There was awkwardness on the edge of the Jordan Gross retirement press conference last week, reminiscent of a middle-school dance.
While Gross, the former Panthers left tackle (seems weird typing that), drew laughter and tears with his remarks and slideshow, general manager Dave Gettleman sat in the first row and wideout Steve Smith hung in the back.
After Gross wrapped up and Ryan Kalil hit the final note in “Happy Trails,” Smith spoke briefly to owner Jerry Richardson before greeting Gross, his teammate for 13 years in college and the NFL. Gettleman ducked out without speaking to Smith.
The two were right to avoid each other Wednesday, which was a day to celebrate Gross.
But at some point, Gettleman and Smith will talk – perhaps this week – and wouldn’t you want to be a fly on the wall when they do?
It’s been a strange two weeks for the best player in Panthers history and the GM who’s not interested in maintaining the status quo.
Smith’s future has been muddled since Gettleman responded to a question at the scouting combine about Smith thus: “Steve’s had a great career. He really has. None of us are here forever. He’s part of the evaluation process.”
Some critics and many of Smith’s fans argued Gettleman owed it to Smith to inform him of the team’s plans. Understandable.
But the Panthers are still working through different roster scenarios, not all of which involve Smith. Telling Smith he might not be back next season would be akin to telling your girlfriend you’re thinking of breaking up with her.
Because of the Panthers’ salary cap situation when he was hired, Gettleman was forced to be the new sheriff instead of, say, Uncle Dave. Players – especially established ones – tend not to like being strongly encouraged to take a pay cut.
During his opening remarks last week, Gross said to Gettleman: “I didn’t like you very much last offseason, but I got over that.”
While Smith was not among those asked to restructure their contracts, he is said to have a level of distrust of Gettleman – and that was before his comments in Indianapolis.
Smith has always had a big personality, one former GM Marty Hurney did his best to manage. Gettleman seems more interested in winning games than winning the favor of players.
From their inception, the Panthers have prided themselves on being loyal to what Hurney called “the core.” That they’re still digging out from under some of those contracts is evidence they were loyal to a fault at times.
Gettleman was brought in to clean up the cap mess and build a consistent winner. It’s hard to argue with the results from his first season.
Gettleman, who remains a scout at heart, has had a year to evaluate Smith, who turns 35 in May. It’s clear Gettleman believes Smith is no longer a No. 1 receiver.
As he showed with his touchdown catch against San Francisco, Smith can still impact a game. He’ll play this fall, whether it’s in Charlotte or elsewhere.
As he looks for Smith’s successor in the draft or free agency, Gettleman has to weigh whether it’s worth keeping Smith around to work with the new No. 1 wideout.
Will Smith demand the ball from Cam Newton? Will he mentor a rookie drafted to replace him? Will he play nice?
Smith undoubtedly has questions of his own, starting with: What’s going on and why didn’t you talk to me first?
All this will get hashed out when Smith and Gettleman meet. If so, Smith can finish his career in Charlotte and have the storybook send-off Gross enjoyed last week.
Or it won’t. And Smith, like John Kasay, will play a season or two with Tampa Bay or San Diego and later sign a one-day contract to retire as a Panther.
Whenever that day comes, Smith belongs in the team’s Hall of Honor.
The trickier question for Gettleman is whether Smith belongs on the team now.