Panthers' Steve Smith can't be replaced

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula spent a good portion of their Monday media session answering questions about how the offense can replace wide receiver Steve Smith.

The simple answer: You can't.

Smith is expected to miss the regular-season finale at Atlanta with a sprained left knee suffered in the first quarter of Carolina's 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. It's not serious, but it is serious enough that the Panthers (11-4) will have to adjust for at least one game.

They can put capable players on the field to play Smith's role as the X receiver. Domenik Hixon proved that with his game-winning, 14-yard touchdown catch with 23 seconds left against the Saints.

But opponents aren't likely to develop game plans around stopping Hixon or Ted Ginn Jr. as they would for Smith. Defensive coordinators aren't likely to roll their coverage to the side of the field for one of those players as they would for the five-time Pro Bowler.

Smith draws attention that makes it easier for his fellow receivers to do their jobs. Brandon LaFell gets open a lot more when Smith is double-teamed.

Smith's fiery personality also can't be replaced. Rivera called him tenacious. Shula called him a warrior.

They didn't use any of those adjectives to describe Smith's replacements.

Smith is one of a kind. He is 5-foot-9, 185 pounds of heart, muscle and pure energy. He lives for the moment to make a defender look bad. Just ask New England cornerback Aqib Talib. He was beaten so badly by Smith on a Monday night at Bank of America Stadium that Smith finally told Talib to "ice up, son.''

Now there are "Ice up, son'' T-shirts all around Charlotte.

Smith brings an attitude. He can be overpowering in ways other receivers can only imagine because he's so mentally tough. He can be intimidating.

When asked who can replace that, Rivera mentioned linebacker Thomas Davis. That's because Smith plays wide receiver with a linebacker mentality.

"They're both very emotional guys that play with their hearts on their sleeves,'' Rivera said.

You can't replace that.

You can only hope to adequately fill the gap.

Having said that, as Smith joked last week that a dislocated finger would sideline him against New Orleans, I asked what the offense would look like if he had to miss a game.

I suggested that the receiving corps had grown to the point that the offense could continue without missing a beat.

"As a competitor in me, I hope with my absence that it shows,'' Smith said at the time. "But at the same time ... you want when things happen, you want guys to move forward.

"Hopefully, that's not an issue we need to worry about.''

Now it's an issue. It doesn't appear to be a long-term issue. The posterior cruciate ligament Smith sprained is more of a nuisance. He'll likely be good to go in two weeks.

If the Panthers win at Atlanta, he'll have three weeks to recover completely before they begin their playoff quest. The rest could do him good.

The Panthers need Smith if they are to turn this magical season into a Super Bowl season. In many ways, he defines this team. He is the one who predicted after a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the opener that the team would face the Seahawks again deep into the playoffs.

He defied letting this be another year of doom and gloom.

Nobody else did that.

The Panthers will spend the rest of this week shuffling players around to do some of the things Smith does. Ginn is the first option at X, with Hixon sharing that role.

Both are capable.

But neither is Smith.