Panthers’ Gross retires, WR Smith’s future unclear
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — One longtime Carolina Panther called it quits on Wednesday, while another may be headed out the door behind him.
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who started a franchise-record 167 games during 11 seasons with the Panthers, officially retired at a news conference at the stadium. Afterward, coach Ron Rivera was non-committal on whether star wide receiver Steve Smith will be back with the team next season.
“A lot of it will have to do with what our situation and circumstances are going to be,” Rivera said when asked directly about Smith’s future. “I think as we go forward, just what the role is going to be we’ll see.”
Rivera said the Panthers need to clear salary cap room and said free agency may determine what happens with Smith.
Smith, the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns, is under contract through 2016 but is set to cost $7 million under the 2014 NFL salary cap.
A 13-year NFL veteran who holds almost every major receiving record with the Panthers, Smith was present at Gross’ retirement news conference but declined to discuss his own future.
“This is Jordan’s day,” Smith said. “We’re not discussing me.”
Gross and Smith were the only two players on last year’s roster who played for Carolina’s Super Bowl team in 2003.
Smith plans to meet with general manager Dave Gettleman in the next week or so to determine what his future holds.
It’s unclear at this point if the Panthers want Smith to take a pay cut.
Carolina has already restructured the contracts of linebacker Thomas Davis, center Ryan Kalil and running back Jonathan Stewart this offseason to create cap space.
The Panthers need to create cap room to sign quarterback Cam Newton to a long-term contract extension and also need to make a decision soon on the future of defensive end Greg Hardy, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent.
Restructuring contracts has become commonplace in the Gettleman regime. He restructured seven contracts last season, including Gross’ deal.
“I didn’t like you very much last offseason but I got over that,” Gross said jokingly to Gettleman during his news conference.
Rivera said he believes Smith wants to play for Carolina next season.
“My understanding is yes, but we have to go through our entire process and we have to do things we need to before we starting coming out and talking about where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there,” Rivera said. “We know what we want to do. We are working on plans.”
Smith had 64 receptions for 745 yards and four touchdowns last season.
“I think a lot has to do with not just free agency but our own roster,” Rivera said. “We have to create space and we know that. We are in a tough position right now and (our front office) is working very hard on it. It’s about making sure we have the right situation so that we can go forward.”
The press conference for Gross was attended by team owner Jerry Richardson and more than three dozen former teammates, coaches and members of the training staff.
Gross looked more like a tight end than an offensive lineman at the press conference, already having dropped 25 pounds from his regular playing weight of 305.
An emotional Gross presented a slideshow with some of his favorite photos through the years — often making fun of himself along the way. He got choked up when he got to a picture of team’s offensive linemen and then again when he saw a photo of Smith jumping into his arms during the Super Bowl.
After Gross finished speaking he got a huge surprise when a Charlotte-based barbershop quartet led by teammate Ryan Kalil stood up and sang “Happy Trails.”
“This wasn’t your typical retirement press conference,” Gross said with a laugh.
Gross, who was drafted by the Panthers in the first round in 2003, said he made his mind to retire midway through last season. He notified the Panthers of his intensions before the Scouting Combines.
Gross said the Panthers wanted him to return for another season, but his mind was made up. Rivera said he didn’t try to talk Gross out of the decision.
The coach said, “It was his call.”
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