broken left leg, leaving the Carolina Panthers searching for replacements for their top receiver and punt
Both candidates - Keary Colbert at receiver and Chris Gamble at returning kicks - are rookies.
"Obviously that's a blow to lose a guy like Steve Smith," coach John Fox said. "Obviously he's a big-play guy for us both offensively and in the
kicking game. But as is football, there's injuries."
Smith, who signed a $27.5 million contract extension in the offseason, was Carolina's gamebreaker. He led the Panthers last season with career highs
in receptions (88), yards receiving (1,110) and touchdowns (7). He also averaged 28.1 yards a kickoff return.
He broke his leg late in the fourth quarter of Carolina's 24-14 Monday night loss to Green Bay when he rolled his ankle as he was being tackled after
Smith made his way through the locker room on a pair of steel crutches after the game, needing help from a Panthers staff member to put his sock and
shoe on his good foot.
One by one, the rest of the Panthers made their way to his locker to check on him.
"Steve Smith is very special out there for us, he's our home run hitter," safety Mike Minter said. "We are definitely going to miss him."
Fox said he was unsure how long Smith will be out, but broken fibula's typically take at least eight weeks to heal.
So the Panthers will turn to Colbert, their second-round pick out of Southern California.
Colbert was inactive against the Packers, but is expected to make his first start Sunday at Kansas City. In limited preseason action, Colbert caught
eight passes and averaged 34.6 yards per catch.
"We feel good about Keary Colbert," Fox said. "Steve Smith was a big-play guy and really everything Keary Colbert's showed us, he's a big-play guy.
He's going to get his opportunity."
Gamble returned kicks last season at Ohio State, totaling 92 yards on 20 punt returns and 115 yards on six kickoff returns. The Panthers used him once
in the preseason, when he returned one punt for 2 yards.
Carolina will also try Eugene Baker at returning kicks this week, but he likely won't see any game action because he's a receiver and the Panthers
already have four who are active each week.
So the job will probably fall to Gamble by default, and the first-round pick is already adjusting to starting in the secondary.
"Chris Gamble is going to be a very good football player in this league, sooner rather than later," Fox said.
The Panthers better hope it is very soon after falling flat in their opener.
The defensive line, so good at stopping the run the past two years, was surprisingly out of sync and allowed Ahman Green to run for 119 yards. Green
also had two touchdowns rushing and caught a third.
And their offensive line was worse than expected, failing to open up holes for Stephen Davis or giving Jake Delhomme time to pass.
But Fox refused to blame either line for the loss, pointing instead to two third-quarter turnovers that led to 14 Green Bay points.
"Let me make this statement - a lot of people think our O-line and D-line lost that game. That wasn't the case at all," Fox said. "We just got in a
position where it was mental mistakes that put us behind 24-7. It was bang-bang back-to-back turnovers, so that adjusts how you play when you are down
"Do we need to improve on the offensive line? Yes. But are they the reason we lost the game? No."
Fox indicated there will be changes to the offensive line this week.
Todd Fordham, acquired Sept. 14 in a trade with the Steelers, will likely start at right tackle instead of Matt Willig. And guard Tutan Reyes, slowed
most of the preseason with an ankle injury, should replace Doug Brzezinski against the Chiefs.