Since he was drafted in 2001, Steve Smith has been the unquestioned leader and face of the Carolina Panthers franchise. Ask any Panther fan about Smith and you’ll see a smile creep over their face and you’re guaranteed to hear a few stories about the one Panther Nation calls “Smitty”.
As hard as this may be to believe, Smith’s status with the team he loves so much is murky to say the least. New General Manager Dave Gettleman has made it very clear that he is not above releasing players beloved by the fans or front office (See Jon Beason and Armanti Edwards).
This all started when Gettleman was asked about Smith at the NFL Combine. His response raised a few eyebrows. “Steve’s had a great career. He really has. None of us are here forever. He’s part of the evaluation process.”
The comments caught Smith and the entire Panther fan base off guard. Given how much Smith has meant to this franchise, he deserved to hear these comments from Gettleman himself, not by way of Twitter or another social media source. That’s on Gettleman. He has a right to consider a Carolina team without Smith as the cornerstone, but if Gettleman was considering making a move as drastic as this, he should have told Smith his intentions and concerns face to face.
Do Gettleman’s comments mean Smith is gone? Absolutely not. If you remember the former longtime Giants executive had a similar response when asked about the possibility of Greg Hardy leaving the team saying “Every team has let a big dog walk.” Hardy recently was given the franchise tag, meaning he was given a one year contract worth around $13 million to stay with Carolina.
The harsh reality for a competitor like Smith is simple, his storied career is coming to a close. How close that career is from ending is anyone’s guess. What I can tell you is that Smith will be playing somewhere this season. He may not be what he once was, but he still routinely draws the most coverage and safety help on defense- some team will take a chance on him.
If the Panthers decide to let Smith go, they better have a replacement in mind. Take Smith off this team and the only reliable receiver they have returning is Greg Olsen, the tight end Greg Olsen.
Dave Gettleman showed he has an eye for bringing in guys under the radar who can make a big impact like Ted Ginn, Chase Blackburn, and Graham Gano. The only question remaining for Gettleman and the Panthers’ front office is can they find a replacement for Smith who is as talented and less expensive than Smith? That’s the million dollar question that Gettleman will have to answer before making a decision on the fate of Steve Smith.
I think everyone associated with the Panthers wants Smith to have a sendoff similar to the one his longtime teammate Jordan Gross had recently. Gross went out on his own terms. Smith wants to do the same and I can’t blame him.
Smith’s career can end one of two ways. The one just mentioned above or the one where the Panthers release him and he plays two or three years for a poor team and then gets resigned to a one-day contract so he can retire a Panther like say, John Kasay the longtime Carolina kicker. Either way, this will be the biggest decision, Dave Gettleman has had to make in his short time as the General Manager of the Panthers. Let’s hope he makes the right one.