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Panthers are better with Steve Smith on field

These are the words you don’t want to hear after an MRI: torn, ripped, broken.

Sprained isn’t a word you get excited about. But it beats the others.

Steve Smith sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and likely will miss Carolina’s regular-season finale Sunday against Atlanta. If the Panthers beat the Falcons, they won’t play again until Jan. 11 or 12. Perhaps Smith’s knee will allow him to return.

He returned Sunday against New Orleans. After going down in the first quarter, Smith went to the locker room and in the second quarter walked back onto the field.

He put his helmet on and performed drills behind the bench for athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion. He did quick starts, quick steps and quick stops. Smith ran to the huddle, joined his teammates for one play and then he was gone.

Although “Next Man Up” is the mantra in the NFL (and every other sport), not all men are equal, and I would hate to see the Panthers play a game they have to win without Smith.

Yet there are fans who contend the team is better without him, and I heard from several Monday.

At 34, he’s used up, they say.

The lenses on their binoculars differ from mine. I believe the absence of deep passes this season has more to do with the people around Smith than it does Smith. He looked less than ancient against the Saints on the 44-yard pass he caught with nine fingers.

Another criticism I regularly hear is that he spins the ball after a reception. And he does.

I get it. I, too, come from a time when athletes didn’t celebrate receptions or even touchdowns.

But if I ever get worked up about a guy spinning a football, I will drive my Buick to my Sun City condo, put on my Red Grange jersey and watch Canton Bulldogs’ highlights on my 12-inch black and white TV.

If you don’t like a guy, you don’t like a guy, and that’s your prerogative. But ...

Jerry Richardson came to training camp in Spartanburg one afternoon five months ago and I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera if players practiced harder when the owner watched.

Some do, said Rivera. But they shouldn’t, he said. Rivera said he wished they all practiced like Smith.

When the best player in franchise history practices as if he’s preparing for a week 17 game against Atlanta, on what grounds do teammates do less?

In the old days, Carolina had a great play. Jake Delhomme would loft the ball to Smith and, at 5-9 Smith would leap over anybody he had to and grab it. I don’t know if Smith can still do this. The Panthers no longer run Smith-go-deep-and-leap. It’s a different time.

But think back to Nov. 24. On fourth and 10 from the Carolina 20, with 2 minutes, 33 seconds remaining and the Panthers trailing Miami by three, to whom did Cam Newton go? Newton went to Smith. The pass was true and the receiver broke two tackles and picked up 19 yards and the Panthers won 20-16.

There’s also this. Earlier this month the Steve Smith Family Foundation sponsored one of its first events. There was no publicity. I asked Smith if he had anything coming up and he told me about an event that weekend. I can learn more about players when I see them off the field, so I went.

After passing through a series of heavily locked gates, I watched kids, including Smith’s, mesmerized by a magician. I watched women who had been battered be treated as if they mattered. Before Smith offered a woman new shoes, I watched him wash her feet.

This is Smith’s 13th season. He has starred on teams that won and, mostly, he has starred on teams that did not. The Panthers are winning, and you know how desperately Smith wants to be part of it.

Hope he gets the chance.

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