- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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Steve Smith told Sports Illustrated's Don Banks that he decided in January, after the Carolina Panthers lost to San Francisco in the playoffs and well before his controversial release in mid-March, that the 2014 season would be his last.
He said the plan was to retire with the only team he had played for since being selected in the third round of the 2001 draft.
He said the release, and then signing a three-year, $11-million deal with the Baltimore Ravens, changed his mind about retirement and recommitted him to the game and having fun.
He said only a few people, close friends and his wife, knew his plans before the release.
"I finally decided and made the commitment to my family," Smith told SI after a Ravens practice Wednesday. "I told them, 'I'm done. I don't think I can do it much longer.' My knee was sore and I knew all the work I had put into my career and what it would take. I came to terms with it, that this year was going to be my last year ever playing football."
Reading this made me feel even stronger that the Panthers made the right decision in releasing their all-time leading receiver.
I still disagree with the way it was handled, but it was time to move on. That Smith, 35, basically admitted he was "done" only strengthens the argument that general manager Dave Gettleman was right in making the tough decision.
To have kept Smith for a farewell tour would not have helped the Carolina offense progress. It would not have allowed young receivers such as Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt, Brenton Bersin and Kealoha Pilares to get the time on the field that they need to prove themselves.
It might have slowed the progress of first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.
Will the Panthers miss Smith's tenacity and work ethic? Definitely. But will they be better without him?
Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant bring 18 years of experience and leadership. They are also solid and dependable receivers, perhaps more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were. Maybe neither is a bona fide No. 1 receiver, but neither was Smith anymore.
Tiquan Underwood has shown flashes in offseason workouts of having speed like Smith once used to his advantage, plus playmaking ability.
Benjamin, at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, has shown the potential to be as dynamic in the red zone and on third down as he was at Florida State last season.
He could be a bona fide No. 1.
With Smith taking most of the first-team snaps, it would have eaten into the time it will take quarterback Cam Newton, when he returns from offseason ankle surgery, to develop the chemistry he will need with Benjamin to create a big-time combination.
That Smith feels he has something to prove because of his release is all good and everything, but he really doesn't have anything to prove because he's had a Hall of Fame-type career.
And he had nothing to prove in Carolina, so the Panthers might not have gotten the level of intensity from him that Baltimore will.
Smith still can retire as a Panther. He has gone out of his way not to say anything bad about the organization because he doesn't want to upset management -- team owner Jerry Richardson, specifically -- to the point retiring here might be uncomfortable.
Or not accepted.
By taking the high road, there is a good chance Smith will one day have his No. 89 jersey retired here. It should be.
Charlotte is Smith's home. He has made it clear it will remain his home even while playing out the rest of his career in Baltimore.
"After this contract with the Baltimore Ravens, I am done," Smith told SI. "I'm going to be stay-at-home dad, and I'm going to get on with the rest of my life's work. I know sometimes there are people saying, 'Oh, he needs to just let it go.' Believe me, I will. I'm going to let it go.
"But I'm going to take a few people down with me. Not in spite, but just fun. I'm going to enjoy playing ball again. I'm going to have fun here."
That is a good thing, because there were times Smith didn't appear to be having fun last season with Carolina. He deserves to have fun at this point in his career.
But it was time for the Panthers to move on.
Even if it postponed Smith's retirement.