Every NFL player dreams of health, prosperity, a Super Bowl ring or two and then a glorious, heartfelt ride off into the sunset of retirement. Thirteen-year vet Steve Smith got health and prosperity, for the most part, but isn’t going to get a championship ring or a pleasant send-off to retirement. At least he won’t get it from the Carolina Panthers.
But he should, he most definitely deserves that much.
Smith finished the 2013 season a bit hobbled. After missing Week 17 with a knee injury sustained during the prior game, he caught four passes for 74 yards and a touchdown during Carolina’s playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Panthers’ loss in the Divisional Round was a few steps short of where they wanted to be. But Smith, who was drafted by Carolina in 2001 and has played in Charlotte ever since, had three more years on his contract and enough time for another go at a title.
Had is the operative word there.
While Smith was going through the offseason, general manager Dave Gettleman took to the microphones at the NFL combine and basically gave a vote of no confidence in Smith, as reported by David Newton of ESPN.com.
Steve's had a great career. None of us are here forever. He's part of the evaluation.
Head coach Ron Rivera offered even less information, according to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. But in the same breath placed Smith’s future with the Panthers in question.
Steve is part of what we’re doing in going forward. How big of an impact he’s going to have for us, that’s to be determined as we start going through this draft process and through the free agency. So we’ll see.
After the comments, Smith said he was disappointed; said he wished the team would have given him a heads up at his end-of-year exit interview. But the Panthers didn’t, and arguably the best player in Panthers’ franchise history had to find out his tenure with the team was in question on the Internet.
That’s miserable. And it’s the wrong way to treat a guy who’s sold more Carolina jerseys than anyone ever.
Steve Smith spoke with Bleacher Report on Sirius XM Radio after being cut today, listen below:
A jersey isn’t important, it’s just a measure of how loved Smith was to the Carolina fanbase. He was also loved in the locker room, and in the huddle. Smith was a leader that future leaders should learn from. He played hard, he played hurt and he never quit.
But on Thursday the Panthers plan to release Smith, as confirmed by ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter.
He’s not quitting on the Panthers, however, even though they’ve unceremoniously quit on him.
Smith will play elsewhere, he’s already said his career is not over. But what do the Panthers do without him.
If you take a look at the depth chart at wide receiver, with Smith gone Carolina lost 41 percent of its receptions from the position from 2013. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon are gone to test free agency too.
As Josh Katzowitz so eloquently noticed, there isn’t anyone left on Carolina’s roster that caught a pass last season in a Panthers uniform.
The Panthers can go out and try to sign a free-agent wide receiver, but not only are the pickings slim for a No. 1 wideout, Carolina doesn’t have much cap space to play with.
According to Over The Cap, prior to Wednesday’s release, Carolina had a mere $5 million in cap space. Releasing Smith won’t help dramatically, according to Joel Corry of CBS Sports.
If the Panthers aren’t going to gain bags full of money to spend in free agency, how are they going to replenish their wide receiver corps? If the team brings in a few minimum-salary players, won’t they be in the same boat as last year, no No. 2 receiver?
And without Smith, there’s now no No. 1 either.
Carolina might be able to look at the wide receiver position in the draft, but not in the first round in all likelihood. With the retirement of Jordan Gross, and the subsequent retirements of linemen Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers, the offensive line has too many holes to ignore.
The Panthers might have to address the offensive line issues in the first round and then look at wide receivers. No matter when the Panthers draft offensive linemen or wide receivers, the current situation in Charlotte is superstar quarterback Cam Newton has no one to throw to and no one to protect him.
The move to release Smith is puzzling. The financial reasons concerning the cap are real, but this move not only dismantles Carolina’s depth at wide receiver, it annihilates it like a bomb blast.
Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer reported that sources told him Gettleman sees Smith as a distraction to the team and that the Panthers need a shift of leadership in the locker room.
But they'll also need a veteran wide receiver, and right now there's not one. Maybe a little distraction is worth the numbers Smith can put up, the numbers he has put up.
Sure, Smith might not be a No.1 target any more, but his experience and leadership could have done so much more for the crop of new receivers coming to play for the Panthers than the extra money saved by kicking him to the curb.
Carolina will look back on this move—as will Newton when he's looking for a receiver in 2014—and regret not finding a way to keep Smith on this team as a security blanket and as a mentor the next crop of pass-catchers.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.