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Panthers better without Smith? Hard to think so

I understand how the NFL works. The old are jettisoned and the young slide in. The young are faster and cheaper.

But the NFL isn’t solely about out with the old and in with the new. It can’t be. Teams market their stars and fans latch onto them. My older son sent me a picture of his closet; prominent is a black Carolina jersey he bought long ago bearing No. 89.

Whenever I write about a player being dumped, a reader will tell me that, excuse me, the NFL is a business. Of course it is. The league is about the salary cap and numbers and down with the status quo.

But if that’s all you get out of it, why watch? The league also is about human beings and connections and pulling for your guys.

One of the guys Carolina fans pull for is Steve Smith. Smith, who has played his last game for the Panthers, is volatile and angry. But to assume he is nothing more is naive. Smith is smart and funny, has an array of interests and is always courteous to your wife and kids.

He’s 5-foot-9, which means he grew up being told he wasn’t big enough (and now not young enough) to play professional football. Smith compensates with tremendous athleticism and by preparing harder than anybody on the roster.

If he doesn’t think his teammates prepare similarly, he tells them, and not necessarily quietly. Teammates undoubtedly tire of hearing it. They won’t hear it any longer.

Second-year General Manager Dave Gettleman came in with a mission: do what you must to develop a winning program now.

Why he thinks the Panthers are better without Smith, whose impact on the salary cap is nominal, I have no idea. Is it his presence in the locker room or his soon-to-be 35-year-old legs?

Fans will threaten to boycott the Panthers, and a few will back it up. But if Carolina reels off a couple quick victories next September, most will forget. It’s how it works. It’s how it always works.

My relationship with Smith has been up and down and back and forth. I’ve written that he should be cut, that he should be suspended. He asked me, in front of a group, what sports I had ever played. I think I said putt-putt.

I asked one afternoon if he had a minute, and he said no, and I asked him the next time I saw him, and he said no. So I kept asking and six straight times he said no. The last time he yelled it. Then I ran into him away from the stadium. It was like talking to a buddy.

In recent years Smith has mellowed. He’s not mellow. He’s mellowed. He’s thought about his legacy and his life after football. He’s dug in. He made Charlotte his town.

Or did.

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