Steve Smith release puts Cam Newton squarely in the driver's seat for Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are handing the keys of the franchise to Cam Newton. All he needs now is a transmission, a tank of gas and an oil change.

That's what Thursday's release of Steve Smith said: The world is yours. Fans of the "Scarface" movie know how loaded those words can be.

Smith was the face of the Panthers' franchise for the past decade. He was this 20-year old team's best all-time player. The Panthers, led by GM Dave Gettleman, isn't one for nostalgia.

Gettleman has entrusted Newton has his new face. The facts that the offensive line currently sits in shambles or that Newton's top two receivers — prior to any Hakeem Nicks signing — are Tavarris King and Marvin McNutt are mere side notes at this point, although fairly disturbing ones at that.

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No, the bigger significance is that Newton is getting what he wants, and all the responsibility that goes with it. Power, in the wrong hands, can be a dangerous thing.

When Newton first was drafted, it was the lockout summer of 2011, and he made it clear he very much wanted Smith — whose contract situation was up in the air then — on the team. The two made fast friends, and Newton and Smith were great for each other once football got going again. Newton threw for a rookie-record 4,051 yards, with 1,394 of those going to Smith.

Considering Smith was coming off a miserable season in 2010, with the likes of Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore, Brian St. Pierre and Tony Pike throwing him passes, the switch to Newton appeared to be a career-saver. Smith regained his love for football, and it appeared to be back-to-back home runs for former GM Marty Hurney.

But somewhere along the way, things fell apart. Newton's presence on the team grew, naturally, even as his play took a step backward. Hurney was canned midseason in 2012, and Ron Rivera — threatened by his job status being shaky with a poor record and a new GM — had to become more of a company man. Rivera and Smith had mutual admiration througout their stay, but Rivera had to pick his battles.

The 12-4 season in 2013 emboldened Newton, Gettleman and Rivera (in that he received an extension in January), and yet it essentially cut the legs out from Smith in his place with the team, even though he had sacrificed one of those legs by returning for the playoff game early after a Week 16 knee injury. Smith's numbers were down overall, and even though he was Newton's most trusted target in key situations this past season, we could start to see life after Smith in Carolina.

Gettleman certainly could. He grew tired of Smith's bold and outspoken personality and wondered if it would run Newton off track, assuming he has been on the right one to begin with. The relationship between Newton and Smith also veered slightly off course in recent years, too, as Newton was coddled more by the team and Smith was made to feel less of the man.

Is that Smith's insecurity? Newton's swelling ego? Perhaps both were factors. But there is little question that the team was thinking chiefly about Newton when they cut Smith.

Let's not mince words here: It's highly doubtful that Newton marched into Rivera's or Gettleman's office and demanded a "me or him" situation. It was not that bad. But you can bet that subtly, over time, Newton won some sort of pissing contest, and the team handed him the trophy.

Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer correctly reported that Gettleman viewed Smith as a distraction. But does Gettleman view Newton as a leader? Someone who can be accountable in good times and in bad?

Newton has grown a lot since entering the league, but the team also has been very careful to shield him of some outside forces and not let a few stories of his immaturity get out the past few seasons. Granted, none of these have been locker-room-crushing incidents, but there has been a lot of eye-rolling at Newton's antics on all levels of the organization, even during the playoff run last season.

Perhaps it's much ado about nothing now, and Newton certainly has the God-given ability to do more great things in the NFL. He honestly cares about winning, too, which is not something to be scoffed at. Not all great players do, sadly. Newton is as strong of mind as he is of body and spirit.

But sometimes that strength is unbridled. Even as he was playing at an MVP level at midseason, he hadn't proven to everyone in the locker room that he could be fully trusted. But the people who matter most in the organization are looking past that. They are making Newton the centerpiece, a move that long has been in motion obviously.

They were not going to let Smith get in the way of that. So that's why they released him Thursday, despite no heir on the roster and despite the team essentially paying him $5 million to go away and be someone else's thing. And please don't tell me Nicks will fill that role. He's 26 going on 36, and not in a good way. Maybe he rebounds, but that's a risk.

Smith, of course, will be fired up again. For the 2,493rd time in his NFL career, he has been slighted, and that means the team that is getting him is getting a hornet who can still buzz. Can he play another year or two or three? Sure, as long as there's someone there doubting him and his body still can hold up. Are you doubting him?

But more importantly, if you're a Panthers fan, are you ready to put all your chips in with Cam? The team now must re-sign him and go big to do so, following his option season of 2015. Will he be willing to wait that long? And how much do you pay him?

These are all fascinating questions to ponder when you consider the state of the rest of the offense around him. Oh, the Panthers will make moves to help him, there's no question. But they won't replace Smith and Jordan Gross as players or, maybe more importantly, as locker-room buffers to keep the pressure squarely off Newton.

You can now see why Hurney made Ryan Kalil the highest-paid center in football a few years ago. Kalil not only is a great player, but he also is Newton's shepard, and that job just got a lot bigger on Thursday.

Now, when things go wrong, the media will go to Newton and Kalil for answers. They are the figureheads on offense now. Maybe Luke Kuechly can help do for Newton what Jon Beason did for Smith for many years, and act as a neutralizing force and a quiet counterpart.

But suddenly, it's clear: Cam Newton isn't as well protected as he was previously. And yet, he's more exposed than ever before. This is the way the Panthers want it.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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