Insider notebook: Steve Smith sets the record straight on Cam Newton and Panthers divorce, plus Week 4 picks


One of the two most well-known Carolina Panthers of all time wants to set the record straight about the other one. Steve Smith is tired of all the questions about Cam Newton. Over the last six years he’s grown weary of a media narrative he never really tried to correct. And so in the latest episode of his Cut To It podcast, Smith explains that he does not, and never did, harbor any animus toward Newton.

“I don’t hate Cam. He is one of the most athletic quarterbacks I have ever played with,” Smith said. “We had some good times and we had some bad times. When you’re losing, those are bad times. I’ve heard somebody say, ‘Man that was the best ass-whoppin we ever received!’ That just doesn’t happen.”

I got to listen to the episode before it dropped overnight Friday, and it’s one that all Panthers fans should listen to. Smith presents a tick-tock—from his side—of how his unceremonious release from the Panthers went down with former GM Dave Gettleman in March of 2014.

I’ll let listeners enjoy Smith’s take, and knowing Gettleman, he will never respond publicly to what Smith says. But where Smith shines is talking about Newton.

I covered the Panthers for the Charlotte Observer from 2012 until the start of the 2016 season, so I was there for Smith’s final two seasons in Carolina while Newton’s star rose. I never thought the release had to do with ‘Cam versus Steve’ so much as it did with management believing that a team with budding young players couldn’t coalesce while Smith, a mercurial Panthers legend, remained in the locker room.

Still, narratives took hold over the years. People believed Smith didn’t like Newton. Worse, some may have believed Newton participated in Smith’s ouster. None of that is true, and on multiple occasions in the hour-long podcast, Smith issues overdue apologies to Newton

“Cam was caught in the middle. Cam didn’t do anything,” Smith said. “I don’t hate Cam. I love the dude. He’s a fantastic player. Now i’ll say it now, I probably need to apologize because I was a d***, but I mean that’s who I was.”

I have never witnessed a player who practiced harder than 89. And if you didn’t try to meet his standard on the practice field, he didn’t have much use for you. When all this is taking place, he was entering his mid-30s and in hot pursuit of a Super Bowl. He also was 10 years older than Newton. They simply didn’t have much in common beyond a passion for winning, and no one close to that team would have confused them for friends.

But still, when Smith was released, Newton sent him a handwritten letter. Smith put it in a keepsake drawer without opening it until 2019 when he remembered. Though he doesn’t disclose the contents of the letter, he makes it known he appreciates what Newton did.

“I hate the black-on-black athlete crime,” Smith said. “This guy is jealous of this guy or he hates him because he’s taking his shine. I don’t know if y’all know but we all shine together. I don’t see Patrick Mahomes going over there tripping Lamar Jackson.

“When Cam was on, he was on. If I was off, we were off. He was off, we were off. It’s a collective. At the end of it, because of how I operated, whatever narrative the media had, I gave them that opportunity because of how I acted. If anything, I owe Cam more of an apology. Bro, I don’t hate you. I don’t look down on him. Hell, actually I look up. He’s ballin’. A lot of people thought he wasn’t going to be this. I’m shocked how well he’s playing so early in a new system.”

Smith does the podcast with his friend Gerard Littlejohn, who also serves as the executive director of the Steve Smith Family Foundation. He also breaks some of his own news in the podcast: he was almost traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 2013.

“Trent [Baalke, then the 49ers general manager] said you’re our missing piece to winning the Super Bowl,” Smith said.

Remember, the Niners were coming off a close loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. The Panthers had started the season 1-3 and Smith was looking for a way out. Ultimately, Smith says the Niners wanted him to void out his contract guarantees to make the trade work, and he was unwilling to do that and the deal fell through.

Overall it’s a good listen for Panthers fans, and I think it’s insightful for Patriots fans, too. Smith reveals a level of maturity from Newton in his early NFL days that even I didn’t know about.  

Move to the grass

In his regular column for the NFLPA’s website, Browns center and union president JC Tretter advocated for all NFL teams to “proactively change all field surfaces to natural grass.” This, of course, comes in the wake of the Week 2 carnage around the league, most notably at MetLife Stadium where there’s artificial turf.

Tretter makes the point that players are the most important investment for team owners and should thus be as protected as possible, and he says data supports the anecdotal player evidence that turf is harder on the body than grass.

“[P]layers have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf,’ Tretter writes. “Of those non-contact injuries, players have a 32% higher rate of non-contact knee injuries on turf and a staggering 69% higher rate of non-contact foot/ankle injuries on turf compared to grass.”

Tretter’s call is not just for stadiums to convert to natural grass but also for all practice fields to conert. He notes in his column that the Packers, Browns and Steelers all have natural grass stadium fields despite being in cold-weather cities. And that the Cardinals and Raiders have natural grass fields despite being in domes. Of course, those stadiums have state-of-the-art technology (and space outside the stadium) to roll the grass outside to get natural light—teams like the Saints aren’t as lucky there.

After speaking with sources around the league, I don’t think NFL teams are going to rush to fulfill Tretter’s wish. As compelling a case as Tretter makes for player safety, there are the aforementioned logistical concerns and major money concerns as well.

One source indicated this would probably have to be collectively bargained, and the union and league just agreed to 10 years of labor peace earlier this year. Asking teams with turf to change to grass would raise team costs by (possibly) millions of dollars a year.

Almost every NFL team with natural grass must re-sod their field once a year. That means that a field has a life of about five NFL games. A full re-sod can cost about $200,000, per sources. New York and Los Angeles teams would have to change their field four times a year, at minimum.

And it would also hurt the team’s non-football revenue. Concerts, college football games and other events held on the field at NFL stadiums would tear up the grass and force more frequent re-sods. Team owners would have to decide if hosting a concert is financially worth it if it means dumping $200,000 into making sure the team has a safe surface on which to play later that week.

All that said, it can be done. I spoke Thursday with Jimmy Simpson, president of the Sports Turf Managers Association, who told me Tretter’s column got “right to the heart of player safety.” Before our talk I had assumed changing out fields would be impossible for stadiums with high-volume events, but he corrected me on that.

“We understand as sports field managers the need for revenue-generating events,” Simpson says. “We recognize the need to host the events and we want to host the events and we want to host the home team as well, the team we work for and care about the most. But the ultimate thing we want to do is that when the home team comes home to play that our fields are as safe as they can be. And however that happens, whatever field our managers are managing at the time are the ones that they’re going to put the most effort and time into. If that decision happens, sports field managers are going to be there to support that decision and we’re going to make it happen.”

In New Orleans, you could lay the ready-to-play sod a few days before the game, play on Sunday and then put grow lights on the field throughout the week. When Atlanta hosts a college football game on Saturday and the Falcons on Sunday, install the field on Thursday, paint it on Friday, play college football on Saturday, sod out the logos Saturday night and play on Sunday just like Miami does.

The point is that it can be done. For some teams, it’d take some an extra million dollars or two along with creative scheduling. But the data clearly shows NFL players are safer on natural grass, and team owners will have to decide for themselves if their players are worth the extra money.

Tampa has been, and will be, flexible

Super Bowl LV is still slated for Feb. 7, 2021, and it will be that way for some time. With the postponement of Titans-Steelers, I understand folks are looking ahead to when the exact situation may happen again and unplayed games begin to pile up at the end of the season that may necessitate a so-called Week 18.

In that case, the playoffs would have to be pushed a week. Maybe two. As I wrote months ago, the city of Tampa can handle it. The president of the host committee told me they will make whatever adjustments necessary by the league when asked, and sources have told me a city like Tampa can handle it.

“If there were ever a blessing in life it’s the Super Bowl is in Tampa,” one source told me in the spring. “It’s not peak convention season. That building doesn’t have anything going on. [You] can’t do that in New York City. Look at New Orleans even.”

Adjusting the January schedule may also do away with the Pro Bowl for this season. Already the league and union have agreed to delay Pro Bowl payments until a later date due to revenue deficits related to the pandemic. I can’t imagine the league would do away forever with the Pro Bowl, but I can see it getting skipped in a season unlike any other.

Picks

I was bound to come back down to earth, and it sadly happened in Week 3. I went 8-7-1 last week and yes, I’m slightly embarrassed. I’m 32-15-1 on the season through three weeks. But I feel a lot better about this week. I picked Jets for Thursday night, which now makes me 0-3 on “Thursday Night Football” on the season. On to the picks.

Jaguars at Bengals

1 p.m., Sunday, CBS

Frequent readers of this here column know I was high on the Bengals in the first two weeks of the season. The one week I didn’t pick them they got a half-win. I’ll take the cats down in Jacksonville this week.

The pick: Jaguars

Vikings at Texans

1 p.m., Sunday, FOX

I can see the Texans starting 0-3 based 1) on the opponents they’ve faced and 2) the fact that they did this same thing two years ago. Deshaun Watson will always keep you in playoff contention, and I think the Vikings woes continue this week.

The pick: Texans

Colts at Bears

1 p.m., Sunday, CBS

Is this the week the Bears luck finally runs out? I have to imagine it is. While I respect Chicago’s defense, it’s gotten lucky. I won’t be surprised if they turn over Philip Rivers this weekend. But there’s just something that doesn’t sit right with me when I say “The 4-0 Chicago Bears with two healthy starting quarterbacks.”

The pick: Colts

Patriots at Chiefs

4:25 p.m., Sunday, CBS

Did you see the Ravens game last week? It was as if the Chiefs heard all of us picking the Ravens and decided to re-establish the fact that they did, in fact, win last year’s Super Bowl. One of those, “oh, the pandemic made y’all forget?!” The Pats will emerge from this week as the clear best 2-2 team in the league.

The pick: Chiefs

The rest:

Cardinals over Panthers

Cowboys over

Saints over Lions

Seahawks over Dolphins

Buccaneers over Chargers

Steelers over Titans

Ravens over Football Team

Rams over Giants

Raiders over Bills

49ers over Eagles

Packers over Falcons





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