The Steve Smith era has drawn to a close in Carolina. According to his agent, the fiery wide receiver will not play for the Panthers in 2014. Despite this news, fan support has been rampant for the long-tenured veteran as many would like to see him finish his career with the Panthers. Although he won't be afforded that opportunity he has proven himself to be the best receiver in franchise history and perhaps one of the best in the game.
BREAKING NEWS: Agent for Steve Smith says client "is not going to play for the Panthers next year, I know that." http://t.co/yqnu28qUgS— Steve Reed (@SteveReedAP) March 12, 2014
There is no denying the legacy that is Steve Smith.
Drafted out of Utah in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft, Smith was utilized primarily as a return specialist under the George Seifert regime (1999-2001), but was afforded the opportunity to play with the offense when John Fox was hired to replace Seifert.
Over time, Smith would become one of the most beloved players in team history. Fan adoration was high on the diminutive receiver that he has been the face, heart and soul of the Carolina Panthers. Before the NFL cracked down on end-zone celebrations, Smith was one of a few players who were very creative after scoring a touchdown.
After all, how many times do you see a NFL receiver changing a football's diaper?
Smith would become more than just a competitor full of energy, heart and showmanship. He would be a team mainstay that was only rivaled by former kicker and original Panther John Kasay and offensive lineman Jordan Gross.
Much like Gross, Smith has the distinction of being a part of four of the five winning teams in Carolina history. He got his first taste of the postseason that culminated with a trip to the Super Bowl after a great 2003 season. That was the same year in which Smith reached over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in a season and caught a personal best (at the time) seven touchdowns.
Of course, the reason the Panthers were able to reach the Super Bowl was largely due to Smith's game-winning touchdown grab on the first play of the second overtime against St. Louis.
Quick tempered and fierce, Smith emerged as both a leader and disruptive force on the team. He became involved in altercations with teammates Anthony Bright and Ken Lucas at two different points in his career. Through it all, he realized the error of his ways and committed himself to being a better teammate.
However, that did not mean he would yield in his competitive nature on game day.
Smith has always played with a chip on his shoulder and despite being 5'9”, he seemed to have a knack for getting into his opponents' heads and making the plays when they counted. That particular edge about him has been his defining character trait his entire career.
Fans outside the Carolinas think of Smith as an angry thug who likes to talk trash. The reality, however, is Smith played every down with intensity, and if getting into the face of a defensive back helped give him an edge, he would do it.
Inside the locker room, he established himself as a leader and did not hesitate to lay into his teammates. He ripped into Dwayne Jarrett and told him to focus more on watching game film instead of conducting interviews. He has given his young quarterbacks an earful when it was needed. Smith did what was needed to get his teammates on the same page with him and he didn't worry about exercising any degree of tact to convey his message.
His overall production has made an interesting case for Hall of Fame induction after he retires.
Smith led the league in receiving only once in his career. He won football's triple crown in 2005 after leading the league in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,563) and touchdowns (12). That was the same year the Panthers met the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, but came up short of their second trip to the Super Bowl.
Despite being a league leader in receiving only once in his career, Smith still compiled seven seasons in which he reached 1,000 yards. Had Carolina afforded him the benefit of a solid No. 2 receiver immediately after Muhsin Muhammad left for Chicago, Smith may have had better production. There is no denying that having both receivers on the team was a great match, as it would be the only time the team would have two All-Pro receivers in the offense.
Regardless of what happens in 2014 and beyond, Smith's credentials for induction into Canton will rest on the merits of what he accomplished with the Panthers. He played on four great Carolina teams, but played on some pretty bad ones, too.
He was consistent. It's fair to give Smith a pass on a horrible 2010 season that saw Carolina employ three different starting quarterbacks. When the Panthers drafted Cam Newton the following season, Smith enjoyed a resurgence of sorts, as he had his best season since 2008.
If he wasn't lost for the last 15 games of the 2004 season, there is no telling what his production total would look like. But it's this kind of intangible that will go into consideration for the voters and, for the most part, make Smith a dark-horse candidate to be named the Carolina's first Hall of Famer.
When the dust settles and Steve Smith hangs up his cleats for the final time, it's a safe assumption he will be have his number retired and will find his way into the Panthers' Ring of Honor. His legacy will be cemented as the best receiver in team history and a fierce competitor who didn't back done from anyone.
It will be difficult to see a Carolina offense without Steve Smith. It will be even stranger to see him wearing another team's colors if he decides to continue playing. However, his contributions to the Panthers and the community will not be forgotten. The fans may not see Smith get the exit he wants, but he will get the recognition he deserves.
Carolina owes it to him.
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