CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -An offseason that gave the Carolina Panthers confidence and chemistry was on the verge of unraveling.
The chaotic scene of Steve Smith punching teammate Ken Lucas while Lucas was on one knee, followed by angry teammates trying to get at Smith, could have torn apart a team that missed the playoffs the past two years. Coach John Fox was so concerned after that training-camp practice he implored his players not to retaliate against Smith, who had broken Lucas' nose.
Three months later, the Panthers are 6-2 and enjoying their bye weekend atop the NFC South. Fox, Lucas, Smith and the rest of this close-knit team have helped make what could have been a season-breaker into a moment that might propel Carolina to great things.
we'll move on.'''
A day after the incident, the Panthers suspended Smith for two games. It was a bold move for Fox, whose future was uncertain after going 15-17 in the previous two seasons. But Fox knew he could lose the team if he didn't act.
Smith addressed his teammates and apologized. Lucas accepted, and the Panthers quickly put it behind them. Still, they faced the prospect of visiting San Diego and hosting Chicago to open the season without their top playmaker, while hoping Jake Delhomme was fully recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery.
It didn't take long for Delhomme to show Carolina's gamble in not signing another quarterback was the right move. He threw a winning touchdown pass to Dante Rosario as time expired to beat the Chargers. A week later he led the Panthers from 14 points down against the Bears for a 2-0 start without Smith.
Smith has returned - awarding the ball after his first touchdown catch of the season to Lucas - and has at least 96 yards receiving in the past five games. His spectacular, tackle-breaking, sideline-tiptoeing 65-yard touchdown catch last week against Arizona put the Panthers ahead to stay in another comeback win.
``Guys are excited. Guys feel good, and we should be,'' said Delhomme, who insists his right elbow feels fine. ``But there are still a lot more things that we think we can get done.''
many felt was a make-or-break season for Fox and general manager Marty Hurney, the two have seen bold moves pay off. They released veterans DeShaun Foster and Dan Morgan, and traded talented but distracting defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. They traded next year's first-round draft pick to Philadelphia for an extra first-rounder this year, taking jumbo right tackle Jeff Otah to help remake the offensive line.
While Otah has been sidelined for four games with a right ankle injury, the Panthers have improved dramatically from last season's anemic unit without Delhomme. Signing Muhsin Muhammad three years after he left for Chicago forces defenses to not solely focus on the dynamic Smith.
Rookie running back Jonathan Stewart and third-year pro DeAngelo Williams have produced a decent running game.
On defense, the Panthers may not been as explosive on the line, but they appear a closer unit without Jenkins, who clashed with management over his weight and skipped offseason workouts.
``I think for the most part we don't have a lot of bad apples,'' Hoover said. ``That's been the thing. Some guys around here in the past, not that they were bad people, but they were just negative at times. And I don't see that with our guys.''
r a fifth-round pick is perhaps the franchise's biggest steal.
Defensive end Julius Peppers has awoken from his 2007 slumber, and the Panthers have the league's fifth-rated defense. Kicker John Kasay hasn't missed a field goal in 16 tries.
``I liken it to being on the road to a final destination. We are on the path, we haven't gotten lost,'' Fox said. ``We are kind of on target or on schedule. We've definitely not gotten there yet, but at the halfway point we are on schedule.''
The Panthers visit Oakland (2-5) and host Detroit (0-7) in their next two games before the schedule turns brutal. Four of their last six are on the road, and all six opponents have at least .500 records. A Monday night visit by Tampa Bay (5-3) on Dec. 8 could decide the division.
After seeing Smith walk into the locker room after pummeling a teammate with a cheap shot, Fox has expertly guided the Panthers through an incident that could have destroyed them. Now they're a close, mentally strong unit that plans to be playing in January.
``I think it was handled professionally, handled in a timely manner and guys have moved on,'' Hoover said. ``We're working for a common cause.''

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