Letting go is hard. Whether it’s a significant other that breaks up with you, a family pet that passes away, or your favorite player, it can be a challenge.
For many Carolina Panthers fans, their favorite player is wide receiver Steve Smith. “Smitty,” as some affectionately know him, has spent his entire career with the Panthers since being taken in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft out of Utah. Throughout his time in Carolina, he’s been nothing short of spectacular, setting every franchise record for receiving and has established himself as arguably the greatest Panther of all-time.
Nowadays, Smith is still an effective receiver, leading the Panthers in most categories last year yet again, but it’s clear that his time in Carolina is limited. General manager Dave Gettleman was noncommittal about Smith’s future with the club at the NFL Combine, saying, “None of us are here forever.”
This prompted Smith in an interview with WBT radio on Tuesday to respond, “When you speak of an individual’s career in the past tense, it would suggest that a team is moving on,” also adding that, “No one has still reached out to me and told me anything. My agent has contacted the team and just trying to find out what’s going on because to be honest I have no idea what my future holds.”
To be clear, letting Smith go right now would be a mistake from a football standpoint, because while he’s no longer a true number one receiver, he’s still an elite number two guy. His salary is reasonable and it isn’t worth incurring a $2 million cap hit to cut him so I don’t see Smith being gone this offseason.
Smith will be 35 when next season begins, however, so there’s a strong chance it will be his last. Losing him will be a big adjustment for the fans, players, and entire organization. The impact won’t just be felt on the field, but off it as well.
With Jordan Gross retiring, Smith represents the last link to Panthers’ lone Super Bowl team and the John Fox/Marty Hurney-era in general. Fans still remember Smith breaking the stalemate on the first play of double overtime in 2003 in St. Louis, sending Carolina to the NFC Championship Game. And they remember “Smitty” winning the receiving “triple crown” in 2005 and torching the Chicago Bears secondary in Chicago to send the Panthers to their second NFC Championship Game in three years.
But like that person who broke up with you or your family’s dog that died, it’s easy to forget the bad that came with the good. It’s easy to forget all the “accidents” you were tasked with cleaning or how much your partner snored. And it’s easy to forget that the Panthers haven’t won a playoff game in the last nine years, even with Smith.
Former GM Marty Hurney had a hard time moving on, which explains the monster contracts he consistently handed out, but new GM Dave Gettleman has no ties to that era and has proven he can take emotion out of it. Gettleman’s comments aren’t reflecting imminent transactions, but the realization that it’s time to embrace a new era in Carolina. Jake Delhomme, Jordan Gross, Julius Peppers, and Chris Gamble are all gone. Soon enough, Smith will join them. It’s time for Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, and others to establish themselves as the leaders of a new regime.
Last year’s 12-4 record is a promising start, certainly lead on the field by younger players Newton, Star Lotulelei, and Kuechly mostly. However, the locker room was still lead by Fox/Hurney-era players. Three of the six captains were drafted by the Hurney regime in 2005 or earlier: Gross, Smith, Thomas Davis. Gross is retired, Smith will be soon, and Davis’ time is likely limited as well, given his injury history. Newton and Kuechly will shoulder more responsibilities and new leaders will emerge out of necessity.
Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a-changin’” and while Ron Burgundy never heard that song, it’s clear Gettleman frequently has it on repeat. Soon enough, the stalwarts of the Hurney-era will be gone and there will be nothing connecting Carolina to their last playoff victory.
Letting go is hard, but it’s necessary. If you never broke up with your first girlfriend, you’d have never met your wife. If the Panthers never move on from Steve Smith, they’ll never win a Super Bowl. Change doesn’t sound too bad when you put it that way.