First Steve Smith, now DeAngelo Williams – iconic Carolina Panthers players keep getting shown the door.
A year after Smith, the Panthers’ all-time receiver leader, was unceremoniously cut, the franchise’s rushing leader is heading out, as well.
Williams, who set every major rushing record during his nine years with Carolina, told WBTV on Monday the Panthers plan to release him.
Williams, who will turn 32 in April, was limited to six games in 2014 while dealing with leg, foot and hand injuries. He ran 62 times for 219 yards and no touchdowns – all career-lows for the former Memphis back who was the 27th overall pick in 2006.
The Panthers will save $2.3million against the salary cap if Williams is designated as a post-June 1 cut. Carolina has to keep Williams on the roster until the start of the league year March 10 if it plans to use the post-June 1 designation.
Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond said the team has not yet released Williams.
But Williams told WBTV that during a Feb. 16 meeting with coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman he was informed he was being cut.
“We sat down and (Gettleman) told me, ‘The fact of the matter is we’re going to have to release you,’” Williams told the CBS affiliate. “I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because we don’t run the ball enough. Just like you said back before the season started, we don’t run the ball enough to keep you and both (running back Jonathan Stewart), so we’re going to release you.’”
Williams also told WBTV’s Molly Grantham that he was upset that no one from the Panthers came to the funeral for his mother, Sandra Hill, who died last May after a long battle with breast cancer. Williams said Panthers owner Jerry Richardson never reached out to him following his mother’s death.
Williams and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, did not respond to interview requests from the Observer.
While Williams said the Panthers informed him they didn’t run the ball enough to justify his contract, only four teams had more rushes than Carolina last season. And only Houston ran the ball more than the Panthers over the past three seasons.
Williams’ release had more to do with his declining production and his age, according to a team source.
Gettleman inherited what he has called a “cap mess” when he took over in 2013 after Marty Hurney’s firing. Part of that mess stemmed from the big contracts of Stewart and Williams, who signed a five-year, $43million deal in 2011, with $21 million guaranteed.
At Gettleman’s urging, Williams agreed to a pay cut in 2013, but he still had a $6.3million cap figure for 2015.
Gettleman apparently tried to handle Williams’ departure better than Smith’s exit last year.
At the 2014 scouting combine, Gettleman referred to Smith in the past tense, resulting in an ugly breakup with one of the franchise’s most popular players.
Gettleman said after Carolina’s playoff loss to Seattle he wanted to sit down with Williams before commenting publicly about his future. Last week at the combine, Gettleman reflected on that conversation and repeated Williams had handled a trying 2014 season – on and off the field – like a pro.
“DeAngelo had a tough season. He lost his mom, who he was very close to. He dedicated the season to her, and he just couldn’t stay healthy. And it was really hard for him. Then he broke his hand against Minnesota (on Nov. 30). That’s hard, especially when you’re 32, a 32-year-old running back in the NFL.
“It was extremely difficult. But he finished the season like a pro’s pro, and like a man. And I really respect DeAngelo for the way he finished it. We had our conversation and we’ll probably continue, and that’s where I’m going to leave it.”
Williams indicated during his interview with WBTV he wishes he’d been more demonstrative when Gettleman gave him the news.
“When he told me that, it was kind of weird. He was like, ‘Well, we’re going to have to release you.’ And I was like OK,” Williams said.
“I walked out of the office and I sat in my truck and I took a deep breath and I made a phone call. The first words out of my phone call were, ‘They’re releasing me, I’m kind of upset.’ They were like, ‘Man, don’t be upset that they’re releasing you.’ I said, ‘I’m not upset that they released me. I’m upset at how I responded to them releasing me, because I was cool with it.’”
Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said it will be difficult to see Williams leave, but he thinks Williams will keep playing.
“We’re close in that running back room. To see one of our guys go is tough. But at the same time we wish him the best,” Tolbert said during a phone interview. “He’s definitely going to be stronger and better from this. I’m happy for him because I know he wasn’t that happy at times last season.
“So in order for him to get a fresh start, I’m definitely happy for him in that aspect. But he’s ready for a new chapter in his life, and I think he’s going to be ready to go.”
Williams and his mother in 2009 were the impetus for the NFL’s breast cancer awareness efforts in October, featuring pink cleats, towels and other gear. Williams dyed the tips of his trademark dreadlocks pink this past season to honor his mom.
But Williams had trouble staying healthy. And while he was sidelined with the various injuries, Stewart proved he could be a workhorse back after a couple of injury-plagued seasons.
The Panthers now have Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker as their top two backs, but both have a history of injuries. Carolina likely will look to the draft or free agency to add depth.
Gettleman drafted Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney in the sixth round of last year’s draft, but the Panthers lost him on the waiver wire to the Patriots last training camp as they attempted to move Gaffney to injured reserve.
Williams will leave the Panthers with the most rushing attempts (1,432), yards (6,846), touchdowns (46) and 100-yard games (18) in franchise history. His 210-yard rushing effort at New Orleans in 2012 also is a team record.
His 53 total touchdowns are second only to the 75 scored by Smith.
Williams said he has no bitterness toward the Panthers.
“(Stewart) had the hot hand at the end of the season. He’s a great running back, obviously. I don’t feel bitter at all. It’s a business,” Williams told WBTV. “And that business comes back and reminds us year after year – whether it be Steve Smith, whether it be Jordan Gross (who retired in 2014), whether it be myself – it’s going to happen to every guy in that locker room, so it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
By the numbers
6,846 Career rushing yards for Williams, the most in franchise history
$2.3M Cap space saved by designating Williams as a June 1 cut.
18 Rushing touchdowns in 2008, a career-high
23 Rushing touchdowns in the six seasons since
4.8 Rushing yards per attempt in his career, tied for third-most among all active running backs