SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When the Carolina Panthers begin practice Tuesday I count 80 players on the field. Each shares two traits. They're good enough to get paid to come to training camp. They're not Steve Smith. Smith is the player the Panthers can least afford to lose. On many teams, the quarterback is. If Jake Delhomme goes down, his leadership will be missed much more than most fans realize. But Josh McCown will offer similar skills. Look down the crowded roster. Whose skills replicate Smith's? When the clock is running low, when the rally is fading and when the outcome is in doubt, what does Carolina call? It calls PSUS -Please Save Us Steve. Remember Green Bay last November, the Panthers down by three, less than two minutes to play, Packers fans deliriously loud on snow, slush and beer? The Panthers call PSUS. Delhomme lofts the ball for anybody (if you're not a Jake fan), for Smith (if you are). Several players go up for the ball, one comes down with it. Smith's 54-yard reception sets up the game-winning touchdown on the next play. Again on the road, the Panthers begin their final drive of the regular season at their 18. They trail New Orleans by a point. Why wait? On the first play, Delomme calls PSUS. He lofts, Smith catches, this time for 39 yards. John Kasay's 42-yard field goal wins the game. The Panthers won their first two games last season with Smith suspended. But last season the Panthers played a schedule so soft it could have been put together by Notre Dame. To lose Smith for any period of time is to cede the long pass and play ball control. To lose Smith is to become the Chicago Bears. Smith hurt his right shoulder at practice Monday night when, after a collision with cornerback Chris Gamble, he collided with the ground. Smith says Tuesday he doesn't know when he'll return. Pressed about the injury, he twice says he left his "medical degree at Utah." Nobody knows when he'll return. Smith hurt the shoulder last summer in a preseason game and he says it never healed. So he worked hard during the off-season to make it whole. Then came Monday's collision, which he called a "freak thing." Smith is 30, the same age as San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who for the first time is no longer considered elite. But Smith is in his prime. He looks young Tuesday in his orange Reese's cap. He plays young. One of his trademarks is, at 5-9, to go up with taller defenders and make the ball his. This means he stretches his arms and this means he becomes an especially long target. But he has always played without fear, and I can't imagine him playing with it. "If you play not to get hurt, you get hurt," says Delhomme. But Smith is hurt. Panther coach John Fox calls the shoulder bruised. X-rays are negative. Panther starting defensive tackle Damione Lewis left his medical degree at Miami. But he has, he says, become educated about certain subjects, one of them shoulders. Lewis is the last Panther to suffer a serious shoulder injury. He hurt it in the next to last regular season game against the New York Giants when he caught his arm between a tackle and a guard and felt a tendon pop. He returned but was too weak to make a difference. He sat out the next week and he returned for the playoffs but was not 100%. He worked the shoulder throughout the winter and spring and summer and still is not 100 percent. "Right now the range of motion is back," Lewis says Tuesday. "The one thing I'm really lacking is strength." Lewis can't say what Smith will go through. But he can tell you what he did. When the pain finally subsided, he used bands which, like weights, offer resistance. He stretched more than he wants to remember. Many athletes despise stretching. He began doing curls on a cardio machine, used exercise balls and dumbbells and finally this summer was cleared to really lift weights. "It's a grind, five days a week," Lewis says. And every time he thought he was all the way back there was more. "It goes on and on," he says. Lewis says receivers, like defensive linemen, "take lots of shots in the shoulder." Defenders will attack Smith and, if Smith is breathing, he'll attack back. I know Lewis. He is not a complainer. He is honest. Pain, no matter where it is, is to players such as him and Smith what meetings and rot-gut coffee are to what the rest of us do. I ask him the last time he felt good. "The day before the first practice is when you feel the best," says Lewis. "I always like to remember because it will be a long time before you feel that way again."