Strickly Panthers: Smith returns to roots

CHARLOTTE – Wide receiver Steve Smith had returned just three punts since the beginning of the 2007 season, but when he dropped back to field San Francisco's first punt Sunday, it felt like old times.

"It was like riding a bike," Smith said following the Panthers' 23-20 victory. "The first one, I got on the bike and kind of wobbled a little bit, but it was pretty good."

Smith muffed the first punt before safely gathering it in. Once he knocked the rust off, however, his move back to his roots had a positive impact on the Panthers in their first victory of the season.

Actually, Smith's revised role had a positive impact before that first punt even was airborne. Fans rose to their feet when they saw Smith come onto the field, and his teammates on the sideline did the same.

"The guys responded. When I was back there, the guys got energized," Smith said. "I enjoyed it. It was fun."

Smith went to the coaching staff last week and offered to return punts.

"That's just a player trying to help win a game," head coach John Fox said. "I think everybody on our team appreciates that."

Before Smith was recognized as a great NFL receiver, he built a reputation as a great kick returner. The first touch of his NFL career came in his rookie year of 2001, when he returned the opening kickoff of the season for a touchdown at Minnesota, a play that helped eventually land him on the Pro Bowl as a specialist that season.

He's the Panthers' all-time leader in punt return yards and ranks second to Michael Bates in kickoff return yards.

Sunday, Smith followed his muffed punt with a 32-yard return, the Panthers' longest punt return this season. He got three more chances in the second half, officially netting just 6 total yards, though he did have a 20-yard return negated by a holding penalty.


SMITH ON GETTIS: When rookie wide receiver David Gettis caught each of his two touchdown receptions Sunday, including the game-tying one in the final two minutes, Smith was among the first to reach Gettis to congratulate him.

In between the TDs, Gettis dropped another in the end zone on fourth down. At the time, it looked like he might not get another chance.

"When you have a drop like that with those circumstances, you could easily go in the tank. He didn't," Smith said. "He stayed focused, stayed poised and caught the ball at a key moment in the game. He did an outstanding job."


MORE SPECIAL STUFF: Perhaps the biggest coaching decision for Fox all game came early in the second half, when the Panthers faced a fourth-and-13 from San Francisco's 37-yard line in a 10-10 game.

It appeared that points would be at a premium and that the battle for field position could prove critical, but Fox sent John Kasay out to attempt a 55-yard field goal.

Had Kasay come up short, the 49ers would have taken over at the 45-yard line. Instead, the Panthers took the lead when Kasay delivered.

"If we don't make that one and they go down and score with that great field position, I'm in here answering questions about why we did that, so I was glad he made it," Fox said. "John, I have a past with him and have seen him in those situations before.

"He felt good about it, so we went with it. It was a huge play."

Kasay, who turns 41 on Wednesday, has now hit from 52, 53 and 55 yards this season.


EXTRA POINTS: Fox said Monday that running back DeAngelo Williams is "day to day" with a foot sprain suffered on the final series of Sunday's game. Williams landed awkwardly on a short run up the middle and tried to hobble off the field but stopped short of the sideline before eventually leaving on his own power. … Fox couldn't offer an updated timetable on two players yet to play this season. Linebacker Thomas Davis – who is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list – and right tackle Jeff Otah are both battling back from knee injuries.

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