There has been much speculation about why the Panthers released their all-time leading receiver two weeks ago. At the top of list was that the oft-fiery Smith was a distraction to the leadership of young players such as quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. There also was speculation that things became personal between Smith and general manager Dave Gettleman.
Rivera, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time during the NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings, said much of the speculation and criticism was unfair.
"This is not a fly-by-night decision,'' Rivera said. "This was not a personal decision. ... There was nothing personal about it.
"I'm a little disappointed that so many people reacted the way they did without truly understanding there were a lot of things that go into this. This was not a willy-nilly, fly-by-night, vengeful thing. This was a very calculated [decision].''
Rivera said at some point the Panthers were going to have to move on without Smith, who will turn 35 in May. In order to start developing young receivers such as Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, and to bring in veterans such as Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood, the consensus was this was a good time to part ways.
"When we say we're evaluating, everybody has to take a step back and let us finish that,'' Rivera said. "That's the thing that during this whole process that I personally thought was unfair. We said we were evaluating and everybody wanted answers.
"Well, an evaluation process is going to take time. I thought what Dave and his guys were doing was exactly what we needed.''
Rivera said he took offense to some of the criticism Gettleman has received for his decisions, particularly the release of Smith.
"Dave did a heck of a job and he took a hit for us in the public,'' he said. "The people need to understand what Dave did was what he believed was best.
"When we got done talking about what we were trying to do and the direction we were trying to head, it was because at the end of the day Dave Gettleman believed it was best for us.''
Smith signed with the Baltimore Ravens a day after the Panthers released him. Carolina will have to pay him $5 million in guaranteed salary and pro-rated bonuses.
Rivera still believes Smith can be a contributor in the NFL. But he repeated several times during his 45-minute interview that the decision to release Smith wasn't personal.
"I think there was some overreaction to a degree, and deservedly so,'' Rivera said. "Steve really and truly was the first big-time Panther that had to move on. I understand the anguish.
"But at the same time, I also think at that some point you must understand we talked through these things, we worked through these things, we evaluated these things, and we're not done yet.''