Click the roster tab on the Carolina Panthers’ website and there’s still a Smith listed – D.J. Smith, a third-year linebacker from Appalachian State.
The spot for No. 89 – occupied for 13 years by Steve Smith, considered the best player in team history – is gone.
The Panthers ended three weeks of speculation and fan angst – and more than a decade of great catches, ball spins and in-your-face attitude – by cutting the franchise’s all-time receiving leader Thursday.
Smith was not sent off with a news conference like Jake Delhomme received or a retirement ceremony like Jordan Gross enjoyed last month.
The Panthers announced Smith’s release in a late-morning email that included a five-paragraph statement from second-year general manager Dave Gettleman, who said cutting him was a decision not taken lightly.
Smith, the Panthers’ third-round pick in 2001, ranks 25th in league history with 836 catches and 19th all-time with 12,197 receiving yards. He holds more than 30 Panthers records, including all of their major receiving marks.
His production slipped in 2014, when his 64 catches, 745 receiving yards and 11.6 yards-per-catch average were among the worst in his career.
Smith isn’t finished yet, though. Baltimore seems to have the most interest in acquiring him, although New England and Tampa Bay are also possibilities.
Playing for the Bucs would give Smith two chances to face the Panthers each year. If that happens, he told WFNZ-AM, “put your goggles on because there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”
When Gettleman was hired by the Panthers last year, he said he told owner Jerry Richardson he would try to leave the Panthers in a better position than when he came. It was Gettleman who decided it was time to move on from the mercurial Smith.
“Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good,” Gettleman said in the release. “And it is imperative to take an unemotional global view.”
Smith was seldom unemotional.
Sources said Gettleman viewed Smith – whose fiery personality was applauded by fans but not always welcome in the locker room – as a distraction, and that he wanted to turn the leadership over to emerging stars such as quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Smith, who declined to speak to the Observer, told WFNZ he thanked Richardson for giving him an opportunity. He indicated he wasn’t going to let his relationship with Gettleman ruin his feelings for the organization.
“I’m not going to allow an individual that I’ve interacted with for six months or a year to change the relationships I have with multiple people in that organization for over 13 years,” Smith said. “That will never happen.”
Gettleman has been trying to trade Smith since last week. According to a league source, Smith gave him a list of five teams as trade partners: Dallas, New England, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and San Diego.
Smith’s contract, however, which includes an option clause that would take it through 2016, combined with his declining production in 2013 made a trade prohibitive.
Smith, who will turn 35 in May, will walk away with $5 million from the Panthers – $3 million in guaranteed money and $2 million in deferred bonuses.
Because there is no offset language in Smith’s contract, he can collect the $5 million the Panthers owe him, in addition to whatever money another team pays him.
Designating Smith as a post-June 1 cut saved the Panthers $1 million in salary cap space, although they will carry $4 million in dead money on their salary cap into 2015.
Derrick Fox, his agent, said the Panthers never asked Smith to restructure his contract, as Gettleman did last offseason with Gross and several other veterans.
“Steve Smith has been one of the NFL’s finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team’s history,” Gettleman said in the team’s release. “This was not an easy decision. As a team, we made a step forward last year; however we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL.”
The Panthers are targeting New York Giants free agent Hakeem Nicks, a former Independence High and North Carolina standout, as their top choice to replace Smith, a source said.
Nicks, who is visiting the Colts on Friday, is coming off two sub-par seasons in New York. At 26, though, he’s still young enough to be a long-term No. 1 receiver to pair with Newton.
Carolina also has Green Bay free-agent receiver James Jones on its radar.
Smith leaves with his name all over the Panthers’ record books. He caught more passes, scored more touchdowns and posted more 100-yard receiving games than anyone in the franchise’s 19-year history.
He also was responsible for what many fans and former players view as the most memorable moment in team history. Smith stunned a St. Louis crowd when he pulled down a 69-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme in the second overtime to lift the Panthers to a 29-23 win in a divisional-round playoff game on Jan. 10, 2004, during Carolina’s lone Super Bowl season.
Offensive lineman Travelle Wharton was drafted by the Panthers a few months later and was amazed at the way Smith approached minicamp.
“You see a superstar just a couple months after the Super Bowl. You see him going down for the ball, diving. Spectacular catches that you see in the games, you’d see them in practice,” Wharton said. “I was like, that’s how true professionals go after it in practice.”
There were negative consequences to Smith’s intensity, as well. His Panthers legacy will include the punches he threw at three teammates, breaking two of their noses and resulting in an arrest and two suspensions for Smith.
He ends his career with Carolina with every major receiving record. His 12,197 yards are nearly 3,000 in front of Muhsin Muhammad, and his 836 receptions and 67 touchdowns also outdistance Muhammad.
Smith was part of four of the Panthers’ five playoff teams and made five Pro Bowls, most recently in 2011 during Newton’s first season.
Before the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall, Smith suffered through a 2-14 season in 2010. After the season, he went to Richardson’s house to request a trade, but ultimately backed off his demands.
After his 1,394-yard season in 2011, Smith agreed to a contract extension he believed would allow him to retire as a Panther.
He had a flair for the dramatic.
In his first NFL game, the season opener at Minnesota in 2001, Smith returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.
In his final game, he scored the Panthers’ lone touchdown in a playoff loss to San Francisco and celebrated by pointing to his sprained knee, which he’d spent two weeks rehabbing so he could play.
He caught four passes for 74 yards in the 23-10 loss – including the 31-yard touchdown – before being shut out in the second half after the 49ers adjusted their coverage.
Wharton will remember the punishing blocks Smith threw and the times – they were numerous – Smith came to a teammate’s defense.
“He didn’t back down from anybody. You’d see him crack back on linebackers, (defensive backs). He wasn’t afraid to mix it up with a bigger guy,” Wharton said. “Some of the biggest runs in the history of the organization, I’m pretty sure Steve was a big part of it, blocking downfield with some great blocks.”
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