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 SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -When Steve Smith punched teammate Ken Lucas in the face during a break in practice last week, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox faced equally undesirable choices.
Suspending the team's top offensive player could put the Panthers in an early hole when Fox's job may be on the line after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons. But letting Smith off without punishment might lead to Fox losing the respect of his team.
A day later, Fox announced Smith was suspended without pay for the first two regular-season games.
While it puts the Panthers in the position of possibly starting 0-2, retired safety Mike Minter said Tuesday he believes it was the only way Fox could keep the team intact.
``You've got 16 games, so you're going to have to have your whole team with you for those 16 games,'' said Minter, who retired last summer after 10 seasons with the Panthers, including five under Fox. ``If a guy breaks the team rules, whatever those team rules are, you have to punish him accordingly.
``He can't look at it say, 'Well, if I suspend my best player we're going to lose a couple of games, maybe.' He can't look at it like that.''
But Fox's work isn't done. With Lucas sidelined up to three weeks and facing surgery to repair the nose broken by Smith's fist, hard feelings remain, even after Smith apologized to the team in a meeting Sunday night.
``I'm nobody's judge. We put that in coach Fox's hands,'' safety Chris Harris said when asked if the two-game suspension was just. ``We let him make the decision. What's happened happened, and we're moving on from there.''
Minter said his former coach will have to closely monitor the team for several weeks.
``Every day he's going to have to get the pulse of the team, making sure guys are feeling good and talking to him,'' Minter said. ``He's got to make sure this thing gets squashed. You can't act like it didn't happen. That's the worst thing to do.''
Smith returned to practice Monday and will remain with the team until his suspension goes into effect the week before the season opener at San Diego on Sept. 7. He'll also miss the home opener a week later against Chicago.
Smith had been making strides to erase the hothead reputation he earned early in his career. He was even voted an offensive captain by his teammates last year.
It's clear now that Smith shouldn't expect to wear a ``C'' on his jersey this year.
``It's all actions,'' Harris said. ``Actions speak louder than words.''
Minter, who was Smith's teammate for six seasons, isn't surprised with the cool response he's received from his teammates.
``It's going to take some time for the rest of the guys to feel Steve as a leader again,'' Minter said. ``Steve's got to come back and prove that. He's got to prove that was an incident that happened out of anger and out of character.
``That's going to be his deal: Let me prove to the team that I'm really sorry for what I've done and I really want to come back and help this football team win games.''
Fox has always taken pride in saying little to reporters. He's brushed off most questions about the incident, saying Monday: ``We're not airing every single conversation in the media.''
But how Fox handles the internal discussions could determine his future as he begins his seventh year with Carolina.
``I'm sure coach Fox understands it and I'm sure he'll be addressing the guys every day about that,'' Minter said. ``That's going to be something that's definitely in the forefront of their minds for the next couple of weeks.''

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