Friday, March 14, 2014

Helmetful of Hollow

That's how it ends for Steve Smith in Carolina.

With rumors the Panthers were trying to trade him, then with speculation, then with an unceremonious release. After that, the spin and the damage control, as GM Dave Gettleman said lots of nice things about the guy he'd just axed while tactfully not alluding to declining production, a mercurial personality, a complicated injury history, a large paycheck and worries that Smith took up too much of the locker room oxygen that's needed for the care and feeding of Cam Newton. Smith, for his part, hinted that he would have been happy to take a reduced role, said nice things about the team, showed himself off for new teams and only sideswiped Gettleman a few times in various interviews. The media, dutifully, lapped it all up as the outrage - how could they release STEVE SMITH - built in Charlotte. The tributes to his character and leadership, his production and his dedication to the team and area, all of them flowed freely. References to the multiple teammates he cold-cocked? Not so much.

But that's how it goes. The guy the fans are ready to murder for his on-field deficiencies becomes the guy those same fans are ready to beatify once he's gone. And yes, Smith was perhaps the most iconic Panther, bridging the gap between the Jake Delhomme-led Super Bowl run and the promise of the Cam Newton years. A franchise that had previously been defined by bad actors like Rae Carruth instead hitched its wagon to him, and he responded. The team's all-time receiving leader, he was the guy in Pantherland during the lean years, the one bona-fide star associated with the team.

And then, things changed. The Steve Smith of 2013 was, frankly, not a great player, and Cam Newton needs more weapons if the Panthers are going to make a Super Bowl run. And while Smith may now play like a #2 or #3 receiver, he would have been paid more than that role demanded. And that would have prevented Gettleman from acquiring those weapons, and on and on it goes. It's a complicated calculus that boils down to "Is having you at $X per year better than having this other guy at $Y?" Sentiment is for sports that don't have salary caps; the math said that Smith had to go.

As everyone has to go, sooner or later. It's almost fitting that Smith went out the door kicking and scratching at Gettleman; it's the best possible representation of his career in Panther blue. He's going to bounce around to a couple more teams now, no doubt. And then, probably, he'll do the one-day contract thing and retire a Panther. Get his name in the team's Ring of Honor, or whatever they call it. Come home, but only after it doesn't impact the product on the field.

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