steve smith ball2

Time is always and forever an enemy. I’m not qualified to meander into deep philosophy about that, though if you’d like to discuss how as humans we are in fact dying with each passing minute, I’ll be glad to during my weekly dark poetry readings. We meet on Tuesdays, punch and pie.

The struggles of the football human are far more accelerated than that of the normal human, and nowhere is that more evident than their own fight against time. They understand that as football players and more generally as athletes, their career existence is a fleeting one, because the body fades with age. Their top speed gets a step or two slower and their highest jump is closer to earth.

They know this reality, or they must. They’re all surely aware that the moment each season ends general managers look at how much they’re set to pay an aging or often injured body, and many come to the same conclusion: replacing that body through the draft at a minimal cost is the far cheaper and wiser path.

This is the cycle of NFL life, and we’re at the peak of it now with many teams making room and shuffling cap space before the gates to the market swing open on March 11. We’ve seen many veteran cuts already (most recently, D’Qwell Jackson), and many more are a near certainty (later, Santonio Holmes).

But the late February or early March cuts that could end careers — or damn close to it — are the worst. The end is sudden, and quickly a career is celebrated as a memory.

Steve smith knows.

At the Scouting Combine Panthers general manager David Gettleman was asked about Smith’s future. He’s set to turn 35 in May, which is a dangerous age for his position, and he’s due a bloated $7 million in 2014. Gettleman’s response was an honest one, because most of his responses to anything are.

It was also a vague response, and then later in the week we learned that Gettleman’s way of doing business is a little odd. Smith has been with the Carolina Panthers throughout his entire 13-year career, and despite Cam Newton’s rise and the impressive play of young Luke Kuechly, he remains the face of the franchise and the very vocal leader.

If there are serious thoughts about releasing him (unlikely) or asking him to take a pay cut (much, much more likely) then Smith has made himself worthy of an open and honest conversation at the end of the season. That’s not an easy conversation to have, but again, Smith surely understands reality, and that at his vintage he’s inching towards the end.

But no, that didn’t take place. Here’s Smith in a radio interview earlier this week:

“To be honest, I’m not really sure what to make of it. That’s the first time I heard that being said. I wish I would have been afforded an opportunity to be given a heads up from our G.M. The unfortunate part is, I had to hear it second hand. No one spoke to me face to face. It’s a little discouraging. I guess as they say it’s part of the business.”

Maybe there’s a divide now that needs to be bridged, or maybe when a meeting happens Gettleman can quickly make this all water under a different bridge. But regardless of how this particular quagmire concludes, a clear fact remains: the end is coming for Smith, and likely fast.

It’s a damn shame that we can’t have nice things forever, because whether he’s battling with Aqib Talib or creating instant pop culture gold, Smith might just be the best. But here are the indisputable facts.

After struggling through a knee injury for much of this past season, Smith’s 745 receiving yards represent a drop of 429 yards from his 2012 total. By extension, his yards per game in 2013 (49.7) was also a drastic drop compared to last year (73.4), as was his yards per catch (from 16.1 to 11.6), and his total +20 yard catches took a spiral too (from 17 to four).

It began to be painful to watch Smith. He didn’t have a 100-yard game, with his single-game high sputtering to only 69 yards (twice). His burst and acceleration at the line still shows up, just not at all consistently.

We’re seen this tale of abrupt decline before, and we’ll see it again and again almost yearly. At the age of 32, Randy Moss was still doing Randy Moss things when he scored 13 times for the Patriots in 2009 while collecting 1,264 receiving yards. Then the following year all his speed and leaping ability seemed to evaporate, and his journey through three rosters in one season began. Like Smith now, his burst would return sporadically, but over his final two seasons (which included a one-year football exile) Moss finished with just 827 total yards, and for much of the season in 2012 he was an afterthought on a 49ers Super Bowl team.

Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco/Johnson are two other recent notable names to see similar sudden endings at or around their mid thirties, and fear of that is partly why Wes Welker is a Bronco right now, and not a Patriot. The Pats balked at committing long term to a receiver entering his age 32 season, knowing that the cliff beckons the closer he gets to 35. Welker had a fine season in 2013 (10 touchdowns) considering he was the third and sometimes fourth option in the Broncos’ offense. But how much longer does that last?

And thus we return to the question on Gettlemen’s mind. Cutting Smith seems like an unlikely ending here, because although he’s fading and efforts will certainly be made to improve the Panthers receiver corps through the draft and free agency, he’s still needed far too much with potential exits forthcoming. Brandon LaFell is an impending free agent, and although Ted Ginn is a fine home run threat and secondary option, he needs to be re-signed too.

Cap room isn’t a problem this year with the Panthers currently hovering around $18.3 million under the cut line, though much of that space will be gobbled by Greg Hardy’s likely forthcoming extension which could approach $12 million. That’s why every cent of Smith’s paycheck counts, but if a player has deteriorated to the point where he can be replaced and money should be spent more wisely, then it happens regardless of what the cap number says. Even though he’ll be kept out of necessity and eventually asked to take a pay cut, Smith has reached that point and someone should tell him.

Where you at, David Gettleman?