CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Steve Smith era in Carolina is over.
The Panthers released their all-time leading receiver on Thursday after 13 seasons. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said it "was not an easy decision" in a press release.
"Steve has been one of the NFL's finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team's history," Gettleman said. "As a team, we made a step forward last year; however we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL."
Smith said on radio Thursday he's not angry about the decision.
"It's devastating to hear that you are getting fired, but it's also exciting because that frees me up to be pursued by other teams," Smith told Taylor Zarzour of SiriusXM's Bleacher Report Radio." I have never become a free agent before so I will get a few free dinners out of it at some nice expensive restaurants. I want to enjoy the experience that, frankly, I will never experience again."
Smith reiterated he wants to play in the NFL and that being released "awoke a sleeping giant" inside of him.
The decision comes one day after Smith's agent, Derrick Fox, told The Associated Press that the 13-year NFL veteran "is not going to play for the Panthers next year, I know that."
Fox said the Panthers never asked Smith, who turns 35 in May, to restructure his current contract. The Panthers were unable to trade Smith, who was set to cost $7 million under this year's salary cap.
The Panthers still owe Smith $3 million this season.
The decision has not been a popular one among Carolina fans. Gettleman addressed that in his press release.
"When I took this position I knew that difficult decisions would have to be made along the way," Gettleman said. "To move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult of all. A decision not to be taken lightly. However, after much thought I feel very strongly it's the right one."
"As I've stated many times, all decisions I make will be in the long-term best interest of the Carolina Panthers. Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view. Sometimes it may appear that short term interests will suffer, and I can assure you we have no interest in taking a step back from our 2013 accomplishments."
The Panthers also lost wide receivers Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. to free agency on Thursday. Hixon signed with the Chicago Bears and Ginn with the Arizona Cardinals.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn told The Associated Press he has signed with the Minnesota Vikings for a deal that could pay him $15 million over three years with incentives.
One possible replacement at wide receiver is free agent Hakeem Nicks, a Charlotte native who played for New York Giants.
The Smith move marks the end of an era for the Panthers.
Smith joined the team as a third-round draft pick out of Utah in 2001. He made an immediate impact in the NFL, returning the opening kickoff of the season for a touchdown against the Vikings. He became the first Panthers rookie selected to the Pro Bowl, earning that honor as a return specialist.
Known for his feisty behavior on the field, Smith became a dominant receiver over the next 12 seasons. He is Carolina's all-time leader with 75 total touchdowns and has 836 receptions for 12,197 yards.
"On the football field Steve had a competitive arrogance that (was) second to none — second to none," said former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme in a telephone interview. "That helped him be as good as he was. He made other guys step up their game. But off the field he was totally different. He loves his wife and his family. He's a genuinely good person with a great heart."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in the release: "He is a great competitor with Hall of Fame-worthy statistics and has made a great contribution to our community."
Fox said Smith would have welcomed a chance to move inside to slot receiver, but the team never offered him that opportunity.
As productive as Smith was, his fiery personality often rubbed people the wrong way, and some viewed him as a distraction in the locker room. Smith had run-ins with teammates on at least two occasions. He punched out fellow wide receiver Anthony Bright in a film room fight and later socked cornerback Ken Lucas on the field during a practice at training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.
On both occasions, Smith was suspended by the team.
Delhomme said that was a "humbling experience" for Smith, who apologized to Lucas and the team's fans after the incident.
Despite the two incidents, Smith was immensely popular with the fan base, in large part due to his production on the field. He also worked hard to change his public image over the last several years and has been an active member of the Charlotte community.
When asked if he was surprised Smith was released, Delhomme said, "It does surprise, but that's the NFL. I mean, look, Peyton Manning plays for the Denver Broncos — that the way it goes."
NOTES: Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson announced Thursday on Twitter he has re-signed with Carolina for a fourth season. Anderson tweeted: "Happy to be coming back to Charlotte next season!"
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