Steve Smith is a difficult person. This isn't a revelation. Certain players possess unique personalities and Smith's is one of complete competitiveness, on and off the field. This isn't wholly a bad thing. It allowed him to dominate the league in spite of his small size, but there are times when it's too much to bear -- and this is one of those times.
It's important to understand that Smith's relationship with the team isn't a case of there being a single villain. Ultimately it's nobody's fault. Things could have and should have been handled better, of that there's no question. You don't treat a franchise legend like a throwaway player like Dave Gettleman did with Smith, but call it a lack of experience and bedside manner, not an overabundance of malice.
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By this point you've heard that the Panthers believe Smith has become a distraction, which is true. That said, he's always been a distraction -- a point that's often missed. His competitiveness routinely became detrimental to the organization both on and off the field. Whether it was yelling at his quarterback on the sideline or speaking about the lack of work from wide receivers off it, keeping Smith happy became the Panthers' full time concern. Fans loved it because it equated to "leadership" and "fire," but that doesn't mean you want to work with a guy like that. The trade off is worth it when he's one of the most dominant receivers in the league, but when that performance drops the headache becomes hard to justify, especially when the team is looking to transition leadership.
The overwhelming sentiment from a majority of fans is one of confusion; "How can the Panthers cut their leader?", "If Smith goes this team has lost its heart." There's a systemic problem with a 34-year-old player having that much power. It's not time for him to be a leader anymore, that needs to move to Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. There's a reason the offense had four captains in 2013, integrate the quarterback and expedite the process.
What happens when you need a vocal and outspoken player to take a step back? Somebody needs to yield. Either the team relents and lets the athlete have free reign, or a tiger changes his stripes and slinks into the shadows. It's unclear if either side was willing or able to do this. Smith is fueled by his early struggles to reach the pinnacle of the NFL and has little motivation to become "another guy" in the locker room, while the team had to allow its player base to evolve in an environment without the specter in the corner convinced that nobody did anything quite as well as he did.
Cat Scratch Reader was contacted almost a week ago with information that Smith would be traded or released in the upcoming week. It wasn't a surprising move because the writing has been on the wall for a while now, but the assumption had always been it was money not personality would lead to his release.
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There are a lot of gaps still remaining in the story, most importantly the order in which things took place. We were told that the Panthers were fearful Smith would become "poisonous" to the locker room due largely to being outspoken about the job performance of offensive coordinator Mike Shula, most specifically that he didn't think his offense was capable of being successful in the NFL.
It's unclear if this "poison" started last season, had already taken effect or was simply a fear of something to come -- but the overwhelming sentiment was that Smith needed to go before he influenced Newton too much. This is Cam's team now, having a veteran undermine the team's direction is not tenable for an organization trying to build off 2013 success.
We're told these locker room concerns were paired with a very real feeling that Smith had declined beyond the point of being effective. It was Gettleman's belief following film study that the veteran receiver had lost a step, couldn't jump like he did in the past and had concerns about his focus following a career-high season in dropped passes. Whether you agree with that or not is inconsequential, it's how the team felt.
Smith first found out about his status during a private meeting with Gettleman in which we're told the veteran receiver was informed the Panthers believed it would be in the team's best interest to attempt to trade him, or release him outright if a partner wasn't found. This was due to two things: A belief the receiver was declining and a mounting fear that his dominating personality was too much for a young team to withstand, especially while grooming new leaders.
This is where we're currently sitting. The Panthers hoped a trade partner would emerge, it didn't -- now Smith will be released on Thursday. It's a difficult end to an amazing career and the PR nightmare has only just begun.
It took a few days too long, but pulling the Band-Aid off quickly was the right move. It benefited nobody by dragging out this process and causing more pain than needed. Carolina has a young nucleus to build around, let Smith find a team with remaining cap space that can use him.
Not every story needs a bad guy and a good guy. Ultimately it's a tale of two men: One who was instrumental in the success of the team's past, another looking towards its future. Things became personal out of incompetency, but neither Smith nor Gettleman is really to blame for how things went. It's simply time to part ways, even if that weakens the Panthers in the upcoming season.