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Things I Don’t Get About the Carolina Panthers and Steve Smith

The Carolina Panthers have proven to be a franchise that is thoroughly underappreciated in my mind as of 2011. I don’t blame the NFL public at large for being slow to figure out the Panthers are for real considering the previous era riddled with multiple failed features at the quarterback position including Matt Moore, Chris Weinke, and Jimmy Clausen among others. I’ll admit I was a member of the crowd that thought the trend would continue when they drafted Cam Newton 1st overall from the University of Auburn. Fortunately for the Panther Proud, I had committed the biggest prediction error of my career as a sports personality.

When Newton came aboard, he added an explosive element to a team in the process of establishing a tradition of running back committees of prowess going back to the days of DeShaun Foster, Stephen Davis, Nick Goings and more.  This set the ground work for a solid crew today in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  In his first year, Cam set a record for rookies under center with 14 rushing touchdowns, making it harder to notice that he was prolific as a passer as well breaking the notable mark of 3,800 yards throwing.  What makes this production even more impressive is that the only wide receiver he’s had that year, or since, that can’t be described as mediocre is Steve Smith.

While I give tight end, Greg Olsen, credit as a solid talent at the position, the primary threat in the passing game is Smith.  He is an NFL statesman streaking swiftly all over defenses since the days of quarterback, Jake Delhomme and their fall to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

With limited tools and no defense, rookie Cam Newton lost 5 games by 7 points or less in the 2011 season where they went 6-10. Leading up to the 2013 season, Carolina built up a vastly improved defense that features linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy in the front 7 that helped enable the Cats to climb to an NFC South division title and Newton’s first playoff appearance.

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I give the Carolina management credit for handing the keys to the franchise’s offense to Cam Newton, for repairing the defense to support him, and even having faith in head coach Ron Rivera last year where he was riding the hot seat going into the season. But even with these solid decisions made by the Football Felines’ front office, the thing I don’t get about the Carolina Panthers is how they handled their wide receiver squad this offseason.

Why would Steve Smith even be on the list of players to part with? I get the “football is a business” platitude the press professed through various mediums. That concept is about as basic as “every team needs a solid signal caller to succeed”. (I still have yet to receive the phone call with my offer to be the general manager of a professional team with my command of this knowledge, by the way). But it dictates the tough question asked of any organization regarding price, production and potential of player who might be past their prime.

Steve Smith’s production for the past 6 years (2008-2013) is an exclamation point all its own. He averages 1,045 yards and five touchdowns per season over that span. That’s including 2010 where the Panthers presented pathetic passing on offense.   Matt Moore had trouble staying healthy under center throughout the year starting only 4 games leaving Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen to commence (and soon conclude) his catastrophic career in Carolina where in 10 starts he recorded 1,555 yards passing, 3 trips to the endzone and 9 interceptions. In three of those starts, Clausen posted fewer than 100 yards in the air. With all this and 2 starts by career backup, Brian St. Pierre during a stent where both Moore and Clausen were injured, Smith’s 554 yards receiving brings his yearly average down significantly. A 1,045 yard average receiving for 6 years becomes 1,143 in 5 years when that figure is withheld from the calculation.

The strongest argument to ship Smith is that the upcoming season will be his 14th in the NFL. At age 35, apparently the Panthers think this cat has spent his 9 lives in the game of football. Even with the legitimacy of the argument that Father Time brings regarding veteran players, there are things I still don’t get about the choices to fill the void left by Steve Smith.

Perhaps it’s better stated that the Panthers still have yet to do so. Leaving out that they missed on picking up free agent and former Buffalo top wide receiver, Stevie Johnson (who is now with the San Francisco 49ers) and parting with 2013’s next best receivers Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon, the acquisitions they did make aren’t adequate, in my opinion, to repeat or improve on last year’s passing performance. As wide receiver corps go, Jason Avant formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tiquan Underwood formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jerricho Cotchery formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers and 1st round pick Kelvin Bejamin of Florida State University don’t impress me as a group.

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The evidence? Let’s say playing for his new team next season, the Baltimore Ravens, Steve Smith’s age reduces his production on the field by 60% of the past 6 years average production. The hypothetical 627 yards for 2014 is greater than the 2013 numbers for Avant, Underwood, or Cotchery. Unless Benjamin, as a rookie, is a phenom right out of the gate, there’s nothing on paper that tells me they’ll replace a 1,000 yards receiving represented by the incumbent Smith. Worst case scenario, Carolina becomes a one-dimensional offense and the challenge of out scoring other members of the NFC South over 4 quarters of football becomes too great to compete for a wild card spot in the conference, let alone a repeat as division champion.

Keep in mind, I am only a Student of the Game. If anyone has any reasoning that I should consider, I will hear, examine, and alter my stance if I am found to be wrong. But the Baltimore Ravens shipping Anquan Boldin serves as an anecdotal lesson about the risks of severing ties with veteran prolific pass catchers in favor of a youth movement that saves money. I find an element of irony that the Panthers failed to observe this example while the Ravens will be using Carolina’s move to recover from the Boldin blunder. With this humility, Baltimore now has Steve Smith to augment up and coming wide out Torrey Smith with a seasoned presence.  They have him to free up tight end Dennis Pitta from coverage. They have him to ease pressure on Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in the ground game. And ultimately, they have him to make life easier for quarterback, Joe Flacco, who struggled from a playoff hangover last season. All things that could have been realized by Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olson, DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton in Charlotte. . . I just don’t get it.

Author Profile

Kyle NashThe Student of the Game
Host of the Student of The Game Podcast Monday @ 7:30pm EST
Writer for NGSC Sports
Narrator of Sport Symposium on NGSC Sports YouTube Channel.

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