Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, left, and quarterback Cam Newton laugh together on the team's bench during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 29, 2013.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, left, and quarterback Cam Newton laugh together on the team's bench during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 29, 2013. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - After 25 seasons of Carolina Panther football, here's a question that inspires a lot of debate: Who's the team's best player of all time?

I have my opinion, which I'll share in a minute. You have yours, and thanks to the 1,451 of you who voted in a quick poll I took Friday about this issue.

If you are active on Twitter, you may know that the Panthers' official Twitter account has taken some heat for a tweet that addressed this very same question.

June 17, the Panthers' account asked fans to "Choose your GOAT" - slang for "Greatest Of All Time" - and gave fans three choices: Julius Peppers, Luke Kuechly and Steve Smith.

See the problem?

Cam Newton - the 2015 NFL MVP for Carolina and now a quarterback looking for a job after the Panthers fired him in March - wasn't listed as a potential choice. That resulted in hundreds of replies from fans ripping the team for leaving Newton out of the poll.

Given the sports world's slow news trickle in these COVID-19 days, the Panthers' poll also ended up getting criticized on a number of national sports TV talk shows. On "Pardon The Interruption," ESPN's Michael Wilbon said: "This is political! You can't have this! .... The poll comes off as completely fraudulent!"

Steven Drummond, the Panthers' vice president of communications and external affairs, characterized the team's tweet as "clumsy" in our interview. Although Drummond didn't write the tweet - that was done by a member of the team's social media staff - he took responsibility for it since the team's Twitter account falls under his umbrella.

"We should have been more thoughtful," Drummond said. "Obviously we meant no disrespect to Cam Newton. That poll was intended to be restricted to retired players, but that wasn't made clear in the original tweet."

I get that. People make mistakes all the time. I certainly have done so on social media. I honestly don't see a grand conspiracy on this one from the Panthers. And I give the team some credit for not simply deleting the tweet and pretending like it never happened.

It's also true that Newton hasn't found a new employer in the three months since the Panthers released him after nine seasons and signed Teddy Bridgewater to replace him. The Panthers could have fired Newton earlier - giving him a better chance to find another job, presumably - but didn't. Feelings are still raw on all sides.

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OK then. After all that:

Is Newton the best Carolina player of all time?

I've covered all 25 of the Panthers' NFL seasons for this newspaper, and my answer is no.

Close, but no.

Here's my list of the top five Panther players. For this exercise, I am only counting years of service with Carolina. So Reggie White (one year with the Panthers) and Kevin Greene (three) are Pro Football Hall of Famers, but they don't make the list. Sam Mills doesn't, either. His "Keep Pounding" speech was the team's most important moment ever, but Mills also only played three seasons with the Panthers.

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My list:

5) THOMAS DAVIS

I considered a number of players here, including Christian McCaffrey - even though McCaffrey has played only three spectacular seasons for the Panthers compared to Davis's 13. McCaffrey was the only current Panther I thought about seriously for a spot in the Top 5.

Ultimately I was persuaded by TD's longevity, plus his recovery from three ACL tears on the same knee, plus his exemplary community service. Also considered: Greg Olsen, Jordan Gross, Wesley Walls, Ryan Kalil, Muhsin Muhammad, Jake Delhomme, John Kasay and Mills.

4) JULIUS PEPPERS

Count all 17 of his NFL seasons and "Pep" may well be the best player on this list. But seven of those came in Chicago or Green Bay, which is why the former UNC star ranks fourth overall.

Peppers was an awesome force at defensive end for the Panthers, though. In 2017, Carolina's most recent playoff season, Peppers had 11 sacks for the Panthers - at age 37!

3) LUKE KUECHLY

For years, L-U-U-U-K-E was pro football's best inside linebacker. Only concussions slowed him. Kuechly's surprise retirement at the end of the 2019 season means he played only eight years, all with Carolina. But what an eight years they were.

2) CAM NEWTON

I rank Carolina's best QB ever slightly ahead of Kuechly - partly because Newton played one more season and partly because he was Carolina' only NFL MVP ever. Newton also won more games, sometimes practically on his own, than Kuechly did. This owes something to the position Newton played - the most important on the field.

To me, though, Newton is trumped by one player.

1) STEVE SMITH

The mesmerizing wide receiver played 13 years with the Panthers, compared to Newton's nine. And no Panther was ever better in the playoffs than No. 89, who routinely saved his best for the postseason. His "X-Clown" TD in the 2003 playoffs remains the most significant touchdown in team history.

And one final note about the two-hour fan poll I took Friday on Twitter. Smith won a close race for GOAT there, too, getting 34.7% of the 1,451 votes cast. Newton was second (30.4); Kuechly was third (25.6) and Peppers fourth (9.3).

Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com

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