Sunday, August 3, 2014
Why is Smith gone? Read between the lines
By David Newton
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- There had to be some irony in that Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera's commentary on jawing came six years ago to the day that wide receiver Steve Smith was sent home from training camp for hitting a teammate.
Rivera had no idea Saturday was the anniversary of Smith's well-documented fight with cornerback Ken Lucas, resulting in a two-game suspension for Carolina's all-time leading receiver.
But if you want to read between the lines, this might explain why the Panthers released Smith in March.
Rivera has denied repeatedly that the 35-year-old Smith was cut because his fiery temper was a distraction at times. He had to, as Smith was a popular player that one day should have his name on the Wall of Fame.
But on Saturday, after a heated practice in which there was a lot of jawing between the offense and defense during a goal-line series, Rivera made his views on jawing clear.
He said it distracted from the focus of getting better. He said it hurt feelings.
Nobody jawed more in practice than Smith. Probably no player in the 20 years of the organization has hurt more feelings.
This isn't to detract from all the great things Smith did as a receiver. The intensity that led to jawing is one of the things that made him great.
But that intensity also put the spotlight on Smith for things other than his performance, which distracted from improvement. The "Ice up, son" T-shirts that came out after Smith used those words on New England's Aqib Talib after the cornerback exited a heated Monday night game with a hip injury is a prime example.
That fire also can be motivational. After Carolina lost its opener last season to Seattle, Smith defiantly predicted the Panthers would meet the Seahawks again deep in the playoffs.
They came up one game short, losing to San Francisco in the NFC Divisional playoff game.
But with Smith obviously at the end of his career and the Panthers looking to move forward with quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly being the vocal leaders, the decision to let him go really wasn't as difficult as it seemed.
That doesn't mean the Panthers won't jaw with each other, as Saturday was evidence of that. But it is more good-natured, like what Newton did to motivate rookie defensive end Kony Ealy.
And Newton's first move after practice was to give Ealy a playful pat on the back and offer words of encouragement.
No such exchange happened between Smith and Lucas.
Smith wasn't going to change his ways. He's already had a fight with one of his new teammates at Baltimore, getting into a shoving match during a June minicamp with cornerback Lardarius Webb.
The Panthers, for the record, haven't had a fight in training camp. Nothing has distracted them from improving.