Panthers owe Smith more than vagueness

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith deserves better.

The Carolina Panthers wide receiver deserves a chance to finish his NFL career the way left tackle and longtime friend Jordan Gross did on Wednesday -- under his own terms.

He doesn't deserve to hear second-hand that his future with the organization with which he has spent his entire 13-year career is being evaluated, that the team doesn't know the extent of his role for 2014.

Or if he'll have a role.

This is a business, but even in business there is room for common decency. If general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera had questions about whether Smith could continue as the team's No. 1 receiver -- or No. 2 or 3 -- they should have discussed it with him during his exit meeting immediately after the season.

Or at worst, bring him in once they began considering options.

They've done neither.

So Smith arrived for Gross' retirement news conference, a moment so emotional that he barely could talk without choking up, to face questions about his future.

To his credit, he took the high road. He declined to talk about comments Gettleman and Rivera made last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that brought his future into question.

If you missed it, here's a sample of what Gettleman said.

"Steve's had a great career. None of us are here forever," he said. "He's part of the evaluation."

Neither Gettleman nor Rivera would give a simple "yes" then or Wednesday when asked if Smith would be on the team in 2014 -- even though Smith's contract runs through 2016 if the Panthers pick up his option years.

The vagueness was deafening.

But Smith, not one to bury his thoughts, didn't keep quiet on Tuesday. While talking on WBT radio from Utah, where he was donating $150,000 to the University of Utah -- the school that he and Gross attended -- for a family foundation academic scholarship, he expressed his dismay.

He talked about the shock of having to read management's comments on the Internet and hear them from third parties.

He nailed it when he said: "If I ... did that the reverse way, I think it would have been very unprofessional on my end and a destruction. I wish the individuals would have had that conversation with me first and privately."

Smith was calm and professional throughout the radio interview. He's come a long way from the player who early in his career became so volatile over situations that he attacked teammates on three different occasions.

Had he gone on a rampage, however, few would have faulted him. He has had a career (836 catches, 12,197 yards) worthy of the team's Wall of Honor if he never catches another pass.

Such numbers demand more respect.

At least better communication.

Maybe it's time for the team to move on. Maybe the team can find a younger No. 1 receiver in free agency and/or the draft. An overall upgrade definitely is needed.

But Smith still can be viable. Teammates feed off his energy. A rookie would benefit from his experience.

Remember what Rivera and others said about him as he attempted to come back from a late-season knee injury to play against San Francisco in the playoffs? Let me refresh you:

  • Rivera: "He works very hard at his craft. That's why he plays at such a high level continually. He's a great example for our young guys in how to practice hard. Steve, again, is still the big vocal point of who we are. When you put the tape on, you still see people matching [defensive backs] on him. You still see teams rolling coverage toward him."

  • Offensive coordinator Mike Shula: "You lose a guy like Steve, it is a big concern because he is such a warrior on game day and a productive player and presents a lot of problems for the defense. Obviously, he gives you a playmaker, but he gives you good looks in other areas to make other guys play better."

  • Tight end Greg Olsen: "He really sets the coverage for us when Steve's out there. It's important. He's our main guy."

In other words, Smith deserves better than he's getting now.

Maybe this will all work out. Maybe Smith will return and the team will benefit. Rivera said to be patient and let it play out. But he should be talking to Smith and explaining what is happening.

Smith still can be volatile if he gets mad enough. He still can be disruptive.

Neither are what you want in the offseason from one of your all-time greats. Not when you're trying to get back to the playoffs.

Maybe that's another reason Smith was so emotional on Wednesday. When Gross told Smith by phone he was retiring, Gross said, "What an unbelievable feeling it is to go out playing for one team and knowing that it was my choice." Words that surely reminded Smith of the way he wants to go out.

"I think it matters to him," Gross said.

Gettleman has reminded several times that all the facts that go into personnel decisions typically don't come out until two or three years down the road -- if ever.

He warns that the biggest mistake you can make is an emotional decision.

"The truth of the matter is, everybody is on the outside looking in," he said two days after the season. "So when a team makes a decision to let a quality player -- and not a myth, but a legitimate quality player -- walk out the door, the first thing you do is sit back and say, 'What are they doing?'

"The fact of the matter is, there's stuff going on behind closed doors that we don't know about. I don't care what sport it is. You don't know all the facts. Unless you know all the facts all you're doing is speculating."


But to leave the player speculating seems harsh.

And not just any player, but one that has meant what Smith has to the organization.

He deserves better.