When the Panthers do the thing they seem hell-bent on doing today — getting rid of the best player in franchise history — it won’t be because of money.
And it won’t be because of declining skill.
That means it can only be personal.
Wide receiver Steve Smith, for all his gifts, has the ability to aggravate. Usually opponents, as seen by the way he gets under the skin of cornerbacks.
But teammates too, sometimes.
The reason the undersized wide receiver who came out of the third round has been able to hang on this long and pile up the kind of amazing stats he has (836 catches, 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns) is the way he worked. His practice habits are as intense as any player I’ve ever seen. I covered the guy every day for the first 10 seasons of his career, and of the 10 best catches I’ve seen him make, three or four of them were in games.
But he also has a tendency to remind people how hard he works, to try get them to raise their level. By extension, no one works as hard as he does.
Even if it’s true, and it usually is, people get sick of hearing it at a certain point. And eventually, they’re willing to ignore your positive contributions because they get tired of feeling inferior, or being told they are.
There’s a reason the Panthers had five captains to begin last year, and four of them were from the offense.
Center Ryan Kalil and quarterback Cam Newton got a C for their chest, new additions since now-retired tackle Jordan Gross and Smith had been captains for years.
Now, the way is clear for Newton in particular to take the lead.
Problem is, it’s going to be harder for him to lead much of a team in the absence of Smith.
From a cap perspective, it’s practically cheaper to keep Smith than to cut him. (ignoring the $3 million in guaranteed cash).
He’d have cost $7 million to keep on the cap this year, and they’ll carry $6 million worth of accelerations for him to be elsewhere (assuming a post-June 1 designation). That means they have to replace their best receiver with effectively $1 million worth of space. Check that, their only receiver. At a time when they needed more wideouts, they made the conscious choice to have none.
So now the way is clear for Newton to make the team his own.
How much of a team it is depends on General Manager Dave Gettleman’s ability to make something out of nothing.