Did the Panthers think Smith was disruptive in the locker room? Did Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman think he had lost a step after one of his least productive seasons?
During the NFL owners meetings this week, Panthers coach Ron Rivera denied to reporters that the five-time Pro Bowl selection was a distraction. He acknowledged, though, that Smith, who turns 35 in May, can still run, just not as fast as his younger days.
"Steve is who he is, you know the type of person he is and the type of player he's been," Rivera told reporters. "For us, it wasn’t a distraction because you know what you get with Steve. You get a guy that is fiery, excitable, he’s very competitive, and that’s part of it. Steve will still find a way to make plays. As far as football decisions go, we have to move on eventually. This was an opportunity to do it.
"A lot of great ones have moved on a played a couple years somewhere else. For us, this is a very hard decision. I know Dave anguished over it for several days before the decision was made. We had a lot of discussions about it. You have to, at some point, make the move to go forward."
Smith caught 64 passes last season for 745 yards and four touchdowns. In 13 NFL seasons, Smith has caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns.
“He’s got a lot of football left," Rivera said. "He’s not the vertical speed guy that he was. He still has the speed, but not the vertical, top-end. He's still explosive."
Rivera did make it a point that Smith should think about pacing himself in practice a bit. Smith has a high-octane, intense approach to practice and games.
"He practices so hard, he competes so hard," Rivera said. "I think he's at the point now where he has to manage himself and know that, 'Hey, I can't practice every day like that.' Steve has a lot to prove. He's got that chip on his shoulder going forward.
"I know he's going to be 35, but I still know he's going to be a very competitive guy. He's going to will himself to do some things. But I think as the season wears on, if he hasn't taken the time that he's needed off between the games, he might slow down. But he still has some gas in the tank."