Bucky Brooks
Thursday August 7th, 2008

Can a team overcome a two-game suspension of its best player to make the playoffs? That's what John Fox will try to find out this season as the Panthers open the regular season without three-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith.

The fiery wideout was suspended for Carolina's season opener at San Diego and home opener against Chicago after fighting with teammate Ken Lucas during practice on Aug. 1. The brutal nature of the incident and the fact Smith had a previous transgression (he punched former teammate Anthony Bright during a film session in 2002), contributed to the severity of his punishment.

"This is a tough situation due to a number of reasons," said an AFC personnel executive. "You have a coach who is reportedly on the hot seat, and the player in question is the best player on the team. If you come down on him too hard, you hinder your ability to win, and ultimately cost yourself your job."

But Fox had to discipline his star receiver or risk losing the respect of his other players. At the same time, he had to be careful not to completely ostracize Smith from the team. As Carolina's offensive captain in 2007, Smith had earned the respect of his teammates on the field, and the team had lauded him for his maturity prior to this recent incident.

It's worth noting Smith issued an apology to Lucas and his teammates at a team meeting, and that he vowed to earn back their respect and trust. Lucas took an unusually diplomatic approach to the incident, and called it a "blessing" that may bring the team closer this season.

Those initial steps will begin the healing process, but there is more work to do if the team is to move forward. Team leaders Jake Delhomme and Julius Peppers will need to encourage their teammates to move past the incident without harboring grudges or ill will towards Smith. And the organization will have to remain steadfast in its support of Smith. By continuing to stand by Smith, they stand a better chance of getting him to address his issues.

With Smith sidelined at the start of this season, receivers D.J. Hackett, Dwayne Jarrett and Muhsin Muhammad will have to pick up the slack. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart may also have to shoulder more of a load. Keep in mind, Carolina has a 7-12 record in games in which Smith was out of the lineup. All seven victories came in 2004, when he landed on injured reserve after breaking his leg in Week 1. That was also a season in which the Panthers jut barely missing the playoffs, falling short when a blocked field goal as time expired led to a loss to New Orleans. Bottom line, however, they've never made the playoffs when Smith has missed two games or more.

But if they're looking for motivation, the Dallas Cowboys overcame a two-game holdout by Emmitt Smith to win Super Bowl XXVIII. The second of their back-to-back titles in the early 90's.

• Amid the endless adulation heaped on rookie quarterback Colt Brennan for his impressive performance during the Hall of Fame Game, Redskins' followers shouldn't forget to sing the praises of Jason Campbell. The four-year pro completed 5 of 5 passes for 61 yards with one touchdown against the Colts, and his comfort level in Jim Zorn's offense was not surprising to league observers who know Zorn well.

"He has a way of making quarterbacks feel comfortable," said a Seahawks' official. "If a guy has any talent, he will find a way to bring it out."

Zorn, who earned a reputation for being one of the game's top teachers as a quarterback coach in Seattle, was instrumental in developing Matt Hasselbeck into a Pro Bowl quarterback, and his work with Seneca Wallace drew raves from Seahawks' officials.

Campbell, who enters his third season as the Redskins' starter, is the most talented quarterback that Zorn has tutored, and his ability to seamlessly transition into the Redskins' new offense should be attributed to his familiarity with the scheme from his senior season at Auburn. Offensive coordinator Al Borges used a scaled down version of the West Coast offense, and Campbell went on to have his best collegiate season working within the system. (Campbell completed 69.9% of his passes for 2,700 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions while leading the Tigers to an undefeated season)

However, after spending two seasons running Al Saunders' up-tempo offense, Campbell spent the offseason learning the nuances of Zorn's version of the West Coast offense. As a quick, rhythm passing game, the scheme features an assortment of three-and five-step drops, and demands that the quarterback deliver accurate throws on time. Thus, Zorn spent the offseason honing Campbell's mechanics by using a series of unorthodox drills designed to improve his footwork in the pocket. Campbell has responded well to Zorn's tutelage, and has emerged as a more confident quarterback as a result.

"He told me that I was still developing as a young quarterback," Campbell told the Washington Post during the offseason. "But he thinks that I have it all... I have what it takes to takes us to where we want to go. That was a confidence-builder."

After watching Campbell dazzle during his preseason debut, it appears that his newfound confidence and solid rapport with Zorn, will lead him to take his game to higher heights this season.

Brandon Marshall's three-game suspension gives Darrell Jackson an opportunity to rejuvenate a once-promising career. Jackson, an eight-year veteran with three 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his career, is looking to bounce back from a disappointing season in San Francisco that saw him tally only 497 receiving yards on 46 catches. Those numbers were the lowest in his career (when he had appeared in 13 or more games), and led to the league-wide perception that his skills had diminished.

"He's clearly not the same player he was during his prime in Seattle," said an NFC scout. "Injuries robbed him of some of his explosiveness, and his questionable work habits prevented him from sustaining his high level of play the past few years."

However, Jackson's performance during training camp has earned rave reviews, and the veteran's familiarity with the Broncos' offensive system gives him a chance to become a key contributor this season. As a skillful route runner with outstanding quickness out of the break, Jackson has a knack for getting open despite lacking exceptional top end speed. While he will struggle against the top corners in the league, his uncanny ability to stop on a dime makes him a tough cover for second and third corners.

"He can still get in and out of his breaks," said an NFC scout. "He doesn't have the speed to run away from guys, but he still knows how to get open."

While most scouts view Jackson as a No. 3 receiver, he gets a brief audition at the beginning of the season to show the league he is still capable of being a featured guy. If he can do anything as the Broncos' go-to-guy, it will help coach Mike Shanahan overcome the absence of Marshall, and give the Broncos a chance to get off to a solid start.

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