Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Josh Howard apologizes: Do you believe him?

Former Wake Forest star Josh Howard has apologized for disrespecting the national anthem on a widely-viewed video clip. He did so on the first day of the Dallas Mavericks' training camp Monday. My question now is was Howard being sincere, or was that spin control? (I'd say it was about a half-and-half mixture myself).

To back up for a minute.... At a charity flag football game in July, while a singer performed the national anthem in the background, Howard said into a camera: " 'The Star Spangled Banner' is going on right now. I don't even celebrate that [expletive]. I'm black."

The clip was posted on YouTube and was widely viewed. It prompted a lot of criticism, but Howard stayed silent throughout -- a real mistake, I thought. If you say something like that and you truly believe you were wrong, get out there and correct it. Fast.

Howard said in a statement Monday before taking questions from reporters: "This is not the way I carry myself, not how I want to be portrayed. I'm sorry to everybody I've offended. I'm upset with myself and the way I've acted."

He also said he loves his country. "It was me joking around," he said. "Guys were out there making fun and I decided to get along in it. I wasn't using my head. I guess the valuable lesson I did learn is that words really do hurt. You're held accountable for what you say."

Howard also was arrested in July in N.C. fter police said he was drag racing at 94 mph in a 55 mph zone.
He said he knows that there will be some fan backlash about his troubled summer. Last season, he said in a radio interview that he occasionally smokes marijuana. He also angered former Dallas coach Avery Johnson by throwing himself a birthday party after a playoff loss.

Howard said he wants to prove to fans he's not a bad guy. "I'll try to win them back," he said. "Whatever it takes me to do that, I'll do it."

So, do you believe him? Spin control or sincerity?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Panthers in thick of NFC race

A look at the NFL standings this Monday morning reveals that the Panthers are tied for the second-best record in the NFC -- not bad for a first quarter of a season's work.

Washington's 26-24 upset of Dallas Sunday once again shows that the power of the NFC rests in the NFC East, where you have to say that all four teams (Dallas, Washington, the N.Y. Giants and Philadelphia) are very possibly playoff teams. At best, though, only three of them can make it -- the Giants currently have the upper hand at 3-0, while the Cowboys and Redskins are both 3-1.

The Panthers and Tampa Bay are tied atop the NFC South at 3-1, which makes their looming battle Oct.12 in Tampa quite the early-season showdown. Carolina should enter that one at 4-1 unless it stubs its toe this Sunday at home against Kansas City, which looked awful throughout September until yesterday, when Chiefs coach Herm Edwards finally remembered he had one of the best backs in the NFL on his bench.

Larry Johnson gained 198 yards against Denver in a 33-19 Chiefs win and will be K.C.'s go-to option Sunday. If the Panthers can stack up LJ -- and they will try to do it with eight men in the box, as they did Sunday vs. Michael Turner, and dare Kansas City to throw -- they should win that one. In any case, the Panthers traditionally divide every season into four quarters and try to go 3-1 in each segment to end up 12-4. It never works out quite that way, but it's a nice goal, and they've accomplished step one.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

4 things I liked about Carolina's win (and 2 I didn't)

1) Muhsin Muhammad was superb. The “Moose” burned young Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes a number of times Sunday, catching eight passes for 147 yards and looking a lot younger than his age.

2) Jake Delhomme was sharp. Delhomme’s overall quarterback rating will rise dramatically after this efficient effort, in which he found both Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad for touchdowns, threw for almost 300 yards and reached 100 TD passes in his Panther career.

3) The defense was very strong. Carolina shut down the NFL’s leading rusher, Michael Turner, and would have allowed even fewer points except for the Panthers’ special-teams problems. The Panthers made Atlanta try to beat them through the air, and the combination of rookie QB Matt Ryan and his several butter-fingered receivers wasn’t able to do that.

4) The offensive line was resilient. Despite injuries to both of its starting offensive tackles, the Panthers cobbled together a line that didn’t run-block that well but was superb in pass-blocking against the likes of Atlanta DE John Abraham.


1) The Panthers continue to have far too many special-teams mistakes. Jason Baker had his second punt of the year blocked Sunday, and this time it was totally his fault. Baker dropped a perfect snap, which led to the block. Also, the Panthers had 12 players on the field when Atlanta’s Jason Elam missed a long field goal, giving him a second chance, which he made.

2) Penalties. The Panthers continue to draw way too many of them – they lead the league in false starts, according to the Fox Sports telecast -- although that fact will be camouflaged somewhat given this win.


Panther O-line injuries are problematic

The Panthers now lead the Falcons, 17-9, at the end of the third quarter. They are also down to their last five active offensive linemen for this game.

Carolina has now had both its starting tackles hurt in this game. Rookie right tackle Jeff Otah just left the game with what looked like an ankle injury. Now Jeremy Bridges is playing RT and Travelle Wharton LT on this glommed-together line. (Otah was just announced in the press box as an ankle injury; he was taken to the locker room on a cart but they say his return is "questionable").

Fortunately for the Panthers, they don't have to try to come from behind with this line in the fourth quarter. They just need to protect an eight-point lead.

What I wonder is this: What if another offensive lineman got hurt? Who would the Panthers sub in there? They do have 2 more offensive linemen on the active roster, but both were declared inactive for this game.

Where's the timeout this time, Coach Fox?

Last week against Minnesota, Coach John Fox called a timeout just before the Vikings kicked a field goal. He thought Carolina had 12 men on the field.

Actually, Carolina had 11 -- and blocked the kick. But the block didn't count because of the timeout. The Vikings kicker got another try, drilled it, and the game was basically over.

This week, the Panthers made the exact opposite mistake! They DID have 12 men on the field as Jason Elam tried a 49-yard field goal for Atlanta late in the first half. Elam pushed it right -- his first miss all season.

But the Panthers DIDN'T call timeout this time, the referees counted correctly and Elam got another chance. This time, from 44 yards, he knocked it through.

So, if you're counting, that's two special-teams mistakes leading to two field goals for Atlanta (Jason Baker dropped a perfect snap and got a punt blocked to account for the other field goal). If not for that, Carolina would hold a far more comfortable 14-3 advantage at halftime, rather than the tenuous 14-9 lead they have at the end of the second quarter.

Steve Smith... Open field... Touchdown

Steve Smith can be moody. He can be difficult to deal with. But put him in the open field with a football in his hand, and you can see easily why the Panthers still put up with him and why there are thousands of No.89 "Smith" jerseys in Bank of America Stadium today.

Smith and Jake Delhomme just hit on their first really big play of the season -- a 56-yard TD that would have been about a 30-yard completion for all the rest of the Panther receivers.

But Smith is different. He got a free release from the left side of the formation. The safety bit on the play-action. So Smith was in the middle of the field, in a gaping hole, and Delhomme had all day to find him. He did, and then Smith did the rest, splitting two defenders and then doing a Usain Bolt the rest of the way to the end zone.

And I'm talking about Bolt in the 100, the Olympic event where he set the world record and also showboated across the finish line. Smith nearly had the ball knocked out of his hands inside the 5 because he started celebrating early. But he didn't, and the Panthers took a 14-6 lead.

Panthers' D playing well so far (despite Hochuli's call)

I'm impressed with the Panthers defense so far, one of the main reasons the Panthers are now leading 14-6.

Atlanta's rush-oriented offense has had four drives and generated points that it earned on one of them -- a field goal. It got its other field goal after Panther punter Jason Baker dropped a punt, which allowed Atlanta's John Abraham to block it. But Atlanta went 3-and-out with great field position on that one.

Carolina's defense also could have had a score but for a very debatable call. On Atlanta's first series, Matt Ryan threw a terrible pass under pressure that was intercepted and returned for a TD by Richard Marshall. But Carolina's Julius Peppers was called for a late hit on the replay, which nullified the TD and marks Peppers' only impact on this game so far.

That call, incidentally, was by Ed Hochuli, the referee who was "marked down" by the NFL after blowing an inadvertent whistle in the Denver-San Diego game earlier this year that ultimately cost the Chargers the game. Hochuli is unlikely to work playoff games because of that horrendous mistake, but he's still working regular-season ones.

On Jordan Gross's head injury

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross just sustained a head injury in the first quarter of the Panthers-Falcons game. They have just announced here in the press box that Gross won't return for this game; the future beyond that is unclear for now.

It was very good to see that Gross waved off the stretcher after a delay of a few minutes. It looked like he had caught a knee in the head -- it was scary to see him motionless on the ground, face down, for several minutes. But Gross was able to get up under his own power and then rode off the field on a cart.

For now, the Panthers have moved Travelle Wharton over from LG to left tackle and put Geoff Hangartner in the game at LG. That worked pretty well on the Panthers' first drive, as they went on an 80-yard march for a TD. But long-term, the Panthers really need Gross. He's such a steady player at one of the game's most difficult positions. He has started throughout his career in Carolina at both right and left tackle.

Gross is one of the Panthers' nicest guys and best players -- there's a reason the team put the franchise tag on him this year, making sure he didn't leave in free agency. Carolina has Gross under a one-year contract for $7.45 million this season; he can leave the team in 2009 via free agency if he and the Panthers can't agree to a long-term contract.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

UNC, Duke both win – is it basketball season already?

Strange times indeed in the ACC today. Both UNC and Duke won to go 3-1 overall this season -- the Tar Heels with a dramatic, 28-24 win at Miami, the Blue Devils with a 31-3 hammering of Virginia at Duke. (And meanwhile, Clemson loses to Maryland).

In Chapel Hill and Durham, football tends to be an afterthought starting right about now. But not this season. Duke and UNC's football teams are going to make a few more headlines before giving way to their schools' marquee sport. Both squads have both stopped various embarrassing streaks this season, and each just had their best win of the season on the same day.

You know how espn.com has a list of the top 6-10 stories of the moment on its home page, there on the right-hand side? Saturday afternoon was the first time I can remember that two of them focused on football wins by UNC and Duke. (And a third was on The Observer reporting that the Bobcats just laid off about 35 employees not affiliated with their basketball operations, but that's another story).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pregame Panthers-Falcons thoughts

Here's my prediction on how things will go Sunday at 1 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium when Carolina and Atlanta play. If you're a follower of my predictions, you know not to set too much stock in what you read here. The best thing that can generally be said for my predictions lately is they don't cost you any gas to read:

** I like what coach Mike Smith has done with the Falcons, who actually look like an NFL team again. They run the ball well enough that rookie quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t getting in a lot of third-and-12s, where most mistakes happen.

** I wrote a column advocating the Panthers’ acquisition of Falcons’ running back Michael Turner back before the start of free agency, and I still believe he would have been the best alternative for Carolina. That guy is for real. It’s true, though, that Turner’s price was sky-high.

** Think the Panthers’ offensive line might pay a little attention to where No.55 is today? Not only does Atlanta’s John Abraham lead the NFL in sacks (with six), but he also was the one who sacked Jake Delhomme and caused the season-ending elbow injury that wrecked Delhomme’s 2007 season.

** Let’s not get overly carried away about the Falcons’ 2-1 start. In Kansas City and Detroit, they’ve beaten two of the worst NFL teams out there. The one time they played a decent team – Tampa Bay – they lost by 15. I think the Falcons will ultimately finish with 6-7 wins this season.

** Being the home team in this series has never meant much, but the Panthers have a bit more talent than the Falcons overall. My prediction: Carolina 20, Atlanta 13.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Happiest Day of My Life"??? Please!

The Detroit Lions fired general manager Matt Millen today, which they should have done about four years ago. But that's not my point today. My point is this: In the ESPN.com story where I read this, a few Lions fans were quoted as to how ecstatic they were that Millen was finally gone. Here, verbatim, are two paragraphs from that story:

Eddie Gates drove through the team's parking lot in his minivan as his girlfriend, Sue Stanton, held a sign, "Millen Must Go To Get a Super Bowl," out the window.
"I've been a season-ticket holder for 28 years and because they fired Matt Millen, I'm going to renew," Gates said. "This is the happiest day of my life."

The "happiest day of my life"???? You've gotta be kidding me. What about marriages? Births? Graduations? The time the Lions won the Super Bowl.... oh, wait, forget that last one.

Anyway, if Panthers general manager Marty Hurney ever gets fired, or if John Fox ever gets fired, or Larry Brown at the Bobcats or whatever, please don't say it's the happiest day of your life if someone asks you about it.

I know the fact that people care about sports is the only reason I have a job, along with a lot of my friends, and that's great. But have a little perspective. I know this Lions fan was happy and probably a bit prone to exaggerating, but that really shouldn't be more than the happiest day of your week. If that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On Goings, O'Brien and fantasy football

1) No Panther player had a worse start this year than Nick Goings. He's been responsible for errors that have led to two opponents' TDs in the past two weeks -- one for failing to block his man properly on a Jason Baker punt, the other for not recognizing a cornerback blitz against Minnesota and instead going out for a pass and allowing Jake Delhomme to be sacked on the play that changed the game.

2) The Panthers' Flag Day problems -- penalty after penalty after penalty -- are the subject of my column today. Given how much John Fox promises to emphasize that this week, I wouldn't want to be the first guy who false-starts Sunday vs. Atlanta.

3) How many millions of fantasy-football owners are kicking themselves for having Ronnie Brown and his 5 TDs on their bench this past week? I used to play fantasy football, but I got tired of stuff like that. There are so many decisions you have to make in life already that are 50-50 callls and have the potential to make you feel bad. I figured I could use a few less of those.

Oh, who am I kidding? If I'd been winning my league, I'd still be in it.

4) It'd be easier for me to feel sorry for N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien and his many legitimate injury problems if he'd be more forthcoming about them. To say that your starting QB Russell Wilson is out for Saturday's game vs. South Florida, and then not to say what Wilson's injury is, as O'Brien did Monday -- that's simply the wrong way to treat your fans and the media.

O'Brien, whose team had a huge win Saturday with Wilson playing well at QB, will have to say what Wilson's injury is Thursday anyway by ACC rules. And he's already declared that Wilson is out for this game (Harrison Beck will start at QB vs. 13th-ranked South Florida). So what's the downside of a little more honesty?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Terrible news for Tar Heels on Yates injury

The spot that the UNC football team could probably least afford an injury was at quarterback. T.J. Yates had brought a calmness and an effectiveness to the position, but behind him on the depth chart -- well, it could make a baby-blue fan cringe.

Now it's time to cringe. Yates is out at least six weeks with a broken ankle. He will likely be replaced by Mike Paulus, who will get thrown to the Hurricanes Saturday when UNC plays at Miami at noon. Here's the full announcement from UNC officials today:

"University of North Carolina sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates sustained an injury to his left ankle during Saturday's game vs. Virginia Tech. Although x-rays taken during the game were negative, an MRI Sunday evening revealed a small non-displaced fracture in his ankle. Yates' injury will not require surgery. He is expected to miss a minimum of six weeks. During that time he will undergo treatment and rehabilitation. His status will be re-evaluated after six weeks."

This is awful news for the Tar Heels in the short term. Paulus, the younger brother of Duke point guard Greg Paulus, looked terrible against Virginia Tech (two interceptions, just three completions). At least he'll have a full week to prepare now.

Long term, who knows? Paulus might be the answer eventually -- he was certainly hailed as such when he signed with the Tar Heels. But for now, this is the sort of injury that can spoil a season. As Panther fans know from last year's QB experimentation after Jake Delhomme's injury, no matter how you spin this news, it ain't good.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

4 things I couldn't stand in Panthers' loss

Four things I couldn’t stand about the Panthers’ nasty 20-10 loss at Minnesota Sunday, which dropped them to 2-1 on the season:

How does Jake Delhomme not see that cornerback blitz late in the first half? It’s not like Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield was coming from the blind side. Yet Delhomme just held it… and held it… and all of a sudden he was sacked and the ball was out and – BOOM – a cheap TD for the Vikes. Carolina’s early 10-3 lead had disappeared and it was 10-all.
That was the play of the game. Everything changed after that. Minnesota would end up scoring the game’s final 20 points. UPDATE: Nick Goings took the blame for not picking up Winfield on this play -- instead, he thought he was clear to run out for a pass. Oops! Still, Delhomme should have seen the guy with his peripheral vision and at least been able to take the sack but not fumble.

This looked a lot like the past few years when Carolina simply couldn’t run the ball. The Panthers’ offensive line was absolutely overwhelmed by a combination of Minnesota’s powerhouse defensive line and the incessant noise in that indoor stadium. The play the Panthers seemed to run the most was the false start -- they were good at that one. "Pre-snap" penalties continue to hurt the Panthers badly.

John Fox’s timeout management is often a curiosity, and there was another example today. As Minnesota’s Ryan Longwell lined up for a fourth-quarter field goal after an endless Viking drive that would make it 20-10, Minnesota, the Panthers called timeout. Most players on the field didn’t hear the whistle, though. The ball was snapped, and safety Chris Harris blocked the kick.

Honestly, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Even if it stays 17-10 there, the Panthers went nowhere the entire second half on offense. Even with Steve Smith out there, they couldn't move it. Still, they would have had a chance if not for the timeout, which basically ended the game. Given a second chance, Longwell booted it through, it became a two-possession game and Carolina was done. UPDATE: Fox called the timeout because he thought Carolina had 12 men on the field. In fact, Carolina only had 11.

Carolina got to Gus Frerotte a couple of times, but not enough to rattle the veteran. Instead, Frerotte kept the chains moving and played keepaway almost the entire second half from the Panthers. Here’s how little the TV announcers called Julius Peppers’ name – when Peppers finally made his first sack of the season, play-by-play man Ron Pitts at first called him “Julius Peters.”

Saturday, September 20, 2008

UNC blows one vs Virginia Tech (in a 'deja vu' way)

Just finished up in Chapel Hill covering the Tar Heels' 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech. It was an achingly familiar situation for UNC fans, as the club squandered a possible victory late. This one was more painful than most, as UNC lost a 17-3 lead in the second half as Virginia Tech scored the game's final 17 points.

Does that plot sound familiar? Maybe from a recent NFL game? Let me play a little "Jeopardy" theme music for you here. This all happened veeeeerry recently in a game you may have watched....

OK, time's up. That's exactly the scenario by which the Panthers won over the Chicago Bears last week. They were down 17-3 and they won 20-17 by scoring the game's last 17 points in a row.

I wrote my column for Sunday's paper about how the Tar Heels just haven't arrived yet. And they better hope quarterback T.J. Yates -- who missed the last quarter-and-a-half due to an ankle injury -- returns quickly. Redshirt freshman Mike Paulus, who had two fourth-quarter interceptions, looked nowhere near ready.

The postgame report on Yates was that he didn't break the ankle, it was just a sprain, but whether it was high (more severe) or low is uncertain. More tests will be run tomorrow to help determine whether he will be able to play in the game at Miami (which is 12 noon, Sept.27, and isn't going to be a picnic for whatever Tar Heel QB starts, although to be fair UNC did get a big win over the Hurricanes last year).

Pregame Panthers-Vikings thoughts

Some thoughts on Carolina at Minnesota, 1 p.m. Sunday:

** If I’m the Panthers, I’m wishing that Minnesota made that quarterback switch in Week 4. Tarvaris Jackson was totally ineffective and was playing like he was afraid to make a mistake. That would have been ideal for Carolina. Gus Frerotte isn’t nearly as mobile, but he’s more aggressive and he’s going to be a more dangerous guy for the Panthers to stop.

** Do I expect Steve Smith to make an immediate impact for Carolina on offense? Absolutely. Smith always looks quicker on artificial turf.
If you remember, the first TD he ever scored in an NFL uniform was also the first time he touched the ball, on a kickoff return at Minnesota as a rookie in 2001. Smith once told me that TD was his favorite of his career, even superseding the “arms-outstretched” TD grab to win the playoff game at St. Louis. I’ll be surprised if Smith doesn’t score today.

** The Vikings have always had a great homefield advantage, but it’s been teetering in recent years. The team only got a sellout on Friday -- after a 24-hour NFL extension -- and that was only after the local Fox affiliate helped out by buying some of the extras.

** I was about to pick Minnesota to win this game, because one of these days the Panthers are going to lose one it seems like they should win. They have been living on a knife blade so far this season. If that continues, a cut is inevitable.
But Minnesota’s best player, Adrian Peterson, is either going to miss this game with an injured hamstring or, at best, play on the hamstring but be limited. His backup, Chester Taylor, is a good back but not a great one. So I think the Panthers’ Year of Living Dangerously continues with their third win in a row.

My prediction: Carolina 23, Minnesota 16.

Check back on this blog postgame Sunday for my comments about the game, and please feel free to add your own.

Huge win for the Wolfpack

That was a huge win for N.C. State today, as the Wolfpack derailed the East Carolina express, 30-24, in overtime in Raleigh.

I didn't see the game live but listened to most of it on the radio -- I'm assigned to cover Virginia Tech vs. UNC today. N.C. State just kept hanging around vs. No.15 ECU, didn't they? And this has to be one of the best days in Tom O'Brien's brief coaching career for the Wolfpack.

You have to be really impressed by the defensive timeout O'Brien took when N.C. State was down 21-17 and seemingly about to allow another TD to Virginia Tech in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Wolfpack had a great goal-line stand to keep themselves in the game and also held the Pirates to a field goal on another series inside the 10 in the fourth quarter.

So N.C. State just did what a resilient team does, and won it in overtime. Maybe the N.C. State-UNC game later this year is going to end up having a little more juice than usual.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Will Judy come up Roses or thorns?

I don't like asking people for money.

Never have been good at it. When my kids come home with some fundraising project from school, I'm the guy who just decides that rather than ask anybody for anything, we'll just give the donation ourselves and leave the neighbors' doorbells alone.

Charlotte athletic Judy Rose, on the other hand, has no problem with the "ask." And that's a good thing, because she and her staff and everyone involved in raising money for the Charlotte 49ers' athletic department just got the toughest -- and perhaps most rewarding -- assignment of their lives.

While UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois is now on board for football (read my column on that subject here), he made no bones about the fact that he's about to take football off his own plate. He spent 80 percent of his time over the past six months on the issue; he's not going to try and raise the money, too.

That falls to Rose. Dubois was so intent on knocking the student fee for football down to a more manageable level that he kept upping the ante with Rose.

Rose told me a story this week about how Dubois called her at 8:30 a.m. one Saturday and asked her if she could raise $5 million for football. "Absolutely," Rose said. "We could raise $10 million."

Then Dubois asked her later: "How about $15 million?" Rose hesitated a moment, then said yes.

"I hope we blow that $10-15 million out of the water," Rose said. "But it's going to be a challenge."

Said Dubois: "I'm leaving it up to Judy to carry the ball from here."

So now we get to see how many people really want to see college football around here, and how badly. Dubois admitted to myself and Observer reporter David Perlmutt that he expected some "pushback" in the next few weeks on the idea of PSLs for the 49ers, because it's very rare that a Division I-AA football team can get away with selling them.

Can Rose and her cohorts sell 5,000 of them, at $1,000 a pop, in 6 months (or 9 or 12 months -- the deadline may be extended)? That's the big question -- assuming the Board of Trustees approves Dubois's recommendation Nov.13, as I'm almost sure they will do.

And even a successful sale of 5,000 would only generate $5 million, and the football-related facilities Dubois is proposing are supposed to cost at least $45 million. The money is a BIG issue here, and Charlotte supporters will need to step up to the plate like they never have before (much like UNC supporters did a long time ago with the Dean Dome) for this to work out perfectly.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

UNCC says "yes" -- sort of -- to football

I just came back from attending the UNCC Board of Trustees meeting where Chancellor Phil Dubois finally answered the "F" question, as he calls it, with a "yes, but...."

Dubois recommended that the school start a football program by 2013, in Division I-AA, but also set some very high hurdles in terms of the finances. And in this economy, we know that's a tough sell.

Here's my first attempt at a column on the subject -- this will be modified slightly, but not too much, for Friday's newspaper. Basically, I'm for football at UNCC, but with this stormy economy, I'm still not positive it will happen. Or, if it does, if it will happen at the on-campus stadium Dubois wants.

The 49ers plan to sell a version of permanent seat licenses called "FSLs," or Forty-Niner Seat Licenses. Here's one thing I don't like about that, though -- they are "non-transferable." The Panthers are transferable, obviously, and that's one of the main attractions.

I told UNCC athletic director Judy Rose that this was one of the few points in Dubois's plan that I'm really not sold on today; that I think the FSLs will need to be transferable or they're going to be a much harder sell. Rose said this point was still being debated and that to phrase the idea as "under construction," because the FSL concept will definitely be tweaked before they start getting sold (and that won't happen until after the Nov.13 trustees' meeting, when I expect the trustees will approve the Dubois plan).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Josh Howard rips the national anthem

I liked former Wake Forest star Josh Howard when he was a Demon Deacon -- finding him honest with the media and unbelievably gifted with the basketball. But I've got to say now that Howard has to be one of the poorest decision-makers among all professional athletes.

If your kid happens to admire Howard, the Dallas Mavericks' talented swingman, I'm sorry. I don't envy you explaining Howard's off-field behavior.

Howard's latest transgression: he ripped the national anthem in a video now posted on YouTube. According to The Dallas Morning News (where you can see the video and read more about it, and please note that that it may offend some viewers), Howard is at Allen Iverson's charity flag football game in July at the time of the video. While the national anthem is being sung in the background, Howard says to the camera: " 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is going on. I don't celebrate this [expletive]. I'm black."

OK, so it's Howard's right under the First Amendment to speak his mind about the national anthem. But with that comment, he just disrespected so many different groups it'd be impossible to count them all. This comes on the heels of Howard getting arrested in July in North Carolina for a late-night street race and his admission last season that he uses marijuana occasionally.

What do you think about Howard's actions?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the Cowboys and the ridiculous DeSean Jackson

It's very early, but you've got to figure Dallas as the leader in the clubhouse for the NFC's Super Bowl spot in Tampa Bay.

Yes, the Cowboys just allowed 37 points to Philadelphia -- but they won anyway. If you stayed up throughout that hugely entertaining Monday Night Football game -- and I couldn't quite make it -- you saw what may be the best MNF game of the season. Dallas' 41-37 win showed the Cowboys are going to simply outscore a whole lot of people this season, even though their defense is vulnerable.

There are now five undefeated teams in the NFC: Carolina, the defending Super Bowl champion N.Y. Giants, Green Bay, Arizona (?!) and Dallas. The Cowboys play at Green Bay Sunday, so the number will be no more than four after Week 3.

I did watch a lot of the MNF game, however, and the play that will be most remembered will be rookie DeSean Jackson's trying-to-be-cool flick of the ball after running down what should have been a long TD pass from Donovan McNabb on the way to the end zone. Jackson was so anxious to get into his TD dance that he threw the ball behind him at the 1. Philly scored anyway because the refs awarded the Eagles' possession after Wade Phillips' challenge.

Two other leftover notes from this weekend's action: 1) San Diego totally got the shaft. That call on Jay Cutler's obvious fumble that allowed Denver to get the ball again: that was just absolutely wrong.

2) Kudos to ESPN for coming up with a great highlight, showing Jackson in a high school All-America game doing a variation of the same thing. He was about to score, did a front flip into the end zone -- and left the ball at the 1 to be recovered by the other team. This is a kid who someone needs to get hold of and talk some sense into. Hopefully, Jackson's public humiliation will discourage more football-playing youngsters from wanting to emulate him.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Panthers off to best start since 2003

OK, so the Panthers are only 2-0. Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. But this does count as Carolina's best start since 2003, when they began 5-0.

That's partly because the Panthers usually get off to such mediocre-to-poor starts. And that often translates into mediocre-to-poor finishes for a team that hasn't made the playoffs but three times in its 13-year history.

As I wrote in my column for Monday's paper, these Panthers really have a chance to be special. It will be interesting to see how Steve Smith's return Sunday at Minnesota will affect everything. His absence was notable Sunday, as Chicago stacked the line with 8 or more defenders at the line of scrimmage and dared the Panthers to beat them deep. No one was able to -- but there's no way the Bears would have played that sort of defense regularly if No.89 was flanked to one side.

The Panthers' injury report was good Monday -- there was little new to speak of, according to coach John Fox. They lead the NFC South at 2-0. There are only six undefeated teams in the NFC at the moment and that dropped to five Monday night after Dallas edged Philadelphia, 41-37. And now No.89 is back in the building, a fact that Charles Chandler analyzed nicely in Tuesday's paper here.

But do you know who isn't celebrating any of the Panthers' good news? Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. He's paid to worry, and he's worried about everything you can imagine right now. I talked to Hurney Monday and my column for Tuesday's paper included some of his thoughts on what's happened so far and what is ahead for Carolina.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

5 things I liked and 2 I didn't about Panthers' big win over Bears

Five things I liked about the Panthers’ 20-17 win over Chicago, which pushed the team to 2-0:

1. Rookie running back Jonathan Stewart, who had his breakout game. Against a Bears defense that totally stuffed the Panthers in the first half – only two first downs for Carolina in the first half! – Stewart was The Man in the second. He scored the first two TDs of his NFL career.

2. Carolina’s stout defense. The Panthers’ defense was superb, especially in the second half. One of Chicago’s TDs was off a punt block; the other came on a very short field after a Jake Delhomme interception. Otherwise, the defense did what it needed to do, including stopping the Bears twice in the final four minutes when Chicago only needed a field goal to tie and send it into overtime. The fourth-down stop on Chicago's last possession at midfield was particularly impressive, as the Bears had a second-and-1 on that series and never gained another yard.

3. Jake Delhomme’s spunk. Delhomme was nearly decapitated by a hit (that wasn’t penalized) from Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs on a scramble. But Delhomme came back right after that to lead the Panthers to two straight TD drives. And he came off the field – which finally got the fans into the game -- after the Briggs hit while pounding his heart and screaming. The guy is feisty, give him credit.

4. John Fox’s halftime adjustments. The Panthers were terrible offensively in the first half and were getting penalized about every third play. Fox got them to clean it up in the second half, and the offense opened it up a little (mostly on first and second downs). And it worked.

5. The crowd. It was loud – mostly in the second half – and it was large. There were very few empty seats. They got rewarded by a Panther team that has traditionally been very mediocre under Fox at home, winning a big one.

Two things I didn’t like:

1. I picked Carolina to win, 20-16, in The Charlotte Observer Sunday morning, and it was 20-17. Close just isn’t good enough!

2. The “Shades of Dan Henning” on third down for Carolina, over and over again. The Panthers ran the ball too often on third down and with very little success.

Stewart scores; Panthers cut Bears lead to 4

Right after Lance Briggs hit Jake Delhomme in the head, the tide of this game -- at least temporarily -- turned.

The Panthers got a big break when Chris Harris -- the best fumble-causer in the league -- caused another one. As in San Diego, Chris Gamble picked it up.

Gamble didn't run this one in -- he got stopped at the Chicago 26. And then Carolina started handing it off to running back Jonathan Stewart, who was profiled so nicely in today's Charlotte Observer by our own Charles Chandler.

Carolina got to third-and-1 from just inside the Chicago 5 and gave it to Stewart again. No play-action this time. Just Stewart up the middle. There was a great block from Ryan Kalil.

John Fox decided not to go for two -- that might haunt him later -- but the Panthers are now within 17-13 with 2:18 left in the third quarter.

Briggs headhunts Delhomme; fans get angry

The fans are finally into the game, courtesy of the Panthers' latest drive in the third quarter.

First, Carolina apparently scored on the march on a 32-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad. Moose did his whole "through-the-legs" routine in the end zone -- the extended-play version. Then it turned out rookie Jeff Otah was called for holding on the play. And it was very obvious. Otah mugged Chicago's Adewale Ogunleye.

Then, on the same drive, on third-and-12 from the Chicago 34, Delhomme went scrambling up the middle to try and make a first down. Delhomme slid late and Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs absolutely leveled him. It knocked Delhomme's chinstrap off. In the press box, as soon as I saw the hit, I said out loud, "That's a concussion."

And it may have been. We don't know yet. But Delhomme got up -- without his helmet -- and started pounding his chest. The Panthers kicked a field goal to trim Chicago's lead to 17-6.

There was no flag on Briggs' hit. The fans were incensed by that and have been angry ever since.

Bears take 17-3 lead with ease

The Panthers look determined to spend this entire game deep in a hole.

Carolina excited its fans for about 30 seconds on its opening drive of the third quarter. Jake Delhomme threw a long ball to Muhsin Muhammad, and Moose made a diving catch for a 34-yard gain. That got Carolina to its 46. On the next play, however, Delhomme threw a short pass to tight end Jeff King.

The ball hit King in the midsection, but he raised his hands and managed to cough it away. Charles Tillman grabbed it -- it was officially tabbed an interception, although it could have been called a fumble -- and ran it inside the Carolina 30. The Bears quickly converted that for a TD.

Just like in the first half, the Bears scored almost immediately after the half began. Now they are up 17-3, which looks like a nearly insurmountable lead as well as the Chicago defense is playing.

Shades of Dan Henning

Did you think the Panthers would stop running the draw on third-and-long -- or third-and-short, for that matter -- just because Dan Henning is gone?

Last year probably disabused you of that notion. The truth is that John Fox likes the play -- it's not just the offensive coordinators. Whether it's Jeff Davidson calling it or Henning, it's going to keep being called.

The Panthers used it a couple of times with bad results Sunday. On their final two possessions of the first half, Carolina started on the Chicago side of the 50 due to excellent Panther defense.

And both times, those drives ended with a whimper on unsuccessful draws -- on a third-and-15 from the Carolina 48 and a third-and-4 from the Chicago 17.

I understand the premise. The Bears are just killing Carolina's offensive line and keep bringing the heat, and Carolina feels like it has to slow the rush down. But c'mon.

Chicago leads, 10-3, at the half. Carolina is going to have to work hard to break double digits in this game if it keeps playing offensively like this. The Panthers have 47 total yards and two first downs -- total. That's decent work for one drive, but for one HALF? That's nasty.

8-minute drive for the Bears

Chicago's offense has sucked much of the life out of the Panthers' stadium at the moment. The Bears just marched on a 17-play, 84-yard drive that seemed to take a quarter and actually took 7 minutes, 51 seconds. Carolina finally held inside its own 10, so Chicago kicked a field goal and now leads 10-0, in the second quarter.

Da Bears look so far just like the team that manhandled Indy last week, while Carolina barely resembles the squad that upset San Diego.

It's really been all Chicago so far -- the Bears had a staggering 109-20 advantage in total yards after the first quarter. Because of a sack of Carolina's Jake Delhomme, the Panthers' passing yardage in the first quarter was negative-2.

Panthers make their first big play

It took about half an hour for Panthers fans to have much to cheer for at the Carolina-Chicago game.

The Bears started off with that punt block for a TD -- see previous blog -- and then Carolina's second offensive series short-circuited around midfield.

Chicago finally got the ball inside its own 10, and went all the way back inside its own 5, until Chicago's Brandon Lloyd beat Ken Lucas on a 32-yard gain (as thousands of fans in the stadium screamed in vain at Lucas: "Look around! Look around!")

Chicago got into field-goal position a little short of Carolina's 20 before Thomas Davis caused a fumble that Jon Beason picked up and returned 11 yards. That gave Carolina decent field position, but the Panthers' third drive just went nowhere, too. Carolina's offense has generally been terrible in its first 3 series -- it gets penalized about every third play, and Jake Delhomme has been under constant pressure.

With two minutes left in the first quarter, it's still Chicago 7, Carolina 0.

Bears BLOCK results in quick 7

Well, you might have thought the Chicago Bears would score on a punt return Sunday. But not quite this way.

We're only two minutes into the game at Bank of America Stadium, and Chicago already has a 7-0 lead. The Bears forced a 3-and-out from the Panthers on Carolina's first series, which sent Jason Baker on for a punt.

Baker, seeming to take an extra half-second with the dangerous Devin Hester back and ready to return, instead got his punt blocked and taken back for a score. Chicago's Darrell McClover, coming hard from the left side, totally blew by Nick Goings and got it cleanly. Chicago's Brandon Lloyd then caught the ball in the air and jogged in for a TD.

It seems like Darius Rucker, the lead singer for "Hootie and the Blowfish," just finished singing the national anthem. But Carolina is already down by a TD.

Lotsa Bear jerseys around

Chicago is one of those traditional NFL teams that has fans everywhere, including these guys. I saw a lot of Bears jerseys outside Bank of America Stadium Sunday morning while walking to the game -- here's a picture I took of two of them -- but not as many as you'll see here when the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers or the Dallas Cowboys are in town.

I like the way the guy in the Julius Peppers jersey here is studiously ignoring the Bears fans here, like they don't exist.

Drag racing notes

I went to my first set of drag races at Bruton Smith's new dragstrip Friday and Saturday in Concord. Setting aside the politics, it's pretty fun stuff. More intimate than NASCAR, by far. And louder. Because the crowd is about 1/5 as large as the ones at a NASCAR Cup race, it makes it a lot easier to get into and out of there, too.

I wrote a story for Sunday's newspaper about a guy they call "The Track Whisperer" because he can commune with quarter-mile dragstrips like no one else around. Here's the link.

The picture here is of Tony "The Sarge" Schumacher, who came into Concord having won six straight races in the Top Fuel division. That car just looks fast, doesn't it? Like a rocket.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thoughts on UNC 44, Rutgers 12

UNC's 44-12 win over Rutgers Thursday night was so impressive that surely it must be time to give Butch Davis another contract extension.

Ha! The Tar Heels got so much bad publicity the last time they did that, I'm just kidding, of course.

But this was an out-and-out whipping. That 20-game losing streak outside the state of North Carolina -- undoubtedly one of the most embarrassing numbers in UNC football history -- is finally history. Davis finally has a road win as UNC coach. The Brandon Tate-Hakeem Nicks combo looks like one of the ACC's best at wide receiver. That sort of win in front of a national TV audience won't hurt recruiting in baby-blue land, either.

My good friend Adam Lucas notes that UNC's new pants may have been a factor. Robbi Pickeral's game story that ran in The Charlotte Observer is here.

And suddenly, UNC's next game -- in Chapel Hill vs. Virginia Tech on Sept.20 -- looks a lot more interesting. Virginia Tech is obviously vulnerable. If the Tar Heels win that one, they may actually keep people's attention away from anticipating the start of men's basketball practice for the entire month of September.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More from the Moose

My column for Thursday's paper is on Muhsin "Moose" Muhammad, the Panthers' all-time leading receiver in almost every category.

There were a few quotes from Moose's meeting with the press Wednesday that didn't make it into my column but I thought you might like to hear. First of all, he says he doesn't regret going to Chicago in 2005, when he left the Panthers after nine years.

"It was a great experience," Muhammad said. "A learning experience. This is a volatile business. You never know where you’re going to be year to year. I thought I made the best decision at the time for my family and myself… We had a Super Bowl run up there [Moose has played on two teams that lost Super Bowls -- one in Chicago, one in Carolina). But I missed playing with Jake and with Smitty."

This will be the last game Steve Smith has to sit out in 2008 due to his two-game suspension for breaking Ken Lucas's nose, and Muhammad was honest about Smith's impact. "Steve makes a lot of big plays for us," Muhammad said. "He takes a short wide receiver screen and goes 70 or 80 yards."

Muhammad admitted no other Panther wide receiver likely had the speed to do that, but: "Guys are still catching balls," he said. "We have running backs making big runs and wide receivers making the plays they are supposed to make."

Moose also praised D.J. Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett for big catches over the middle last week against San Diego -- Hackett's went for 37 yards and Jarrett's 25. He said Smith might have taken both of those "to the house," however.

As for his former teammate Devin Hester, the Bears' dangerous receiver and return man, Muhammad said the best strategy was simple: Keep the ball away from him as much as possible.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A bit of national pub for Panthers

The Panthers' slow journey back toward the national spotlight has begun -- although that journey could quickly be derailed if they lose a couple in a row.

Fox Sports spokesman Dan Bell tells me that the Panthers-Bears game will now be broadcast to 25 percent of the country in the Sunday 1 p.m. time slot. That's up from 10 percent. The change came this week after the Panthers' and Bears' surprising wins over AFC powerhouses San Diego and Indianapolis, respectively, on Sunday.

And Fox Sports will send Pam Oliver to do a sitdown interview with Jake Delhomme this week in Charlotte that will result in a national feature on Delhomme to air Sunday on the Fox pregame show (noon to 1 p.m.) Bell said it will more likely air in the first 30 minutes of the show rather than the second.

That's just a trickle of national publicity, really, compared to what the Panthers have gotten before during their playoff runs (or compared to what East Carolina is rightfully getting now). The Panthers have become a very below-the-radar team in the last two years, however, and they are hardly on in prime time at all this season. It's understandable -- they've been a middle-of-the-road team without any superstars (not a single Pro Bowler in 2007).

It's worth noting, though, that a couple of the Panthers' late-season games in 2008 could be pushed into prime time if they continue to win. Not a likelihood by any means, but a possibility.

As for the announcers for Sunday, if you care about things like that, it's Sam Rosen on play-by-play, Tim Ryan on color analysis and Chris Myers from the sideline.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Jake's comebacks that didn't quite make my cut

In the wake of the Panthers' dramatic win on the final play over San Diego Sunday, I wrote a column for the Sept.9 Observer about what I consider Jake Delhomme's five best comebacks, in order. This doesn't include every Panther game, so there's no Steve Beuerlein draw at Green Bay in here. It's Delhomme-focused, so it only counts from 2003 onward. Here's the link.

But Delhomme has led a lot more last-minute drives than that. I gave preference on that list to degree of difficulty (i.e. Steve Smith being out of the lineup), the significance of the game (which is why the St. Louis double-OT playoff game remains No.1 for me) and scoring a TD at the end (because if Delhomme only got them in position for a field goal, then those victories ultimately came by John Kasay's left foot). I ultimately put Delhomme's debut game vs. Jacksonville in 2003 at No.2 and the just-completed San Diego game at No.3. I put the Super Bowl at No.4 and a 2004 win over Tampa Bay at No.5.

Here were Nos.6-8 -- the "almosts but not quites" in my book. If you've got any I've forgotten or games you think I've mis-ranked, feel free to join the conversation.

No.8: Oct.1, 2006, vs. New Orleans -- Delhomme directs a 91-yard drive in the fourth quarter to put Panthers ahead for good.

No.7: Dec.14, 2003 vs. Arizona -- On the road, with the Panthers trying to get out of a tailspin during their Super Bowl year, Delhomme took the Panthers 54 yards in the final 1:09 to set up a Kasay field goal that clinched the NFC South division title for Carolina.

No.6: Nov.9, 2003 vs. Tampa Bay -- I'll always remember this game because it was back when the Panthers did some cheesy "Fan of the Game" promotion and actually handed the fan the microphone to say something. In this case, the fan called out Tampa Bay's defense -- loudly -- and the Bucs responded by suddenly roaring to life and taking a 24-20 lead. Delhomme saved the fan's hide by completing 5-of-6 attempts for 78 yards in the game-winning drive. Smith scored the TD on a 5-yarder.

I seriously considered moving this game higher and hated to leave it out of the column, but the Top 5 picks were all pretty good games, too. And in this game (as opposed to the No.5) Delhomme had Smith on his side and uninjured.

Dante Rosario's secret identity revealed!

I've gotten several e-mails about this today and chuckled about each one. At the end of Carolina's 26-24 win over San Diego Sunday, Fox Sports put up a graphic entitled "UPS Leaderboard." There it displayed the Panthers' passing, rushing and receiving leaders -- standard practice for Fox Sports.

What was not standard was the fact that hot young actress Rosario Dawson was listed as the Panthers' leading receiver rather than Carolina tight end Dante Rosario, who had just caught the winning TD pass from Jake Delhomme. Oops! I talked to Fox Sports spokeman Dan Bell Monday afternoon. He said it was a "simple mistake" and apologized for it.

There's no connection between the two except their shared "Rosario" name. Does anyone else out there know of another famous or semi-famous "Rosario" that maybe Fox Sports could use the next time Dante Rosario does something good? Let me know. Sounds like the least Fox Sports could do as a "make-good" for this one is invite the actress Rosario to meet the football player Rosario at a Panther game at some point.

I looked up Rosario Dawson's movie career on imdb.com and have only seen one thing she's ever been in -- she was one of the stars of "Rent," the fantastic, rock-out Broadway play turned into a movie in 2005. On the positive side, her NFL career is apparently going very well.

Topsy turvy AFC

Who's going to win the AFC now? While those in Carolina are still celebrating the Panthers' last-second victory over San Diego, a lot more happened around the league than just that.

The top 3 teams in the AFC -- New England, Indianapolis and San Diego -- all suffered serious losses in Week 1. New England won but lost quarterback Tom Brady for the year, according to various media reports. Indianapolis took an absolute whipping courtesy of Chicago, the Panthers' next opponent. And San Diego... well, you know what happened there.

My new dark horse in the AFC to go with the Super Bowl? Pittsburgh. If Brady is truly out for the year, as it sounds like he is, I don't think New England will get there. Too early to rule Indy or San Diego out, of course, but the AFC balance of power certainly took a seismic shift Sunday.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

10 things I liked about Panthers' season opener

Welcome to "Scott Says," the online edition -- my new blog on all things related to sports in the Carolinas.

Let's get right to it -- here are the 10 things I liked the most about Carolina's dramatic 26-24 win over San Diego Sunday, which was decided on the final play of the game when Jake Delhomme drilled a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone:

Jake Delhomme is unable to get the team in the end zone all day and yet gets them there on the final play. The guy has always had serious mojo. Didn't this remind you of Delhomme's first-ever game as a Panther, when Carolina edged Jacksonville on the pass to Ricky Proehl at the very end?

2. Dante Rosario. Can you say Wesley Walls? This guy was the Panthers’ best receiver all day.

3. Chris Harris stripping the ball to cause a defensive touchdown. Harris gets burned occasionally in coverage, but no one can get the ball out like he can.

4. The Panthers’ “alternate” blue uniforms, which they should wear more often.

5. John Fox teams on the road. It’s been Fox’s trademark here through the years – his teams play far better on the road than at home. Can they continue this momentum in what should be a very winnable game against Chicago at home next Sunday?

6. DeAngelo Williams and the offensive line. I liked Stewart, too, but DeAngelo was superb.

7. The Panthers’ run defense against LT.

8. Muhsin Muhammad back in his familiar No.87.

9. Rhys Lloyd on kickoffs and John Kasay on field goals. If you don’t think that’s worth two roster spots, you’re crazy.

10. Scoring 26 points without Steve Smith in uniform. Even though seven came courtesy of a defensive touchdown, that’s very impressive. Just a superb effort for the Panthers today.

3 things I didn't like about the Panthers' opener

And now, following the 10 things I did like, here are three of the things I didn't like about the Panthers' season opener:

1. Carolina’s pass defense when it counted. Thanks to the offense, the Panthers got saved, but they allowed Philip Rivers to throw three TD passes – two of them in the fourth quarter.

2. D.J. Hackett losing that fumble that set up the Chargers’ last TD. Hackett also had some nice moments, but that one could have been a killer.

3. The call the Panthers came up with when going on it on fourth-and-goal from inside the San Diego 1 in the first quarter. Kudos to John Fox for going for it there, but a play-action pass when all you’ve talked about all season is running the ball better and being more physical? It served the Panthers right for Jake Delhomme's throw to fall incomplete.