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And it's now official. Steve Smith is no longer a member of the Carolina Panthers, with the team announcing his release on Thursday morning.

Called the "face of the franchise" and one of the "NFL's finest receivers for over a decade" by GM Dave Gettleman, Smith leaves the Panthers as the franchise leader in just about every receiving category, including receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

“Steve Smith has been one of the NFL's finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team’s history,” Gettleman said. “This was not an easy decision. As a team, we made a step forward last year; however we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL.”

Smith helped the Panthers achieve a 12-4 record in 2013 as their No. 1 option in the passing game, but it's clear that 

The Panthers released Steve Smith on Thursday.
The Panthers released Steve Smith on Thursday. (USATSI)

"Steve has been an important part of this team since I have been head coach and before my arrival,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “I have coached against him and have had the benefit of having him on the Panthers. He is a great competitor with Hall of Fame worthy statistics and has made a great contribution to our community. I wish him nothing but the best."

Smith is a good bet to latch on somewhere quickly and have a shot at returning to the playoffs. Both the Ravens and Patriots make sense given their needs.

Things with the Panthers simply deteriorated quickly. There were trade rumors, sad tweets and reports that Gettleman viewed Smith as a distraction in the locker room. Given all the hustle and bustle about this release, it's hard not to agree with him at least in part. 

Gettleman also added a (rather lengthy, but telling) statement to the Panthers announcement of Smith's release:

When I took this position I knew that difficult decisions would have to be made along the way. To move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult of all. A decision not to be taken lightly. However, after much thought I feel very strongly it’s the right one.

As I’ve stated many times, all decisions I make will be in the long term best interest of the Carolina Panthers. Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view.

Sometimes it may appear that short term interests will suffer, and I can assure you we have no interest in taking a step back from our 2013 accomplishments. Nevertheless, like all NFL teams, we are in transition as we try to get into the best position going forward. When Mr. Richardson hired me I promised him that my goal would be to leave the Panthers in a better position than when I came. All my efforts are in that vein.

Over the next few months we will have the opportunities afforded by Free Agency and the College Draft to improve our roster. We also have young players who will get an opportunity. I have great trust in our evaluation process.

Steve had a wonderful career with the Carolina Panthers. I truly wish him and his wife, Angie, all of God’s blessings.

 One can only imagine Smith's reaction to the whole thing: