CHARLOTTE -- For all the weapons the Carolina Panthers think they have on offense, the one they can count on the most is the one they used the least in the preseason.
While they spent August ironing out the kinks in their running game and pass protection, the barometer of their success this year will again hinge on how well they're able to get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Pro Bowl-regular caught just five passes in the exhibition season, and didn't play at all in the last one, giving them cards up their sleeve going into the regular season opener at St. Louis.
"You'll kind of have to wait and see," Panthers coach John Fox said Sunday of Smith being held back in the preseason. "Obviously when you're not (game-planning and) creating matchups, there might be some things we haven't shown in that phase of it.
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"There could be some wrinkles we haven't shown."
That will suit Smith fine. Despite his status as one of the game's elite receivers, and despite the contract extension he landed this offseason (which put him in the five highest-paid at his position, there's still an edge about him. During training camp, he said his goal was to gain 2,000 receiving yards, which would only be a new league record. He wants the ball, wants to make plays, and even though he's getting older and smarter about the way he does business in the preseason, you can tell he's ready to go.
When he was sidetracked by a hamstring injury last year in the preseason, the Panthers offense faltered and never got going. So they know and he knows a quick start Sunday is imperative.
"No, I mean last year I didn't play none," Smith said when asked if not playing much this preseason was tough. "None last year, a little bit this year, I'm ready to play. I'm getting excited.
"There's preparation, we get to game-plan now, so there's a lot of things you get to throw in that gets me excited knowing what's going to go on next week."
Having a weapon like Smith is also a new experience for new coordinator Jeff Davidson. Coming out of the New England lineage under Charlie Weis, Davidson's never had a perimeter weapon like Smith. The Patriots always made do with lesser talents there, and there's obviously no one in Cleveland who could match Smith's game-breaking abilities.
"I think obviously we want to get the guys we think are elite playmakers, we want to make sure we get them the ball," Davidson said. "But we felt that way in New England too. We were always trying to figure the guys we wanted to get the ball and ways to get the ball to them. Nothing's really changed. I also look at the offense, and we've got more than one playmaker on this team."