Steve Smith, the best player in the Carolina Panthers’ 19-year history, remains on the team roster – if in name only.
It’s different seeing the franchise’s all-time receiving leader listed as “Steve Smith Sr.,” a preemptive move owing to the baby boy he and his wife, Angie, are expecting in March.
But it will be even stranger – and heartbreaking for thousands of Panthers fans who have long cheered for Smith – when his name isn’t on the roster at all.
It’s no longer a matter of if the Panthers will part ways with their mercurial wide receiver, but when.
Derrick Fox, Smith’s California-based representative, said Wednesday that Smith’s career with the Panthers is effectively over.
“I believe under the circumstances of the Panthers wanting to trade Steve, his career’s finished with the Panthers,” Fox said in a phone interview.
It’s unclear how long Smith will officially remain a Panther.
General manager Dave Gettleman continues his efforts to trade Smith. But with a $7 million cap figure for a receiver who will turn 35 before the season, Gettleman likely will be forced to release Smith.
Unless Smith has a change of heart, there will be no retirement ceremony this offseason for him like the one longtime left tackle Jordan Gross enjoyed last month. Smith made it clear Wednesday on Twitter he plans to play in 2014, even if it means putting on a different uniform.
“I will always be a Carolina panther No contract can ever change that CLT is my home and will always be my home... I love you #panthernation,” Smith tweeted.
“But I still have a lil bit of football left in me....#agent89 Out. #iceupson.”
The Panthers will owe Smith $5 million if they cut him – $3 million in guaranteed money and $2 million in deferred bonus money.
And while the Panthers would save $1 million against this year’s cap if they release Smith with a post-June 1 designation, they would have to count $4 million in dead money against their salary cap in 2015.
But the decision to cut ties with Smith is more than about money.
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 – 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.
Gettleman’s noncommittal response to a question about Smith at the NFL scouting combine last month was the first public sign that Smith’s future was in doubt.
Gettleman has not spoken publicly since the combine. He did not respond to a message from the Observer on Wednesday.
Smith caught 64 passes for 745 yards and an 11.6 yards-per-catch average – all of which ranked among the worst in Smith’s 13-year career.
After missing the regular-season finale at Atlanta, Smith returned for the playoff game against San Francisco and scored the Panthers’ only touchdown – a 31-yard catch – in the loss to the 49ers.
“If any NFL pro scout thinks that Steve Smith cannot play at a high level in this game, that’s the fuel that’s driven Steve for 13 years in this business to high levels,” Fox said in an apparent reference to Gettleman, a former scout who was in the Giants’ pro personnel department before the Panthers hired him.
Fox said the Panthers have not asked Smith to restructure his contract, which Smith signed in 2012 under the impression he would finish his career with the team that drafted him in the third round in 2001.
“We did a long-term deal with (former general manager) Marty Hurney and with the Richardson family because we thought Steve was going to complete his career as a Panther,” Fox said. “Now when we find out through the media at the combine that those plans are different, that was news to us.”
Smith is said to relish a chance to play in the NFC South so he could face the Panthers twice next season. Atlanta and New Orleans might not have the cap space to bring Smith in, leaving Tampa Bay as the only possibility within the division.
Baltimore and San Diego – where Smith has a history with coach Mike McCoy and receivers coach Fred Graves – are possible landing spots.
Because there is no offset language in Smith’s contract, he could collect the $5 million the Panthers would owe him if he’s released, in addition to whatever money another team pays him.
“Did he look like he couldn’t play at a high level in the San Francisco game?” Fox asked. “You’re only judged in this business by the last game you played. And he looked pretty good in that game when everything was moving.”
But now the second-longest tenured player in team history – behind former kicker John Kasay – will be moving out.
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