For the first time since his unceremonious exit three years ago, Carolina Panthers great Steve Smith will be back inside Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday night.
But don’t get the impression that means Smith’s stance has softened toward the organization that cut him without a formal warning in 2014 after he’d set all of the franchise’s major receiving records and become one of the most popular players in team history.
Smith, 38, who retired in January, returns as part of NFL Network’s coverage team for the Panthers’ preseason opener against the Houston Texans. (The game will air locally on WCCB and Spectrum News.)
There will be no awkward exchanges between Smith and Dave Gettleman, the former general manager who cut Smith in part because he thought Smith’s production was in decline. There also were loud rumblings from the team at the time that Gettleman believed Smith’s domineering personality was making it hard for young stars such as Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly to assert themselves as leaders.
But Gettleman is no longer employed by the Panthers, fired last month by owner Jerry Richardson in a move that Smith delighted in by tweeting: “Its Okay! Dave I know how you feel.”
Gettleman might be gone, but there are others still in the organization who seemingly endorsed the decision to release Smith – namely owner Jerry Richardson and head coach Ron Rivera.
After Smith, playing for Baltimore, burned his former team for a pair of first-half touchdowns in a Ravens’ victory in 2014, Smith took issue with Rivera’s role in his dismissal.
“He didn’t come to me man-to-man,” Smith told WFNZ. “He said he’s a player’s coach. ... He hid in his office.”
Rivera has tried to mend fences with Smith, saying in 2015 that Smith deserved a chance to sign a one-day contract and retire with the Panthers, a la former kicker John Kasay.
But Smith is one of the world’s longest grudge-holders, so it would be surprising if he signs off on any type of bury-the-hatchet ceremony anytime soon.
A source close to Smith thinks the Charlotte resident eventually will warm to the idea – but not yet.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to hear if Smith sounds off on his former team on the air or takes the high road.