Scott Fowler

Fowler: No way to spin it, Carolina Panthers making a mistake with Steve Smith

Steve Smith’s signature move was spinning the football after a first-down catch for the Carolina Panthers. It was phenomenal how long that ball would stay on its tip, laces twirling like a miniature merry-go-round in the grass, after Smith walked back toward the Carolina huddle.

You could say that ball spun for 13 years, really, staying upright as Smith became the Panthers’ best and most dazzling player ever.

Last year, the ball started to wobble.

And now, finally, it has come to a stop – not because there was no spin left, but because Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman put his hand on top of it and took it away.

Smith’s agent, Derrick Fox, said Wednesday that Smith has played his last snap at Carolina – although the wide receiver has yet to be officially released from the roster.

The Panthers have badly mishandled this situation from both a professional and personal standpoint. Gettleman was almost perfect in his first season as the Panthers’ GM. But he whiffed on this one.

Look, it was never going to be easy to part with Smith, no matter when it occurred. Something was probably going to get messy. He is a complicated man – family-oriented, egocentric, charming, religious, wonderful to children and prone to anger with any adult who opposed him.

Smith has done as much or more charitable work in our community as any Panther ever has. He also punched out two of his own teammates in anger during his Panthers career.

He could be a jerk. But hey, he was our jerk.

But let’s leave the emotional part of it aside for a moment and concentrate on the football field.

Here’s the thing: Smith can still play. Smith said to Panthers fans on Twitter Wednesday: “I will always be a Carolina Panther No contract can ever change that CLT is my home and will always be my home. ... I love you.”

Then he added in another tweet: “I still have a lil bit of football left in me.”

And he’s right.

Still the best

Smith is 34 and a 13-year veteran, but he was also the Panthers’ best receiver last season. He scored the team’s only touchdown in the playoff loss to San Francisco. He was their most consistent receiver throughout 2013. When I took a poll of 16 Panthers in January, they voted Smith’s fourth-and-10 catch against Miami that sparked a comeback win as the most important play of the entire season.

Yes, Smith has morphed from a deep threat into a possession receiver – one best suited to the slot role. He is no longer incredibly fast.

But remember what Ricky Proehl was to the Panthers in the 2003 Super Bowl season? That’s what Smith could have been for the next couple of years _ at least that and likely more.

A creative contract restructuring to lessen that $7 million salary-cap hit, a good talking-to about making sure that Smith was always an advocate for quarterback Cam Newton and that he would let Newton’s voice be the loudest one in the 2014 locker room – that was all the massaging this one needed.

Instead, the Panthers have decided Smith is no longer worth the trouble. They are firing him.

You can use nicer words if you want – releasing him, parting ways, whatever – but that’s what this is. This is Gettleman saying, “We can do better than Steve Smith at wide receiver, and he’s making too much money anyway.” This is Gettleman betting heavily on himself – that he can lure a couple of free agents into the fold and draft a couple of guys and get Newton some weapons who are better than Smith.

But you know what? It doesn’t make sense. Wide receiver was one of the team’s weakest positions last season. And you take away the best player from that position? And one of the team’s hardest workers? When your No. 2 and No. 3 receivers from 2013 are already free agents?

Yes, the Panthers say. No, I say. That’s simply over-thinking it. I think Smith would have grumbled but ultimately accepted a reduced role on the team. He is not a No. 1 NFL wide receiver anymore, and he won’t be that anywhere else, either. But he’s a darn good No. 2 and a game-breaking No. 3.

Gettleman’s results have been superb since he joined the Panthers before the 2013 season with the charge to remake the team. He has done so much well: Finding Mike Mitchell and Ted Ginn Jr. for bargain-basement prices in 2013; extending coach Ron Rivera’s contract; turning a terrible salary-cap situation into a manageable one. Gettleman has the Panthers in position to have their first back-to-back winning seasons ever.

But on this one, Gettleman has gone astray.

Multiple mistakes

Gettleman started talking about Smith’s career in the past tense before he ever talked to Smith in person about all of this. That was the wrong thing to do on a personal level.

I can overlook that verbal faux pas, however, easier than I can Gettleman letting a good football player walk out the door, one who still wants to play for Carolina.

Smith could have helped the Panthers in 2014.

Now he’s going to help someone else. And if you know Smith, you know he would love to play for a team that plays against Carolina – a landing spot in the same division or at least in the NFC would be ideal.

I’m not saying Smith is the same player who won the receiving “triple crown” for wide receivers in 2005, when he led the league in reception yards and tied for No.1 in both receptions and receiving TDs. Far from it. But he can still play.

Smith told me this story once, and it tells you a lot about a 5-foot-9 wide receiver who has always had a mountainous chip on his shoulder. Smith was a third-round draft pick for Carolina in 2001. Before he ever played a single down for Carolina, he sat in the office of future Panthers general manager Marty Hurney.

Smith hadn’t liked Hurney’s initial contract offer and wanted Hurney to understand that Smith was being undervalued.

“Marty,” Smith said, “I’m going to be the best player you’re ever going to get here.”

Smith was 22 years old when he said that. And he was on the money.

The first time No. 89 touched the ball in the NFL – on a kickoff return – he scored a touchdown. He leads the Panthers in every statistical receiving category you can imagine. It is conceivable that he one day will make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But now, 13 years later, the Panthers are undervaluing Smith again.

Smith will spin the football somewhere else in 2014. And no matter how the Panthers try to spin that news, it is not a good thing.

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