MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Steve Smith is back and raring to go.
Smith has returned to the Carolina offense eager to start a season that will begin two games late for the standout receiver because of punishment incurred for punching a teammate.
But don't forget about the trouble he's caused for Minnesota.
The first time Smith touched the ball in the NFL, as a rookie for the Panthers in 2001, he returned the opening kickoff of the season 93 yards for a touchdown against a Vikings team that, in essence, still hasn't recovered. Already reeling from offensive tackle Korey Stringer's tragic death during training camp, they finished 5-11 that year and saw coach Dennis Green get fired near the end.
in the franchise's 48 seasons.
It is, of course, purely coincidental that the Vikings have struggled during the course of Smith's never-dull career, but he's done little to help out a fellow NFC competitor. Playing at Minnesota in 2002, he caught five passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. At home three seasons later, Smith famously racked up 201 yards and one score on 11 receptions in a romp by Carolina. Smith highlighted it with his row-the-boat celebration in the end zone designed to mock Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot and his buddies for the bawdy lake cruise scandal the team was mired in that fall.
Only in 2006 did Smith do Minnesota a favor. Problems with his hamstring forced him to sit out when the teams last played. They'll meet again Sunday for the eighth time, and seventh at the Metrodome.
``So I come back to the game against the team I started playing against,'' Smith wrote this week on his Charlotte-based charity Web site, Athletes United for Youth. ``I believe it's for a reason.''
``Hopefully he will bring what he always brings: someone who has a passion for the game, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and comes to play every play,'' quarterback Jake Delhomme said. ``He gets guys fired up on this football team.''
The Vikings (0-2) are trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2002 and keep Green Bay from getting too far ahead in the NFC North. They're also changing quarterbacks, from Tarvaris Jackson to Gus Frerotte, with the goal of reviving their once-high hopes for the season.
Smith's return is not good timing for them.
``You hope that he comes back rusty, but knowing him he's not going to be rusty,'' safety Darren Sharper said. ``He's going to be more than prepared to come back to a team that's 2-0. They'll come in here hot and confident because they're getting their best receiver back. It's going to be a tough challenge for us, but we're looking forward to it.''
Confident, Carolina is.
``The outside world is surprised by how we've played on the field thus far this season, but it was no surprise for anybody in this locker room,'' Lucas said. ``Going back to training camp, even before the infamous incident, we felt like we had something special. The incident just made us come closer together. Now we have a bond on this team that I don't think anyone can break.''
ll. They're 0-2, so we know they're going to come out fighting. We've got to be ready to counter every punch they throw at us this week.''
Smith was taken in the third round in a rather productive draft by the Panthers, who also plucked Dan Morgan, Kris Jenkins, Chris Weinke and Jarrod Cooper from the college ranks that season. Despite his history of injuries and misbehavior, he's fifth in the NFL with 3,731 yards receiving over the last three years and tied for sixth during that time with 27 touchdown catches.
He'll give Delhomme and Carolina the big-play threat needed against a Minnesota defense that has been dominant at the line of scrimmage and frequently disruptive in the backfield - though susceptible to occasional breakdowns and long gains.
The Vikings yielded plays of 57 and 56 yards against the Packers, plus a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. Last week against the Colts, they were torched for a 75-yard catch and run and watched Peyton Manning tie the game on a 32-yard throw.
Minnesota's greatest concern, though, is on the other side of the ball. Running back Adrian Peterson's continued success has not helped the Vikings establish any semblance of a passing game.
``Don't let the circumstances cloud the vision and our goal of what we want to accomplish,'' Peterson said. ``I feel like we're going to turn things around and pick it up.''

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