The Panthers' best player wasn't the only one who had a terrible time. Quarterback Jake Delhomme said the beating Minnesota gave him was his worst since 2005.
Steve Smith mocked the Love Boat-era Vikings in 2005 by dropping to his backside and pretending to row when one of his 11 catches went for a touchdown.
Sunday's game at the Metrodome had the potential for a repeat performance early, but Smith ultimately found himself up a creek without his imaginary paddle as his Carolina Panthers lost 20-10 in Smith's season debut.
"It was an emotional day for me, and you always want the nice story to be the story," Smith said. "But today wasn't the day."
In his first action since serving a two-game team-imposed suspension for punching teammate Ken Lucas, Smith started by catching three passes for 60 yards in the game's first 17 minutes. Two of those catches led the Panthers to a field goal, a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
But over the next 39 minutes, Carolina's best player not only didn't touch the ball, he had it thrown his way only three times. His fourth and final catch was a harmless 10-yarder with four minutes left and Carolina now trailing by 10.
"Minnesota did a fine job as far as creating pressure that limited our passing to a certain degree," Panthers coach John Fox said. "I thought Steve had a good week of practice and a good week of preparation. We just had some problems getting the football actually out of the quarterback's hand."
Yes, the Vikings' vicious pass rush was the story of the game. It created five sacks, seven hurries, three batted balls, six false starts and, oh yeah, a forced fumble that Antoine Winfield returned for a game-tying touchdown that changed everything right before the half.
But the Panthers also played into the Vikings' hands by not countering with quicker passes. The situation begged for those Favre-ian slant passes that used to drive the Vikings crazy. Yet Carolina continued to send receivers much deeper than their ability to pass protect.
"I don't know about slants or anything like that," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "All I know is Jake [Delhomme] just didn't have a lot of time to do much of anything."
Delhomme said the beating he took Sunday was the worst he'd suffered since being sacked eight times against the Bears in a 13-3 loss in 2005. None of the hits was harder than the one he took from the 180-pound Winfield.
On third-and-8 from the Panthers 29-yard line with 1 minute, 13 seconds left in the half, Winfield surprised the Panthers with a front-side blitz. Delhomme lost the ball on the sack. Winfield picked it up and ran 19 yards to tie the score at 10-10.
Panthers running back Nick Goings took the blame for the protection breakdown. "I'm supposed to come out and scan the field and pick up the corner," Goings said. "They had a linebacker up on the line of scrimmage. I stepped up inside to take the linebacker. He dropped out. And by that time, the corner was already by."
The sack knocked the wind out of Delhomme and the air out of the Panthers, as well.
"It was a huge, huge, huge part of the game," Gross said. "It was a huge momentum shift that we never got back."
Had Goings picked up Winfield, Delhomme is confident the Panthers would have had a big play and possibly a touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
"The disappointing thing is I was cocking back to throw it to Steve, who was open on a corner route," Delhomme said. "[Cornerbacks Griffin and Charles Gordon] jumped down on D.J. Hackett, so we were going to have a big play. ... I don't think Steve was going to catch it and go out of bounds. So I guess you have to use your imagination as to what he was going to do when he had the ball in his hands."
Unfortunately for the Panthers, it was in his hands only once in the game's final 43 minutes.
Mark Craig • email@example.com