Look, I am glad that Panther general manager Dave Gettleman is evaluating everyone on the roster closely. That is what he was hired to do and that is what he should do.
But Steve Smith getting outright released -- an option that is obviously on the table?! That doesn't make sense to me. It sounds like over-thinking it, aand gambling more than you should. (Smith, for his part, said very little of substance in an ESPN interview Thursday about the situation).
Gettleman's results have been solid -- and occasionally spectacular -- since he joined the Panthers before the 2013 season with the charge to remake the team. He has done so much well: Finding Mike Mitchell and Ted Ginn Jr. for bargain-basement prices in 2013. Extending coach Ron Rivera's contract. Drafting Star Lotulelei. Turning a terrible salary-cap situation into a manageable one. Gettleman has Carolina in position to have its first back-to-back winning seasons ever. His first Carolina team went 12-5 and made the playoffs.
But the receiving corps was a Panther weakness last season. In the San Francisco playoff game, the 49ers employed both of the best receivers playing in the game.
Smith, 34, is no longer a No.1 receiver in the NFL, and the Panthers should not ask him to be that. They need to find a new No.1 and let Smith be their No.2 -- in fact, they should have found the new No.1 guy already, but have misfired numerous times over the years trying to do so.
But firing Smith just doesn't make sense to me. He scored Carolina's only touchdown in the playoff loss. He had 64 catches for 745 yards and four TDs last year. His teammates voted his fourth-and-10 catch against Miami as the most important play of the 2013 season in a locker room poll I took. Absolutely he has lost a step and doesn't get the separation he used to -- Smith wouldn't argue with that -- but he still has the hands and he still has the craftiness. He can still play.
It makes sense, certainly, to ask him if he will restructure his contract to lessen the salary-cap hit. The Panthers and Smith should work out some sort of understanding.
But if Gettleman releases him, that will be a mistake. The GM doesn't have anyone waiting in the wings. He can't necessarily draft a WR at No.28 in the first round, either, because offensive tackle is just as pressing of a need. It is too much of a gamble to try and replace at least your top two and possibly your top three receivers in a single offseason (if Ted Ginn Jr. doesn't stay).
I am not saying this because Smith and I are close friends. We are longtime acquaintances and I respect him greatly for all he has done on the field and in the community, but we don't go to movies together. I am well aware of his faults.
I am basing this blog purely on the performance we saw from Smith in 2013. Quarterback Cam Newton looked either to Smith or tight end Greg Olsen first every time it was crunch time last season. No.89 still has some time left in the NFL, and it would be better spent in a Panther uniform.
I hope you saw some basketball Monday night, because there were some ridiculous numbers being posted all over the place on what was a great precursor to March Madness. Here are four of the most amazing:
6: The number of points Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige scored on a very off night offensively in UNC's 63-61 win. He even missed two of four free throws in the final minute against Notre Dame to give the Irish a chance to tie the game at the buzzer. But Paige is a difference-maker, and did so again in an unusual way for him Monday -- with a game-saving block. Robert Willett of the (Raleigh) News & Observer got a great picture of it, which is above.
38 and 19: Al Jefferson's points and rebounds, respectively, in the Charlotte Bobcats' 17-point loss to Miami. On most any other night, Jefferson's evening would have received widespread acclaim. But... (see 61)
41: N.C. State sophomore T.J. Warren is the ACC's best pure scorer, no doubt about that. But he outdid himself Monday, scoring 41 -- more than half of the Wolfpack's points -- in a win over Pittsburgh. No doubt Warren is a first-team All-ACC player, and a candidate for the league's Player of the Year award.
61: Oh, LeBron. King James absolutely torched the Bobcats in Miami Monday night, scoring 61 points (his career high) while making his first eight three-point shots. He's pretty unguardable already -- when LeBron is hitting threes, it's over. The point total was helped by the fact that Dwyane Wade took the night off to rest his knee. The Bobcats have now given up the two highest point totals in the NBA this season -- they earlier allowed Carmelo Anthony to go for 62.
The Charlotte Bobcats are halfway through the worst four-game scheduling stretch in their history, and not surprisingly they are 0-2.
Next up: possible playoff series previews. If the Bobcats (27-32) finish seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference, they will face Miami or Indiana in the first round. Charlotte would currently be seeded seventh (here are the NBA standings). The Bobcats play at Miami Monday night and at home vs. Indiana on Wednesday.
While the Bobcats talked tough before playing the top four teams in the NBA in a row -- Kemba Walker said the team's goal was to go 4-0 -- reality has intruded. They have been in games at San Antonio Friday and at Oklahoma City Sunday into the fourth quarter, but have ended up losing both by double digits.
Splitting these next two with Miami and Indiana would be nice for Charlotte, as the team could at least avoid 0-4. Regardless, Friday night's home game against Cleveland (trying to get into the playoffs, along with Detroit) will have some playoff implications as well.
That is the bottom line. There are lots of arguments on why to do it and why not to do it, but here's the simplest reason why: If they lose Hardy, then they just have to embark on a desperate search to find his replacement.
I was talking to a former Panther who watches the team closely the other day and we were discussing this issue. I said more or less that exact same thing, and the former Panther laughed and said: "Ha!! There's no way they find another one if they let him go. Absolutely none."
He's right. Hardy is a relentless pass-rushing force -- one of the top five players on the Panther team. And he makes Charles Johnson better on the other side because teams don't know where to concentrate their blocking. If you can't sign Hardy to a long-term deal, you use that franchise tag on him, gulp and pay him $13 million for a single season if you have to. The Panthers have until Monday at 4 p.m. to decide whether to do that.
I know he wants an awful lot of money long-term. But he's also in his prime at age 25. And he's had 26 sacks the past two years. You put some "good conduct" clauses in the contract -- Hardy has a quirky personality, we all know that, and the Panthers have to protect themselves to ensure he doesn't have another motorcycle acident or whatever -- and you get him for the long term. Or you franchise him and get him for the short term and postpone the ultimate decision. But there's no way you let him walk out the door. I hope all the maneuvering the Panthers have done salary-cap wise the past few days has been in large part to get money to pay Hardy, because that guy is worth it. As Coach Ron Rivera said last week: "One thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong. Our defensive line was very strong for us."
The Panthers are built around their defense, which was ranked No.2 in the NFL last season. If Hardy leaves, there is no way it will be ranked No.2 again. Keeping him for 2014 can happen, and it needs to happen.
One of the classiest Panthers ever will walk out the doors of Bank of America Stadium for the last time as a player Wednesday, when Jordan Gross says goodbye.
The offensive tackle (No.69 in the picture above) played 11 years in the NFL, all with Carolina. He bookended his career with playoff appearances -- a Super Bowl as a rookie and then an NFC South championship in 2013. He was amazingly durable in a brutal sport, as he holds the team record for 167 career starts and started all 16 games for the eighth time in his career in 2013.
I hate to see him go on a personal level, as Gross was one of my favorite guys in that Panther locker room ever. But the Panthers should hate to see him go on a professional level, too, because their best tackle -- and Cam Newton's blindside protector -- is leaving the building.
This retirement should clear up where the Panthers should be picking with their first-round choice in May -- the offensive line was already iffy, and now it just got worse.
But back to Gross. In 11 years, he missed only nine games -- seven of them in 2009 when he suffered a broken leg. He just finished playing in his third Pro Bowl (as an alternate, but still). At one point in his career he was great, and even now he's still very good. He should eventually be inducted into the team's very lonesome Hall of Honor, which still, incredibly, includes one actual player who played for Carolina.
But despite all that -- despite how promising the Panthers' future is for 2014 -- he is ready to leave. And you can't blame him for that. Gross has given Carolina an extraordinary number of games already.
What the Panthers will miss most, besides his nimble blocking, is his leadership. Gross was a perennial team captain. He told me this a few months ago, and I have thought of it several times since.
“Brandon LaFell gave me a compliment last year [in 2012],” Gross said in that interview. “It was during a TV timeout at New Orleans. We were backed up in our own end zone and the crowd was going nuts. He came up to me in the huddle and said, ‘I love being in the huddle with you because you always make me feel comfortable and confident.’ To me, that’s what a captain should be. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve got it all together, you act like you do. Just provide guidance and solace – the rudder for the team.”
That was Gross. The rudder for the team. The Panthers will need to find a new left tackle, yes. But just as importantly, they will need a new rudder.
ACC commissioner John Swofford would not say Monday whether he thought the controversial call at the end of the Duke-Syracuse game Saturday night was right or wrong, but he did say: "It was a great day for the ACC."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was ejected after throwing a tantrum when Syracuse's C.J. Fair was called for a charge instead of Duke's Rodney Hood for a block with 10 seconds to go. Fair's layup went in and a no-call would have meant the game was tied. A foul on Hood would have given Fair a chance at a go-ahead free throw.
I thought that by the new charge-block rules that Hood should have been called for a block and that Boeheim had a very legitimate point. But I also thought Boeheim did his team a big disservice by losing his cool, getting two quick technicals and erasing what was still a small chance at winning Saturday's night game.
Swofford said of the call: "The block-charge is the hardest call there is to make.... It's one of those bam-bam calls. It's a judgment call by the official. Most of those you're going to have 50 percent think it was right and 50 percent think it was wrong... I think the officials handled the situation after that entirely correctly."
Swofford said he wouldn't give his own opinion on the call itself. He did laughingly say he had communicated with Boeheim through an intermediary -- Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross -- and mentioned in that conversation that Boeheim might want to stay in the coaching box the next time around.
In general, though, Swofford seemed to not be bothered by the ruckus, saying, "It sure garnered a lot of attention. Those two Duke-Syracuse games have been terrific games for those two programs and for the ACC. A great new rivalry has been developed right out of the chute.... So you just move on."
A number of sports celebrities will be on hand for a charity bowling event Saturday, Feb.22nd at Strike City in Charlotte's uptown EpiCentre complex. The event is called "Celebrities and Strikes," is put on by Wendy's and benefits "The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption."
You can bowl for $15 or be a spectator for $5 and get a number of autographs from sports stars. The event runs from approximately noon to 4 p.m. Celebrities tentatively scheduled to attend include current and former Carolina Panthers like Brandon LaFell, Muhsin Muhammad, Thomas Davis, Graham Gano, Eugene Robinson and Mike Rucker and former NBA stars Ralph Sampson and Muggsy Bogues. It will be emceed by longtime basketball announcer Billy Packer.I will also be there signing copies of my book "100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die." Profits from this signing will be donated to the Dave Thomas Foundation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the event or call 704-716-9300.
-- If you didn't see it, here is my take on the Charlotte Bobcats' under-the-radar trade from Thursday, which I thought was a risk worth taking. It all depends on how well Gary Neal shoots from three-point range when he gets to Charlotte -- I expect he will play in Saturday's home game vs. Memphis. His ability to make teams pay for double-teaming Al Jefferson will be key.