The Carolina Panthers had been attempting to move veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, but after failing to find a trade partner they have released Smith, ending his long career with the team.
"When I took this position I knew that difficult decisions would have to be made along the way," general manager Dave Gettleman said in a statement. "To move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult of all. A decision not to be taken lightly. However, after much thought I feel very strongly it's the right one.
"As I've stated many times, all decisions I make will be in the long-term best interest of the Carolina Panthers. Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good, and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view.
"Sometimes it may appear that short-term interests will suffer, and I can assure you we have no interest in taking a step back from our 2013 accomplishments. Nevertheless, like all NFL teams, we are in transition as we try to get into the best position going forward. When Mr. Richardson hired me I promised him that my goal would be to leave the Panthers in a better position than when I came. All my efforts are in that vein."
A number of teams will be interested in signing Smith now that he is a free agent, but he apparently has his own preferences. According to the Charlotte Observer, Smith gave Gettleman a list of five teams that he would like to play for when Gettleman was attempting to make a trade. The list included the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers.
The disconnect between Gettleman and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on one side, and Smith on the other, became public on a national scale during the scouting combine in February. Asked about Smith's future at the podium during his media appearance, Gettleman couldn't have been less enthused.
”We’re going through the whole process," he said. "Steve’s had a great career. He really has. None of us are here forever. But that’s not to say -- he’s part of the evaluation process. That’s just the way it is.”
Rivera added his own tepid "endorsement."
“It’s all about the evaluations. We have to look through everything. There’s a lot of scenarios that we’re putting together as a football team. But Steve’s part of who we are, and we’ll go from there … We are in a process right now that we’re getting ready to evaluate college football players. When we get back into town, we’ll start talking about what has to happen as we get ready for free agency.”
Smith, who has carried an enormous chip on his shoulder, fired back quickly.
“I would have wished that I would have been afforded the opportunity to be given a heads-up by our GM and also with coach Rivera,” Smith told WBT-AM in Charlotte (via the NFL Network) on Feb. 26. “When I did my exit meeting, no one spoke to me about it in that manner, so the unfortunate part of it is I had to hear secondhand. We have to read into things and we try not to, but when we speak of an individual’s career in the past tense, I think ultimately it would suggest that a team is moving on, and that’s all I can do. No one has still reached out to me and told me anything.”
In the end, according to Smith's agent Derrick Fox, the Panthers never asked Smith to renegotiate his contract, which contained a $7 million cap hit. Smith will count for $5 million against the Panthers' 2014 cap, as opposed to $3 million had he been traded, according to the Associated Press.
“Where we are disappointed is the fact he signed an extension to stay loyal to the club and complete his career as a Panther,” Fox said Wednesday. “That is why we did the long-term team deal. Now we are at a crossroads where the Panthers don’t want him anymore.”
It's a confusing decision for the Panthers, who have little else of elite quality in their receiver corps. Several reports Thursday indicated that Gettleman would be welcoming former New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks to the Panthers' facility sooner than later, but due to his injuries, Nicks hasn't been that productive in the last two seasons.
In the end, the move may have been personal on the Panthers' end. According to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer, Gettleman viewed Smith as an irritant.
Sources say Gettleman views Smith as a distraction and is ready to turn the locker room over to emerging stars such as quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The qualities that made Smith so popular among the team’s fans -- his fiery personality and willingness to speak his mind -- might have hastened his departure from the team. Former general manager Marty Hurney managed to meet Smith on middle ground, but Gettleman appears bent on moving on from the status quo.
While the NFL is a business above all else, this does seem a rather cavalier way to treat a player who’s probably done more for a franchise that’s been around since the mid-1990s than anybody else. He had 836 receptions for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns in his Carolina career, and he’s been the main man at receiver most of that time, with a series of questionable quarterbacks for the most part until recently, when Cam Newton developed his game.
As for Smith, the two most likely landing spots would appear to be Baltimore and Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay has been aggressive throughout the offseason, and adding Smith would make sense for the team as it looks to improve its offensive talent. The Ravens have been considered a favorite to land Smith since the news first surfaced that he was likely on his way out of Carolina.
Asked on a Charlotte, NC radio station how things would go if Smith's new team played the Panthers in 2014, the veteran pulled no punches.
Now on WFNZ, Steve Smith on possibly playing vs #Panthers: “Put your goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”
— Bill Voth (@billvoth) March 13, 2014
Meanwhile, Panthers fans are not amused.
The @Panthers cut Steve Smth today. Here's what it looks like outside their stadium today - http://t.co/1BLqZRn2X3 pic.twitter.com/TKl9P2WxEzNOTE: Josh Sanchez contributed to this post.
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) March 13, 2014