Monday, January 31, 2011

Pick Fairley at No.1 -- or else trade the pick

I read with interest Joseph Person’s excellent story in Sunday's Charlotte Observer on former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who is one of the Panthers’ candidates for the No.1 overall pick in April.

Are there questions about Fairley? Sure. Always have been, it sounded like. The guy has a couple of major red flags – a grade-changing scandal (which he says he wasn’t aware of) in high school, and a reputation as a dirty player in college (based on the highlights, this one has some merit). Plus, he really only had one big-time season in college – in 2010, when he was thoroughly dominant. In 2009, he really didn’t do much at Auburn.

Is all that enough to pass on Fairley?

Absolutely not.

The Panthers no longer have a great option at No.1 since Stanford QB Andrew Luck decided to stay in school. But to me, Fairley has the slight lead at the moment to be the “best-available” option at No.1 – if the Panthers can’t find a good deal to trade the pick, which to me should be a very viable option at this point considering that the team’s depth is too far down at several positions.

But if no trade works out, right now I’d pick Fairley. Remember Kris Jenkins in his best years at Carolina, before he got too fat and his knees could no longer support that enormous body? He could be an ornery teammate, but he made life so much easier for everyone else, because he either took up two blockers on every play or he disrupted things.

Fairley reminds me of Jenkins, who had his own baggage but was so important to the Panthers’ Super Bowl run in 2003. I’d pick him over Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers. I’d do that in part because the Panthers need DT help more than DE help and partly because unless you’re just a great DE, you can be taken out of a game a little easier than a DT (who is right in the middle of the defense) can.

So I’d say right now, about three months before the draft and noting that stuff can always happen in those three months, here’s where I am on No.1: Either pick Fairley or trade it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More from Dale Jr (including his Super Bowl pick)

I wrote a lengthy column today on Dale Earnhardt Jr., concentrating on his race for relevance in 2011 (and also about the 10-year anniversary of his father's death, which came at the Daytona 500 in 2001). Here's the link.

I couldn't get quite all I wanted into the column, so here are 3 odds and ends I picked up and wanted to share:

1) Earnhardt, a diehard NFL fan, picked the Packers and Steelers to make the Super Bowl at the beginning of the playoffs in some sort of contest. He now picks Green Bay to win it all and says he is a great admirer of Packer QB Aaron Rodgers.

2) Earnhardt was quite adamant about the fact that the races at Pocono are too long. I got into this only briefly in the column, but here's the full quote from Dale Jr. "Then you go to Pocono, and it's entirely too long, obviously," Dale Jr. said. "It's an obvious, glaring issue with everyone that's there -- but it's like this huge, pink elephant that nobody wants to talk about. Obviously, maybe there was some kind of a guarantee or promise made in the deal years ago, and it's something they won't change."

On the same subject, Earnhardt also said he thought shorter races were far more likely than a shorter season.
"It's so challenging [to cut the NASCAR season]," Earnhardt said. "There is tons of money involved and tons of livelihoods involved -- and people's careers and opportunities are involved. So I don't believe we'll ever see a shorter season. But I do believe that in my lifetime I will see the shorter races across the board at 80 or 75 percent of the events."

3) Earnhardt's friend Tony Stewart said earlier in the week that his friend Dale Jr. "has always been under pressure. It’s just a matter of him delivering. Every time you add a different crew chief and it doesn’t work out, it’s that much more pressure on him." Earnhardt has another new crew chief this year -- Steve Letarte -- as he tries to improve on last season's 21st-place overall finish.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

NASCAR doesn't do enough with points system

I was afraid of this, and sure enough it has happened: NASCAR's new points system looks way too much like the old one.

The scoring is simplified, yes -- the base points will be awarded on a 43-to-1 basis, giving 43 points to the winner in the field, 42 to second place and so on, down until 1 point for the 43rd (and last)-place finisher.

But as I wrote last week in The Charlotte Observer, you have to have a serious number of bonus points attached to first place to ensure drivers risk everything to get there in the final laps.

I suggested 25 extra bonus points for the winner.

NASCAR went with three.

It's just not enough, even though NASCAR will award a bonus point to anyone who leads a lap and one more to whomever leads the most laps. With a maximum of 48 points per race, that's just not enough separation between first and second and third and on down the line. It values consistency more than winning, which has always been the problem.

On the other hand, NASCAR made a positive move by allowing the final two spots in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship to go to the drivers with the most wins who weren't already in the Top 10. So that mitigates this a little, given that those drivers who win but have more up-and-down results can still make the Chase.

Still, it's not enough. If you're going to change the points system, you really need to change the points system, and not just make it simpler to deal with but still with the same inherent problem that winning doesn't count for enough.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On Panthers, Oscars and "Smoke"

A couple of notes on another gray January day:

1) Looks like the Panthers are getting busy vetting Auburn DT Nick Fairley, according to our own Joe Person who is on the Senior Bowl scene in Mobile, Ala. I know Fairley has a rep as a dirty player, but it will be hard to not pick him at No.1 (if Carolina keeps the pick, that is) after that unbelievable performance in the national title-game win over Oregon. Fairley was ridiculously good in that game. Check out the "Inside the Panthers" blog for more of Joe's reports from Mobile.

With a No.1 pick, though, I really prefer in general terms a QB or RB -- someone you can give the ball to a whole lot without the other team dictating anything. Not sure anyone on the board is worth No.1 money, though, now that Stanford's Andrew Luck has decided to stay in school.

2) My column today was about NASCAR driver Tony "Smoke" Stewart, who had his latest altercation in Australia but still seems to be carving out a bit of a role as an elder statesman in the sport these days. Stewart turns 40 in May -- does that make you feel old? It does me.

3) How many of the best-picture nominees of 2010 have you seen? They were announced today. I'm also wondering which of them you would put on a "can't-miss" list.

I'm just looking for personal recommendations here, as I've only seen 3 of the 10("Inception," "The Kids Are all Right" and "Toy Story 3".) Here's the full list of the 10 best-picture nominees for 2010. I know I'm going to see "The Fighter," but does anyone else have thoughts on this list as to whether the movies have generally been overrated or underrated?

Best Picture Nominees
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Sunday, January 23, 2011

An early Super Bowl prediction

That was a fine Sunday of football, if you didn't have a rooting interest and are talking strictly about the game played at a high level by four very good teams.

I don't have a rooting interest, so I was free to watch "Championship Sunday" objectively and came away believing that the two teams that were clearly the best won the NFC and AFC title contests. Neither Green Bay nor Pittsburgh ever trailed in their respective championship games, and both of them earned the right to play in the Super Bowl Feb.6 in Texas -- Green Bay beating Chicago 21-14, and Pittsburgh holding off the Jets, 24-19, after nearly losing all of a 24-0 lead.

My pick for the 45th Super Bowl? Pittsburgh, 20-16.

I think the teams are close to even, but to me the Steelers' version of the blitz-happy, in-your-face, 3-4 defense is slightly better than the Packers' version of the same thing.

And despite how well Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers has been playing throughout most of these playoffs, there's not much sense in picking against Big Ben Roethlisberger in big games.

Big Ben's stats were thoroughly unimpressive Sunday (only 10 completions and two interceptions) but he still made the biggest play of that game with the third-and-6 rollout completion late that kept the Jets, trailing by only five, from getting the ball one last time.

If it turns out the other way, I'll be happy for Dom Capers. The Panthers' first coach is now Green Bay's defensive coordinator and has done a terrific job there. Would be glad to see him get the ring, for Capers is a great guy.

But I think the Steelers (6-for-7 in previous Super Bowl appearances) will win the big game for the third time in Roethlisberger's tenure as starting QB. You can understand why Panthers owner Jerry Richardson says he tries hard to model his franchise after the one the Rooneys run in Pittsburgh -- although the Panthers have been nothing more than a pale imitation of the Steelers for the past couple of years -- because the Steelers have done it the right way for a long, long time.

Incidentally, the ticket scalpers have to be really happy about this one. Pittsburgh and Green Bay are two of the NFL's most storied franchises and boast incredibly rabid fan bases. Even in this economy, I can't imagine the markup the seats in Texas are going to get.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Bobcats-Miami playoff series??

We're only halfway through the season, but if it ended today, guess what the playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference would include:

No.7 seed Charlotte (17-24) vs. No.2 seed Miami (30-13)

Here are the current NBA standings if you want to take a closer look.

By virtue of last night's home win over Philadelphia fueled by point guard D.J. Augustin's 31 points, Charlotte leapfrogged a couple of teams and currently holds the No.7 spot in the East. That's exactly where the Bobcats ended up last season, when No.2 seed Orlando swept them right out of the playoffs in four straight games.

Facing the LeBron-D.Wade-Bosh trio in a first-round series would end up as another first-round exit out of the playoffs almost certainly, but it sure would be entertaining. (The two teams also play Feb.4th here in Charlotte).

Looking at these standings also reminds me that as many problems as the Bobcats have had this season -- and there have been a ton, from the firing of Larry Brown to last night's announcement that Tyrus Thomas will be out 8 weeks with a knee injury -- they are still very much in the playoff picture.

The Eastern Conference has divided itself into 5 teams with 27 or more wins at the season's approximate halfway mark (Boston, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando).

The other 11 teams are scrabbling around, well below those numbers, hoping to make something happen. Charlotte remains in that mix, but as I wrote in my blog yesterday (see the item after this one), only a big-time move like a trade for Carmelo Anthony or a major draft-pick coup will get this Bobcats' team to move from the "have-not" category to the "haves." These guys may well make the playoffs, but they will be very hard-pressed to win more than one game when and if they get there.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On Shula, Carmelo and Silas

3 mid-week thoughts:

1) The Panthers would pull off a minor coup if they hire Mike Shula for an assistant coaching job, which they are considering doing. I've been around Shula a number of times -- I covered three of his father Don's teams as a beat writer for the Miami Herald in the early 1990s -- and Mike is smart and tough and one of the most likable guys you'll ever meet. The guy was a quarterback at Alabama and later the head coach at Alabama. And although he ultimately got fired from that job, he has since had a productive NFL career as an assistant. This is a move that should be made.

2) So the Nets' multi-billionaire Russian owner suddenly called off talks with Carmelo Anthony Tuesday, then announced that decision in a rather surreal and bilingual news conference.

You know what I'd do if I'm Bobcats owner Michael Jordan? Try to swoop in.
I know it's a longshot -- and there have been reports that MJ has already tried this before and been rejected by Carmelo's people -- but maybe the dynamics have changed. Carmelo is one of the league's purest scorers, and he'd be worth giving up a whole, whole lot to get. And until the Bobcats make some sort of move like this, they're never going to get beyond being a No.7 or No.8 seed in the playoffs (if that, this year). Go for Carmelo. Make the call to Denver. And then make the call again -- because with the Nets out, and even though Carmelo's preferred destination is New York, just maybe there's a sliver of possibility there.

3) I totally agree with Paul Silas telling his players that they've simply got to stop complaining about the officiating in Rick Bonnell's excellent blog on the topic. While Stephen Jackson has toned it down a little over the past month, and that's a good thing, his teammates seem to have more than made up for that with their own complaining judging by the Bobcats' dubious number of technical fouls. This was a longtime Larry Brown complaint -- that his players complained too much -- and now Silas is realizing how deep-seated this problem really is.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Some thoughts on Rivera's coaching hires

A couple of thoughts on Ron Rivera and his new Panther staff, which is coming together pretty quickly now...

The hiring of Rob Chudzinski, detailed in this story here by Darin Gantt, was key. I like the fact that the Panthers, despite developing their own list of offensive coordinator candidates, allowed Rivera to go after his first choice here. If you're going to cook the meal, you better get to buy the groceries, as Bill Parcells once said about another NFL matter.

Did you notice what the fewest number of points scored was among the 8 playoff teams last weekend? It was 21. All the losing teams scored at least 21, and the winners were generally a lot higher than that.

But "21" was nothing but a dream for the Panthers last season, who averaged exactly one offensive TD per game. Carolina was the NFL's worst team in points and yardage in 2010. And while the NFL used to be a league where you could win a number of games in the 16-13 range, that's not true anymore. You better be scoring in the low to mid-20s nowadays to secure wins -- Carolina averaged 12.25 points per game in 2010.

New defensive coordinator Sean McDermott sounds promising, too, and here's Joe Person's story about that. But McDermott's importance is not at the same level as Chudzinski's. It appears the Panthers are going to blitz more now, which is a fine thing, but they would have done that with Rivera directing the team regardless of who he hired as DC.

But the offense? It needs an overhaul. Chudzinski will have the chance to provide it -- but first he and Rivera are going to have to decide on what they're going to do at QB. I remain committed to the idea that Jimmy Clausen is not the answer -- not in 2011, not in 2012, not in any season. But who is? Good question. Matt Moore posted a blog today saying he hoped to be back in Carolina in 2011, but I don't really see that happening.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Good for Fox (but for Broncos?)

I'm glad to see John Fox get another NFL head-coaching job so quickly.

Fox is a good man who had a bad ending with the Panthers. I don't think he's a great coach, but he's a good coach and I think he could possibly be great if he lets himself go a little bit in this job. I don't know if his personality will allow that, however, which means the Broncos could be destined for a lot of 8-8s.

Like Ron Rivera, Fox's most important hire will be his offensive coordinator -- and then letting the guy have a little more free rein. Tim Tebow is a unique talent, but Fox could certainly stifle him if he puts him in the same outdated offense Carolina used last year. Let's just say I don't think Jeff Davidson is going to get either job.

I believe John Elway made this call in Denver -- from what I hear, owner Pat Bowlen is letting Elway pretty much run the football side of things there now. I love that Elway has a Twitter account and has been using it to post newsy announcements (all about the coaching search, that the Broncos weren't going to trade Tebow and so on).

It's a step into the 21st century for Elway, who never has been afraid of taking chances. Can you imagine Marty Hurney with a Twitter account?! Or Fox, for that matter? It'll be interesting to see how that Elway-Fox relationship evolves.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Rivera, Henderson and an interesting day

Radio stations are often doing "two-fer" Tuesdays, playing two songs by one artist in a row. I had my own small version of that Tuesday, writing live columns on the Bobcats' Gerald Henderson and new Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

The day began with Henderson -- I was planning on writing about his recent surge anyway. I went to the Charlotte Bobcats' practice Tuesday and talked to the former Duke star, along with new Bobcats coach Paul Silas and teammate Gerald Wallace. Silas already trusts Henderson more than Larry Brown ever did, and you can see that evidence on-court.

That was going to be my only column of the day until the Panthers finalized the deal with Rivera, who impressed me with the intensity he exuded at his 5 p.m. news conference. I hurried to finish up the Henderson story, then bolted over to that news conference (which was a lot bigger success than Jerry Richardson's rambling but informative discourse the week before).

Here's one thing Rivera said that I didn't get into my column about him but that I liked:

"I really firmly believe that you are a role model… You’ve got to carry a bit of responsibility. That’s what we are going to ask of our players, when they are out in this community, that they carry themselves the way Carolina Panthers should carry themselves."

That, to me, sounds like a coach who's not going to brook a lot of nonsense when his players misbehave. The Panthers have been good at taking this approach anyway -- i.e. Dwayne Jarrett being released after his second DWI -- but it's good to see it's going to continue.

I think Rivera can scare a few players into better work habits, and that's definitely needed on a team that went 2-14 in 2010.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

3 quick impressions of Rivera

New Carolina Panther coach Ron Rivera just completed his news conference over at Bank of America Stadium. It was the first time I and many other folks ever heard him talk at any length, and he was impressive.

3 quick thoughts about Rivera in advance of my column to be published in tomorrow's newspaper (UPDATE -- here's a link to that column):

1) He's intense. When Rivera was speaking, it almost seemed like there was an electric current humming through the room. He didn't joke a lot. There was a laser-like focus to most everything he said and he was extremely well-prepared. I walked out of the room wondering why Rivera, 49, hadn't already gotten a head-coaching job somewhere.

2) He's going to make changes. Rivera's first order of business is to get his new coaching staff in place. But he has already studied the Panthers' roster at length and knows there are places -- particularly at quarterback, as he mentioned several times -- where Carolina must get better performance. Rivera didn't sound like someone who would stand pat, or who would tolerate half-hearted or ineffective performance at any position.

3) He's a former player, and don't you forget it. Rivera mentioned this repeatedly, and I understand that -- it's an integral part of who he is. It's part of why he and owner Jerry Richardson bonded so well, according to Richardson. For the first time, the Panthers have a head coach who has some of his own "NFL player war stories" to share, and that automatically gives you a bigger stick in a pro locker room. As a former teammate of Walter Payton and Mike Singletary and a player under Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, Rivera obviously has his share.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What would Rivera be like as a coach?

I'm working on a column for Tuesday's newspaper and online about Ron Rivera, the San Diego defensive coordinator who has emerged as the frontrunner for the Carolina Panthers' head-coaching job.

Rivera looks like he will be the guy, barring a last-minute snag. So I've been reading up on him, trying to fill in some biographical details. Here are a few of the things I've found out (and here's a link to the full column, now posted):

-- Rivera, 49, played for nine years for the Chicago Bears as a linebacker, including on the 1985 Bears team that was one of the best of all time. Former teammate Walter Payton gave him a key recommendation to get Rivera’s foot in the door as a Bears’ assistant many years ago.

-- Rivera comes from a military family. He has three brothers and the family lived a somewhat nomadic life, including a stint in Germany. His heritage is both Puerto Rican (his father’s side) and Mexican (his mother’s). He was such a heady player that in high school his head coach has been quoted as saying he used to let Rivera call the defenses on the field.

-- Rivera’s wife Stephanie is a basketball coach. She was once an assistant in the WNBA and has lately been coaching on the high-school level in California. So they are a “two-coach” family, and some girls’ basketball team in the Charlotte area may get an overqualified coach pretty soon.

-- As a coach, Rivera is not a screamer. Those who know him describe him as calm under pressure. He has described himself as a “nitpicker.” A film-study junkie since high school, he is a longtime perfectionist. Rivera’s defenses haven’t been perfect, of course. The Chargers were No.1 in yardage allowed in 2010 among all defenses. But in two critical late-season losses, that defense gave up 251 yards rushing to Oakland and four TD passes to a Cincinnati team missing Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. Not coincidentally, San Diego missed the playoffs this season.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why Luck really stayed

Andrew Luck has always been sort of unconventional.

Picking Stanford -- when you're a highly-sought high school quarterback playing in the "Friday Night Lights" of Texas -- was unconventional. Especially given Stanford had just gone 1-11, and when you had offers from a whole lot of other places.

Now Luck has picked Stanford again -- this time over the instant riches assured by being the No.1 draft pick, which Carolina would have made him. Luck just completed his redshirt sophomore year at Stanford, throwing four TD passes in Stanford's 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl Monday night.

I talked to Luck's father, Oliver Luck, by phone about the decision Thursday afternoon (and here's a link to my column from Friday morning, which goes in-depth into this conversation). Oliver Luck said it mostly boiled down to Luck wanting "at least one more year with his guys" -- his Stanford teammates, whom Luck wants to win a Pac-10 championship with.

Oliver Luck said his son also wanted to graduate before he left school, which is what he is on track to do by the spring of 2012. "It's kind of old-school, I know, but he went to college with the idea of not leaving until he got a degree," said Oliver Luck, who is the athletic director at West Virginia and a former NFL quarterback himself.

Oliver Luck also stressed -- and I asked him several times -- that the fact that his son would have ended up in Carolina had he declared early for the draft had "absolutely nothing to do with this decision." Jerry Richardson's news conference Tuesday, the Panthers' horrible 2010 season -- none of it mattered.

To hear the father tell it, the son barely even talked about the impending lockout, much less what team he would end up on. "Those external factors were just not that important to him," Luck said. "He wanted to go back to Stanford."

Believe me, this was a bigger loss than any of the 14 the Panthers suffered this season to get that No.1 pick. Whenever Andrew Luck does come out, he's going to be special.

But the Panthers haven't had much right happen in the past couple of years, and now here's another example that was totally out of their control. Luck wants to stay. He should complete his degree in the spring of 2012 as a fourth-year junior, and so I'll betcha he does leave Stanford a year early (although the father said they would make that a separate decision a year from now).

Silver lining? If there's no NFL season at all in 2011, the Panthers would then apparently hold the No.1 pick in the 2012 draft, too, and Luck will likely be available for that one.

But few people expect the entire season to be lost, and of course by then the Panthers may have taken Cam Newton or Jake Locker or Ryan Mallett or Blaine Gabbert, and you really can't invest two straight high first-round draft choices on QB with so many other needs. (On the other hand, if Carolina doesn't take a QB and plays Jimmy Clausen again in 2011, then maybe they will end up with that No.1 pick one more time).

But it's such a longshot -- look, Panther fans need to face it. If it weren't for bad Luck, they'd have no Luck at all... gloom, despair and agony on them. (And if you know what TV show that lyric is from, you're a true Southerner).

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

3 random Panther thoughts

As the Panthers' coaching search kicks into gear and the dust settles from Jerry Richardson's rare press conference Tuesday, here are 3 random Panther thoughts:

1) Thank goodness a Ryan is getting involved in the Panthers' coaching search. Rob Ryan will get a look from the Panthers, whose four known candidates are all current NFL defensive coordinators. Wow, way to think out of the box, guys. Actually, though, Ryan is thinking a bit out of the box -- given the way Rex and Buddy do things, you just know Rob would be fun.

2) If you missed my final column on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck -- whom the Panthers plan to take with the No.1 pick if he comes out -- you can find it here. I analyze Luck in the column and predict that Luck will ultimately come out, but I'm not at all sure about that. On the other hand, I'm very sure Jim Harbaugh isn't coming back to coach Stanford, which I think will help Luck make up his mind to leave.

3) I wonder if Panther president Danny Morrison has ever been at a press conference before and never been asked a question. Richardson joked during the conference that Morrison's free pass with the Panthers is over because he's now involved in the coaching search -- but with Richardson holding court, it lasted at least one more day. I doubt Morrison minded, though.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

5 thoughts on Richardson's newsy press conference

Ah, the wonders of the Internet.
I was still in Fort Lauderdale, awaiting a flight back from Monday night’s Orange Bowl, when the Panthers held their 11 a.m. news conference Tuesday. But I was able to watch Panther owner Jerry Richardson take questions from my colleagues over the Internet. Here are five quick thoughts on what I thought was a rather extraordinary 30 minutes, as Richardson, 74, so rarely graces the media with his presence:

1) Richardson was really feisty.
From forcing one TV reporter he wanted to tease to sit in the front row to drawing on his legal pad to explain how the owners are getting the short end of the NFL money stick to telling the room he was likely going to live a lot longer than they think he will, Richardson was combative, funny and opinionated. I was really glad to see all three of those characteristics – that’s Richardson at his best. Health-wise, he’s obviously feeling good. There were a few uncomfortable moments in the press conference, but by and large I thought Richardson got his points across.

2) Richardson (and Panthers general manager Marty Hurney) seemed committed to hiring an NFL assistant coach as their next head coach.
So forget Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh (who won’t care, as he has tons of other options). Forget any other collegiate coach. Forget Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher or Brian Billick. It looks like the next John Fox of 2002 is coming down the pike, whether it’s Perry Fewell, Ron Rivera or whomoever. And Hurney said the search would be done “expeditiously” – I’m betting it is over in the next 5-10 days.
Hiring an established NFL assistant won’t sell tickets, but it has worked (sort of) for Carolina twice in the past with Fox and Dom Capers.

3) Richardson’s reputation as a hard-line owner is not misplaced.
When he talked about the players’ union representatives, you could almost see fire coming out of the owner’s nostrils. When he said the union reps told the owners they wanted “more money, more benefits and we want to work less,” same thing. When he said he “wasn’t optimistic” that much progress was being made toward a new collective-bargaining agreement, you got the sense that Richardson will be stunned if there is an agreement before the early March lockout date.

4) Richardson hates being called cheap.
One of the more interesting numbers he mentioned: $11,441,000, which is apparently what the total payroll for all the recently-departed Panther coaches was for 2010. Richardson said this was the fifth-highest coaching payroll in the league, and he acted like he would write all those checks again – if he could get back-to-back winning seasons, which the Panthers have never had. (Richardson also indicated he didn’t think the Panthers would trade away the No.1 draft pick of 2011, which is a bonus for those like me who think Andrew Luck could be the next Peyton Manning).

5) Richardson’s succession plan is still very much in flux.
While the owner said his new heart should keep him around for a long time, he also revealed he owns 48 percent of the team and his 14 partners own the other 52 percent. He said he plans to own the team until he dies – “I intend to own the team as long as I live” was the quote -- but beyond then what happens?
Richardson wouldn’t say, saying he was focused more on the short term. I wonder what sons Mark and Jon Richardson thought while they were watching this press conference.

What Luck, Harbaugh said postgame

Stanford's two biggest football names -- coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck -- didn't address their uncertain futures in any depth in the aftermath of their team's 40-12 demolition of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl Monday night. (Here's my column on the game).

Luck said he wouldn't make an "impulsive" decision on whether to stay or go before the NFL's Jan.15th deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft. When pressed a little, the redshirt sophomore said: "I think there are a lot of worse decisions you might have to make in life. I don't know. I don't mean to be rude but I'd rather not address that subject anymore. I'd like to enjoy the night."

The first question Harbaugh got in his postgame press conference (which I attended after watching Luck play in person for the first time) was whether he had coached his last game at Stanford.

That question obviously irritated Harbaugh, who replied: "Oh, please, please, give me a break! You know, have some respect for the game. It's about the performance tonight of these players, and I love them. Let's talk about them." Later, Harbaugh deflected another attempt at a similar question, saying, "I'd just rather enjoy the moment."

Luck threw four TD passes in Stanford's win, in which the Cardinal outscored Virginia Tech 27-0 in the second half. All four TD passes were to tight ends, and all covered at least 25 yards.

He made throws off his back foot, in traffic, on the run.... In other words, Luck did nothing to dissuade the projections of him getting picked No.1 overall if he comes out. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards, one interception and the four TDs. (By comparison, Jimmy Clausen never threw for even 200 yards in a single NFL game this season, and he had three touchdown passes the entire year. I know it's a different level of competition, but still).

The Panthers, of course, hold the No.1 draft pick of 2011 by virtue of their horrible 2-14 record in 2010.

But it remains unclear whether Luck will leave. He loves college and seems genuinely torn about the decision. I talked to one highly respected NFL front-office type Monday night after the game. This guy usually knows everything, but he said he wasn't sure at all that Luck would come out.

Harbaugh is generally considered very likely to leave – either to coach the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Michigan Wolverines (his alma mater), Carolina Panthers or some other mystery team. The guy is about to get some serious offers and has more options on the table than Luck, whose decision boils down to "stay or go."

It should be interesting. But nothing got decided Monday night, except that No.5 Stanford (12-1) was a whole, whole lot better than ACC champion Virginia Tech (11-3).

Stanford fans chanted "One more year! One more year!" at Luck as he accepted the trophy for being the game's Most Outstanding Player, but whether he gives them that or gives Panther fans what they desperately want is still very much up in the air.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Harbaugh, Luck and the Orange Bowl

In case you haven't noticed -- and don't worry if you haven't, I know you've got a lot of things going on -- I've been down in south Florida the past few days writing stories about Andrew Luck, Jim Harbaugh and Virginia Tech in anticipation of tonight's Orange Bowl.

Here's a link to the Harbaugh story, which was published today.

Here's a link to the Andrew Luck story, which was published Sunday.

I am staying in Miami tonight to cover the Orange Bowl itself -- it should be a great battle between Tech's Tyrod Taylor and Luck, who will likely be the No.1 draft pick of 2011 (and you know who holds that pick) if he decides to come out.

I've learned a lot about both Luck and Harbaugh while in Florida. Ultimately, I don't think they're both going to end up as Carolina Panthers -- one as the quarterback, the other as coach -- although the idea is so intriguing. An online betting service listed the odds of that happening as 5-1 the other day, and that's about right.

For one thing, Harbaugh has too many options. Apparently, new Denver Broncos VP (and former Stanford star) John Elway is going to be in Miami tonight and will want to talk to Harbaugh about the Broncos job as soon as this game is done.

And then there's the 49ers -- Harbaugh wouldn't even have to uproot his family to take that job. And then there's Michigan -- Rich Rodriguez isn't technically fired yet, although that's got to be coming. And then there's the fact that Panthers GM Marty Hurney would apparently prefer to hire an established NFL coordinator type -- in other words, what John Fox was in 2002 -- rather than a college head coach.

I don't think Harbaugh will stay at Stanford, but of course that's a possibility as well.

Luck's decision is simpler -- stay or go. He doesn't have as many options as Harbaugh, but the path is complicated, too. He has to worry about the NFL lockout -- what if there is no 2011 season, but he comes out and then doesn't get to play anywhere? This, I believe, may be Luck's biggest fear about the whole thing.

In any case, much more to come -- I'll have coverage of Luck, Harbaugh and Virginia Tech up to and including in Wednesday's Charlotte Observer newspaper.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

5 things I didn't like in Atlanta's 31-10 win over Panthers

I wasn't in Atlanta for John Fox's final game as a Panther head coach, but after reading about it and watching a number of video highlights, I feel like I've seen it before.

I think I saw it three weeks ago, in fact, when Atlanta beat Carolina by an identical 31-10 score. Atlanta led 21-0 at halftime Sunday and 17-0 at halftime three weeks ago when the two teams met. I sense a pattern.

So now, an abbreviated "5 things" blog, just because it's tradition, and then we're off this season and onto whatever comes next, which absolutely has to be better than what just happened.

5 things I didn't like:

1) Jimmy Clausen. Not much help as usual, but still... he never threw for 200 yards in a single game all season, and he ends the year with three TD passes to his own guys and two TD passes to the other guys.

2) Jonathan Stewart. His recent surge officially ended, with 13 carries for a pedestrian 31 yards.

3) Punt coverage. On the Falcons' 55-yard punt return, it was like 7 Panthers all ran down in an exact same line, and then when the Falcons broke through it, it was over. It was the "Red Rover, Red Rover" version of special teams.

4) Lack of a mercy rule. Once again, a Panther game could have used one. If you watched every play of this one, you are a true junkie.

5) Pass defense. Matt Ryan dissected the Panthers -- again. That secondary is going to need some remaking this offseason.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Andrew Luck's biggest hit

Watch the above clip to see Andrew Luck delivers one of the hardest hits you will ever see a quarterback dish out.

I wrote a long piece on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck for Sunday's newspaper and online that you can see here, trying to give Carolina Panther fans an inside look at the quarterback and his background in case he does end up declaring early for the NFL draft and becoming the Panthers' No.1 pick.

The piece mentions in a couple of places some punishing hits that Luck doled out -- one while he had the ball and was running and one when he tackled an opposing cornerback who had recovered a fumble. The first one is at the top of this blog -- the second one is here and also well worth a look as Luck runs over a California safety.

And if you're really wanting a deep look at Luck highlights, here's an 8-minute video Stanford put together about him as part of his Heisman Trophy candidacy (he finished second, to Auburn's Cam Newton).

Luck says that "99.999 percent" of the time quarterbacks are the ones who are taking the hits so he "relishes" the opportunity to give them out.

Of course, Luck is ultra-smart, too -- he has 350 variations of plays on the wristband he wears, and knows them all very well, his coaches say. He's 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, has a rocket arm... I could go on and on, and many people do. Everyone who comes to watch him says he's about as NFL-ready as they come.

But those hits? To me, they don't just mean Luck is big. They mean he's a football player, and the sort of leader that his teammates will follow anywhere. Some NFL team -- and I hope it is the Panthers, because it would be so darn interesting -- is going to be very lucky to get him.

Note to readers: I'm still in Florida, where I'm working on a story on Jim Harbaugh (a future candidate for the Panthers' coaching job?) that will come out in Monday's newspaper and online. I will not be blogging during the Panthers-Falcons game -- however, I will contribute a "5 things" blog at some point after the game.