Panthers WR Steve Smith returned home from a family vacation to England back in April to read a report in Pro Football Weekly that he had cleaned out his locker and luxury suite. Many people connected the dots from there, and several other reports followed, assuming that Smith no longer wanted to play for the only professional team he has known as his own since entering the NFL in 2001.
Smith remained quiet, refusing several media advances along the way, amid reports surfacing that the Panthers would be willing to grant his wish of a trade — most notably to the Raiders or Chargers, with other teams such as the Patriots and Ravens mentioned as well. He read about things he said have not happened in the past few trying months but chose to stay quiet.
Smith reached out to PFW on Tuesday to discuss his future and clear up some of the misreporting he has read about. He knows he's at a crossroads in his career, coming off two seasons in which his statistics have fallen off amid a struggling passing game in Carolina. Smith's motivation is to let people know his story — and that he hasn't ruled out any end to it.
"I would rather do it on my terms when I have the ability to," Smith said, noting that the NFL's lockout has put his and every other NFL player's status on hold for now. "These people that keep writing these articles, none of them have even spoken to me. What I want to do is be classy and not tip my cards, be respectful to the (Panthers) organization.
"It's not me saying, 'Yes, I want a trade.' It's still a family matter, and when my family feels it's the appropriate time, our actions will show how we feel."
The Panthers, like Smith, must wait. GM Marty Hurney wasn't tipping his hand either when he was asked about him before and after the draft. But Smith wanted to set the record straight on several matters.
Smith's agent, Derrick Fox, asked him to make a list of his priorities in terms of what he wants in the final years of his career. At the top of Smith's list was the chance to play for a championship. Other priorities included wanting to play with improved, veteran personnel and being in a place where he and his family were happy.
"What he has said to me is that he has a burning desire to show that, physically, he's still there," Fox said. "He's still a high-end receiver. And with that, he wants to be on a team that is hopefully on the verge of winning a championship."
Smith knows that the Panthers might choose to move on without him.
"Carolina might say, 'You know what? We're going in a different direction and we don't want you to be a part of that process,'" Smith said. "I am a big boy, and I am ready for that possibility."
When Smith was asked if the Raiders were specifically one of the teams he might wish to play for if he's not in the Panthers' plans, which had been reported last week, he took a circuitous route to explain his thoughts.
"Every entertainer in the process of their job has a vision of performing in front of their home crowd, especially if they live farther away from home," Smith said. "I have always loved the privilege and the honor of playing in the state of California. But I don't desire to be employed by every team in the state of California."
So if we're to read between the lines, the Raiders might not be his first choice by any means. But by Smith's rationale, the Chargers could be high on his list. A recent report in the San Diego Union Tribune suggested the Chargers are monitoring Smith's situation and might be interested in a trade — at the right price.
Smith wasn't giving specifics. In fact, he said that returning to the Panthers — despite all he and the team have been through the past two seasons — remains in the realm of possibilities, even referring to the Panthers' decision whether or not to trade Smith as a "family matter."
"The teams that have been linked to me as being ones I have interest in going to" — most notably the Chargers, Ravens and Texans — "I think any professional would be interested in playing for a team that is interested in having them, especially those that have the potential to give you a chance to win a championship. That also plays into Carolina, as well," he said.
Still, Smith couldn't deny that the past two seasons, in which the Panthers went 10-22, were a bear to go through personally.
"The thing that is important to me is that wherever I am (next season), I don't want to go through the mental grind that I have experienced the last two years professionally," he said. "In the last two years, my actions a lot of times have given people the impression that I am disgruntled. That is the emotion that sometimes gives people the opinion that I am volatile.
"What I have been through, really the last two and even three years, I started to doubt my ability. I have been insecure about playing. At times I often have lined up on Sundays — before and during games — wondering if I would be lucky enough to catch more than one pass."
Smith caught 46 passes last season for 554 yards and two TDs — his lowest full-season totals since his rookie year, when he was primarily a returner. He had one one-reception game in Week Nine against the Saints but had nine other games in which he caught only two or three passes.
"The result of that made me play out of character where I have pressed and done things that ultimately have done things to hurt my team and myself, performance-wise. I pressed, trying to get that extra yard. Like when we played the Rams, instead of just going down, I was fighting for extra yards, I fumble and it just changed the whole momentum of the game."
He also played through a quad pull, a left leg injury and a rolled ankle for much of the season but never mentioned it — not even to the training staff, until they could tell something was not right.
"They were like, 'What's going on? You're limping.' It just kind of spiraled from there," he said. "Did I lose a step? Anyone would lose a step when you're playing on one leg. I just tried to play through it, and ultimately I looked slow. Instead of 31 (years old), I looked 41. Instead of coming out and gathering myself and taking a backseat, I tried to play through it — and it backfired."
It took its toll on Smith, who struggled down the stretch, both with the injuries and with the opponents' double teams. He also failed to connect or build much of a rapport with rookie QB Jimmy Clausen in what was former head coach John Fox's final season.
"I have really mentally struggled," he said. "And last year probably was the worst. I let my teammates down; I felt that way at times. I felt bad about it. I don't want to experience that again. I don't want to put my teammates in that position again.
"I know I can still play. I know it."
Even if the Panthers don't release or trade Smith, they have started a new chapter of their history. Fox is gone, replaced by Rivera. QB Cam Newton was the first pick in the draft, and all signs point to the team building around him — perhaps right away — and not Clausen.
Smith knows he might not be a part of that future, but he still couldn't help but look in awe at how different things will be in Charlotte next season.
"All the changes that the Panthers organization has made, does it change my feelings towards the team? I have no ill feelings; I have not changed. I am not upset. I am not mad," he said. "Those changes they made, I think they are not small — they are huge. They are foundational changes. I think it changes the whole attitude, the whole atmosphere."
Smith said he believes he might be able to play five more seasons. Maybe even six. He plans to honor the contract he was given that runs through 2012 and pays him $7 million this season and $7.75 million in '12 — unless the deal is voided or he's offered an extension with another team.
"As I feel right now, I would like to play as long as there is an opportunity — and to play with the same passion but with just a little bit of a different perspective," he said. "Less about what somebody can give me and more about what I can offer and what I can bring to the table and improve and help (a team)."
And despite the doubt that crept in the past few seasons, Smith said those questions are behind him now.
"I do understand that statistically people will look at (my contract) and say, 'You're not worth it.' My answer to that is this: Line me up on the field, give me a year, and I will make sure I'll be worth it — even a little bit more."
Where and when that will be remains to be seen.