The decision to release Smith was preceded by speculation. General manager Dave Gettleman spoke at the scouting combine in Indianapolis and was non-committal about the team's desire to retain the 34-year-old, saying he would be evaluated along with the rest of the roster.
Suddenly a player that was a franchise cornerstone for over a decade was reduced to being part of the process. A proud and opinionated Smith took exception to the way his status was handled, expressing a desire that his future be discussed privately rather on an open podium.
It's unclear how the team plans to move forward and give Cam Newton a chance to succeed in 2014. Left tackle Jordan Gross retired in February, now without Smith, the Panthers have no adequate starting wideouts on the roster. Ted Ginn, Jr. and Brandon LaFell are now on the free agent market.
More than the on-field issue of cutting Smith, the organization now has a public relations nightmare. No player outside of Newton is more loved in the Carolinas, and a fan base that once raged over the release of kicker John Kasay will now have to cope without having the team's all-time leading receiver.
The knife could cut deeper, especially if Smith finds a new home and returns to form. His production took a hit in 2013 due to a change in offense and less emphasis on the passing game, but he had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 2011 and 2012, while becoming Newton's favorite weapon.
UPDATE: It's not taking long for the five-time Pro Bowler to garner attention.
Baltimore has emerged as the favorite to land former Panthers WR Steve Smith, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 13, 2014