Steve Smith: Is Carolina Panthers Wide Receiver Moving on to Greener Pastures?
A sad reality of professional sports is that players hardly spend their entire careers with one team anymore. Steve Smith seems to be headed down a road that most players will travel at some point in their careers, as he may be heading to his second professional team next season.
Smith has been a very polarizing figure as a pro. A four-time Pro Bowler, Smith has worn his emotions on his sleeve—twice on his fists—and has made a lot of enemies along the way. However, he has endeared himself to Panthers fans and has been arguably the best player in franchise history. Smith has always played with a proverbial chip on his shoulder due to being undersized (5'9" on a good day) and a middle-round pick (third round in 2001).
He electrified Panthers fans from the first moment he ever touched the ball, taking the opening kickoff of the 2001 season back for a touchdown in his first professional game.
Countless end zone celebrations (remember when those were actually allowed?) and unsportsmanlike penalties later, "Smitty," as he is affectionately known by fans, has seemingly grown frustrated with the direction of the team of late, including what has now become a rebuilding process.
Several offseason events have led many to believe Smith has played his last game for the Panthers, but does the evidence lead to a verdict of bye bye Smitty?
The First Sign of Discontent
Smith played nice for most of the year, but after a 31-10 loss to Atlanta, he spoke out against starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen. After the tough loss, Clausen apologized to his defensive teammates for the way he played.
Apparently, that didn't sit too well with Smith, who was quoted by carolinagrowl.com's Steve Reed when he said, “I’m the last guy to tell anybody to be apologizing, but if you’re going to apologize, you know, you should apologize to the people in the huddle with you...He ain’t at Notre Dame anymore, that’s for sure.”
Lots of star players can get frustrated when those around them don't play great, but it is hard to blame a rookie quarterback for Carolina's problems this past year. This situation only opened the can of worms that continued to spill over for several months.
Smitty Cleans out His Locker
Word came out in April—first from a Pro Football Weekly report—that before the lockout began, Smith cleaned out his locker and a luxury suite that he had at Bank of America Stadium.
It became apparent to most people that the importance was not whether he cleaned out his things from the stadium, but why? Smith stayed quiet for a while, but eventually addressed the issue of why he cleared out his belongings.
Time for a Homcoming?
As the rumors continued to swirl, word came out in early May that Smith was interested in returning to his home state of California. Oakland and San Diego both seemed to express interest. However, the current NFL lockout has put the brakes on any possible negotiations between teams concerning trades or concerning anything else, for that matter.
There could have been truth to these rumors, but it also could be people making educated guesses based on what seems to happen a lot, guys wanting to return "home." This news coming out on the heels of Smith reportedly cleaning out his locker only added fuel to the fire of these rumors.
Does the Dreaded Vote of Confidence Apply to Yourself?
Normally, when a university's Athletic Director or a professional team's General Manager has to come out and endorse a coach, that is usually the first sign something is wrong. So, can the same logic be applied to Smith when, in mid-May, he decided to address the rumors that he had "demanded" a trade?
Personally, if you want to truly deny that you demanded a trade, you come right out and say that you want to stay where you are. Anything short of that should be kept to yourself, because it will only be used against you, and your words can be twisted to say whatever people want it to say.
When Smith cleared the air, again in an interview with Pro Football Weekly, he said, “It’s not me saying, ‘Yes, I want a trade.’ It’s still a family matter, and when my family feels it’s the appropriate time, our actions will show how we feel.”
That quote doesn't exactly make Panthers fans feel confident about his future with the team. Maybe Smith didn't want to be perceived as the type of player who would demand a trade, but coming up short of giving his full support for the Panthers organization and his desire to play there comes across as poorly worded and shortsighted.
Smitty a No Show at Practice?
Maybe the most significant reason for the Panthers to hire security to keep media away from the practices this week was so that no one could see if Smith was in attendance. Despite all the rumors and speculation, the most damaging piece of evidence in the case might be whether or not he attended the player organized workouts this week.
Reportedly, over 50 players showed up and Smith is second on the team in years of service to only kicker John Kasay, so a player in his position not showing up says a lot. It probably says more than all the other things from this offseason put together.
You need your most seasoned guys to be your leaders. If Smith failed to show up despite 50 other guys making it, how can those younger players trust him? How can they depend on him to be there for them once the season starts?
If Smith wasn't there, maybe he had a great reason. Maybe he was sick, maybe a family member was sick. As a Panthers fan, I hope he will still be wearing number 89 in Charlotte this fall, but that is a decision that the organization will have to make, not Smith, since he is still under contract through next season.
Despite his desire to play for a winner, the Panthers can't just give him away. It is a business and the team can try to accommodate his request for a trade, if he actually made one, but not at the detriment of the Panthers organization.
He still has something left in the tank and I hope he gets to show it while still playing for the only team he has ever played for. Only one player has a statue outside of Bank of America Stadium, and that is the late Sam Mills. I thought Julius Peppers would be the next, but I am not holding my breath for that to happen at this point. After Peppers left for Chicago, I thought Smith could be the second player to get that honor, but now, I am not so sure.
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