The former Carolina Panthers wide receiver known as Agent 89 says he’s 89 percent certain Sunday will be his final NFL game.
Steve Smith stopped short of announcing his retirement Wednesday in Baltimore, where’s he’s spent the past three seasons after his unceremonious exit in Charlotte.
But whenever Smith officially calls it a career, Panthers coach Ron Rivera says Smith deserves the chance to sign a one-day contract and retire as a Panther.
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Rivera’s right, of course.
But it’s not going to happen -- at least while general manager Dave Gettleman still works for the Panthers.
Smith, 37, didn’t just burn bridges after Gettleman cut the franchise’s all-time receiving leader after the 2013 season. Smith took dynamite -- a la Wile E. Coyote in the old Road Runner cartoons -- and blew up his ties to the front office -- specifically, Gettleman’s office.
You know the background, but in a nutshell ...
▪ Gettleman indicates at the combine in 2014 that Smith might not be around much longer, then releases him a few weeks later without letting him know it was coming, according to Smith.
▪ Smith promises “blood and guts” when the Ravens and Panthers play in Week 4 in 2014 and delivers on it. Smith catches five passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns -- in the first half -- of the Ravens’ 38-10 victory.
▪ During an interview with WFNZ radio a few days after the game, Smith rips Gettleman for not having the “cojones” to tell Smith about his release in person. “Then he calls and says it wasn’t personal,” Smith tells the station. “If the first thing that comes out is, ‘Well it wasn’t personal,’ then guess what? It was personal.”
Smith hasn’t said much about the Panthers lately, probably because he hasn’t faced his former employer since the Blood and Guts Bowl.
Smith is still respected by many in the organization, not the least of whom is owner Jerry Richardson.
But Gettleman hasn’t forgotten Smith’s comments and isn’t likely to sign off on any ceremony honoring him.
Being recognized by the team that drafted him in the third round out of Utah in 2001 is important to Smith, who still lives in Charlotte and hosts a couple of charitable events here each year.
Smith told ESPN’s Ashley Fox for a 2014 story that he expected to retire as a Panther.
“I’ll be able to walk back in those doors and retire as a Panther and have the respect and not have such a split and not allow the few individuals in their temporary residence there to alter a decade of what I’ve done and experienced in that great organization,” Smith said. “I was there 13 years, and the way I look at it and what I was told, I’ll be there a lot longer than they will.”
Smith will get his day in Charlotte if he’s willing to wait out Gettleman, who turns 66 in February. Although he probably shouldn’t hold his breath for a spot on the Ring of Honor, which includes two members -- and 25,000 PSL owners.
Smith took a couple of swipes at Rivera three years ago, too. He told WFNZ that Rivera never gave him a heads-up about his pending release, and instead “hid in his office.”
But the Panthers’ sixth-year coach seems like he’s willing to forgive and forget. Rivera praised Smith’s passion Wednesday and was surprised to hear of Smith’s apparent retirement.
Smith announced his retirement before the start of last season, but had a change of heart after rupturing his Achilles tendon in Week 7.
“That’s amazing because it looked like he had another good year, especially coming back from the injury he had last season,” Rivera said. “He’s a dynamic, fiery player that plays every play the way it should be played.”
“I think that’s the biggest thing about him that I remember,” Rivera added. “How hard he played the game, how much he wanted to win and how hard he wanted to make those plays.”
The Panthers’ current group of receivers could use some of Smith’s fire. But Smith’s strong personality played a part in his release from Carolina.
The Panthers felt as long as Smith was around, it would be hard for young stars like quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly to emerge as leaders.
Newton and Smith weren’t close during their three years together. But Newton said he respects the fight in the 5-foot-9 Smith.
“There is not a lot of guys that you look down a dark alley and you say, ‘I want to bring this person, I want to bring that person,’” Newton said. “And Steve Smith is a guy that’s one of those guys that you had better make sure that he’s on your team.”
Smith and Newton are two of the top five players in franchise history.
Smith deserves to be honored as such -- and will be. It just might take a while.