Looking Back at the Panthers' Steve Smith Decision

A flip through the Panthers' media guide shows Steve Smith owns at least a share of nearly 50 team records. Thirteen of those are as a receiver. Twenty-three are as a return man, even though his final season as a full-time kickoff and punt returner was 2003.

During his 13 seasons in Carolina, Smith played in 182 of the team's 208 regular-season games and in all nine of its postseason games. The only season he didn't play at least 14 games was 2004, when he broke his leg in the season opener.

Smith made mistakes, bad mistakes, but for more than a decade, he was the Panthers' most-important player. He was the best player in franchise history. And then came March.

In a move that shocked him, the fan base, and the NFL, Smith was unceremoniously released this spring. It was like tearing off a Band-Aid … if that Band-Aid had been attached with super-glue.

Fans were understandably confused and upset. The 35-year-old, who had (somewhat) matured into the Panthers' most-popular player, saw his numbers drop in 2013, but he was still the team's best receiver. On the surface, it didn't make sense. But the reasons above the surface did.

Ahead of Sunday's 'reunion' between now-Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. and his former team, let's look at the three main reasons why the Panthers did what they did, and how the controversial choice looks three months later.

1. The Panthers needed to overhaul their receiving staff

Smith's numbers took a dive in 2013. For the first time since a broken leg cost him 15 games in 2004, he didn't lead the team in receptions. In fact, no receiver did. Tight end Greg Olsen caught the most passes last year. The Panthers realized they needed new weapons for quarterback Cam Newton, and the makeover included Smith. It wasn't that the team thought he couldn't play anymore. It was that he wasn't the best mentor. The jumbo-sized chip on the 5-9 wideout's shoulder included the belief that no one ever worked harder than he did. He reminded his teammates of that often as he loudly judged them. In some respects, that's what a leader does. But eventually, it wears on guys, especially younger players. The Panthers had to bring in fresh faces, but Smith was a hurdle. So they cleared him out of the way.
So far, that part of the decision appears to have worked well. The Panthers used their first-round pick in this year's draft on receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The 23-year-old is soft-spoken and reminds many of a big kid. Benjamin’s personality may have irritated the ultra-competitive Smith. Odds are Benjamin's growth would have been stunted if Smith were still around. Through the first three weeks of his NFL career, Benjamin leads all rookies in receiving yards.

2. Smith's production level had dropped to the point where his negatives outweighed his positives.

While Benjamin is currently tied for 10th in receiving yards, Smith is 7th. He leads the Ravens with 18 receptions for 290 yards. The next closest receiver, Torrey Smith, has six catches for 85 yards. So yeah, Steve Smith can still play. Perhaps even better than the Panthers thought he could at this stage in his career. So while the front office made a reasonable move for the future when they cut Smith and drafted Benjamin, there's a decent chance even they're impressed by the numbers the 35-year-old is putting up in Baltimore.

3. The locker room needed to be turned over.

Smith's locker was essentially in the middle of the locker room. That was more than a coincidence. His presence permeated through the room, and that was sometimes good, but it often made for a tense atmosphere. Smith's mood seemed to change not daily, but sometimes by the minute. One minute he could be laughing with you, the next he could be yelling at you. Again, he demanded a lot of his teammates, which is what a good leader and captain does. But the Panthers have other leaders there, too, namely Newton and Luke Kuechly. The 25-year-old quarterback and 23-year-old linebacker became the new faces of the franchise over the last few years. Newton and Kuechly aren’t as outwardly fiery as Smith, but not all successful teams are led in the same way. Whether their way is the right one is still to be seen. But this is their team now.

Categories: Black and Blue Review 2, Panthers