Gettleman is already making moves, but what he ultimately decides to do with Smith could determine how people respond to him moving forward. Justify what Marty Hurney did as the Panthers GM all you like - say he and Gettleman actually share fairly similar philosophies and goals - but the reality is, what he left behind still has people nervous about the person in The Panthers' general manager seat. If Gettleman cuts Smith and comes out of the situation on top, he'll eventually be loved by the public. If he keeps being oddly quiet, the discussion of PR backlash might turn from Public Relations to Player Relations.
I'm careful to say people and not fans in the case of the Panther's new GM, because Gettleman's decisions have already made an impact on the organization's reputation he might not like - and which extends beyond just fan perception of him. When asked prior to the combine, Panthers players on the cusp of Free Agency seemed surprised at the lack of contact from Gettleman and Rivera. Analysts everywhere seem to share a similar bewilderment with how the two have responded. Like a self-absorbed interviewee at the combine, I wouldn't be surprised if reports of the duo's tight-lipped approach raised red flags among free agents. Especially those the team might be looking to snatch up on short-term contracts. If I was a player I'd think twice about joining a team on a single season contract if I thought there was a chance I'd be left hanging even at the end of a good year.
Gettleman and Rivera's decision to leave a man who is easily the franchise's most influential, outspoken and well-liked player - barring the short stays of Kevin Greene and Reggie White of course - in the dark could be having a similar impact as well. A veteran player looking at the prospect of filling Gross' slot might think twice about uprooting his family to move to a team showing so little concern for a player whose jersey should probably end up retired by the team at some point in the future.
If a fringe Hall of Fame candidate and fan favorite is on the chopping block, or anywhere near as close as Smith is, why would any veteran even consider it? If the Panthers cut Smith, they send the message that anyone coming in to fill a role could be on the block at any time, and without a consistent record of diminished productivity. Smith is only one season removed from back-to-back 1000 yard receiving seasons after all, and played in one of most conservative passing offenses in the league last year.
Smith's cut would also come after his absence late in the season revealed an offense that was astoundingly impotent without him in the lineup. He earned a heaping helping of praise for the role he plays while recovering for the playoffs, from the same men who now appear to seriously be considering cutting him to boot. Smith is also the only player on the team to get into the endzone during a painful loss to the 49ers that saw Superman stonewalled and The Kraken reclaimed by a tidal wave of gold and red offensive lineman.
The decision to move away from Smith could also affect the attitudes of rookies coming into camp.
If Smith is gone, Gettleman has two rather dubious options. Fight in free agency for a small pool of wide receivers in a league chasing the numbers of Manning and Brees. The result of bringing in a solid new free agent could also be telling a guy we draft in the first round that he isn't the team's future anymore. Something I doubt a first round draft pick will be happy with when they could have been ridding Smith's coattails into the league - along with basking in the exposure of playing with Cam and a guy chasing a Hall of Fame spot.
The second option is to keep what the team already has, receivers who produced too little and relied too heavily on guidance from Smith, and take a gamble on replacing Smitty in the draft. The number one spot is a lot of pressure for a rookie, especially one thrust into the role on a team with a quarterback who does nothing but talk about winning and which has never made the playoffs in back-to-back years.
Both potential fixes for a receiving corps minus Smith require gambling of some sort, especially if we cut him loose at the start of Free Agency; Gettleman would have to allow Smith a chance to test the waters if he doesn't retire, or risk making himself look even worse. Either we're gambling that a receiver falls to us in the draft or we're fighting to sign a second free agent alongside Hardy at a price which allows us to re-sign enough players to field a competitive team. In both situations the most likely situation without Smith around is that the team makes no meaningful progress in fixing the lack of depth at receiver.
Personally, even though I know Smith probably won't put up another of those 1,000 yard seasons, I don't see us avoiding a truly scary situation at receiver next year if Smith isn't there. With Hardy coming back, the Panthers would probably only be able to go after a guy like Hakeem Nicks - whose injury history makes him a gamble to replace the only consistently productive receiver the team has had for the better part of the last half decade. Smith gives us a cushion to build around before he leaves, a cushion that could easily justify the portion of his contract that his play no longer does.
Smith said he's not ready to hang it up today. Smitty wants to keep playing, and if there's anything I know about Smitty and wanting things, it's this: Steve Smith already wants everything more than everybody else, even if it's something he doesn't even know exists. So when Steve Smith actually says he wants something, I wouldn't even know where to start trying to keep him from it.