Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on Rivera

I've written about new Panthers coach Ron Rivera before, but in today's newspaper and online I have taken my first in-depth look at him (you can read it here).

First impressions: Rivera is intense, egalitarian, no-nonsense and personable. Certainly any first-year coach is going to have some sort of honeymoon period, but I will say this: Fans who care about the Panthers should be happy Rivera is here for a number of reasons. One of the big ones is this: He actually answers questions, which means fans will have a better idea what is going on with this team than they ever did in the John Fox era.

Fox would never admit to being surprised by anything. If aliens had landed on the 50-yard line at Wofford, he would have said he wasn't surprised. Rivera has none of that world-weary, "I've-seen-it-all-and-you-haven't-and-never-would-understand" demeanor, which is refreshing from a media standpoint of course but I think also will serve him well with the players.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Panther first-night practice notes

A few first-day Panther practice notes from my observations at Wofford:

-- Watch new Panther tight end Greg Olsen face a football passing machine for five minutes and you realize it's a mismatch. I've seen numerous receivers work with the machines, which fire footballs at you from a distance of 7-10 yards. I've never seen a tight end catch the ball any better than Olsen -- nonchalantly and one-handed with either hand. Talk about a nice safety valve for Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton -- Olsen is going to make a big impact.

-- Fans at Wofford for the Panthers' first official practice made no secret as to some of their favorites. They cheered lustily every time Newton threw a ball that was completed and every time Armanti Edwards caught a punt and jogged back with it. DeAngelo Williams got a big cheer when he ran onto the field, which he acknowledged with a wave.

-- I saw my first Newton No.1 jersey on my first kid Saturday night at practice. Somehow I doubt it will be the last.

-- Clausen took the snaps with the first offensive unit during the first drill, just like it should be. Whether he's doing that a month from now remains to be seen.

-- Steve Smith dressed like he was ready for 30-degree weather, with a long-sleeve undershirt under his jersey and long tights under his shorts. Seriously? Smith looked quick nevertheless.

-- The most legible of the many autographs given out last night was signed by Sir Purr, who somehow can make a work of art with a Sharpie while signing inside a mascot costume.

Olindo Mare on replacing Kasay

Olindo Mare met with the media Saturday in Spartanburg and was impressive. He is slated to replace kicker John Kasay, the Panther fan favorite who was the last remaining original Panther from the original 1995 team.

Mare said he wasn't going to try and replace exactly what Kasay was in the community and with fans, just that he wanted to be himself and do what he has done in his own career. Like Kasay, 41, the 38-year-old Mare has been around the NFL block numerous times. He was hired because his leg strength is better than Kasay's and he can boom kickoffs into the end zone -- Kasay was still an extremely accurate kicker, but had not kicked off for the Panthers for the past three years.

Mare had 20 touchbacks on kickoffs last season. With the NFL moving kickoffs up to the 35 rather than the 30 this season, he said he hoped to "double" that to 40. He also predicted that the amount of touchbacks would go way up throughout the league, especially in domed stadiums, and said he understood that many fans may be frustrated because the kickoff return will be minimized as an impact play.

"And I think that's one of the most exciting plays in football," Mare said. The NFL made the change realizing that, but since kickoff returns also include a number of full-fledged collisions, moved the kickoff back to the 35 in the name of player safety.

One thing I didn't know about Mare: Oddly enough, he has lived in Mooresville for about the past five years. He's from Miami, his wife is from New York and they picked Mooresville as a place that was in between the two. So he doesn't have to buy a house in the Charlotte area with the $4-million signing bonus he received -- Mare already has one.

More on Mare in Sunday's Charlotte Observer and online.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Smith on Smith: Always entertaining

Steve Smith showed up as scheduled at training camp in Spartanburg today, one day after the news broke that he had decided he wanted to play for the Panthers and not try to force a trade.

Smith was in a reflective mood, saying he had been an "ass" and acted immaturely too often in his career with the Panthers. That career has included four Pro Bowls and 60 touchdowns (most in team history). But it also has included Smith striking two teammates at separate times in his career and several other temperamental outbursts.

"You have to admit that pretty much that I made an ass out of myself for a long time here by letting my emotions get the best of me," Smith said Friday in front of the players' dorm at Wofford College. (My column on Smith in today's newspaper can be found here).

Smith said he and rookie quarterback Cam Newton have been working out privately with each other as recently as a week ago. Why Newton and not Jimmy Clausen?

Smith said because Clausen has been on the West Coast, where he's from, most of the time. But it's obvious that Smith and Newton have already become buddies -- they were texting each other Friday until Smith said he had to put up his phone because he wasn't going to text while driving to Spartanburg.

Smith reiterated Friday that his decision to stay was a "family-first" decision and that it wasn't about money.

"It wasn't because I was going to be released or contract stuff," said Smith, who has two years and $14.75 million left on his deal. "I never asked for any money or an extension or wanted any money. You know last year was frustrating for everyone and at times -- I'd say 95 percent of the time -- I didn't handle it very well.

"I wasn't responsible in handling it. And you know I take full responsibility and blame for that.... I never demanded a trade. But we looked at our future here and at the end of the day the decision that was made was made because of my wife and my children. This is where we wanted to be and that's why I'm here -- I'm here to play football.

"Whether people have things to say about my contract or if I've lost a step it's valid because I'm getting older -- 32 is an age where people think you're losing a step. And mostly last year I played hurt (with a nagging ankle injury). I looked very slow at times."

Smith said he felt healthy now and wanted to "see if I can get this old body up and running." He also said he was very happy the Panthers had traded with Chicago for tight end Greg Olsen.

"I'm excited about Greg," he said. "I wanted Greg five years ago [when Olsen was about to get drafted].... I thought he was a fantastic player. So I'm excited to play next to Greg because he can play. He can move pretty good for a tight end. I think if he lost a little weight he could probably be an outstanding wide receiver."

More to come on Smith in my column for Saturday's newspaper and online.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Panther scorecard so far....

While the Carolina Panthers' spending binge has slowed down for a couple of moments -- they did agree to terms with safety Sean Considine today apparently but that's not a major money deal -- I figured I would look back at the last two dizzying days and see what has transpired so far. (UPDATE: Now they have also made a trade for TE Greg Olsen, who is a good pass-catcher and gives them a complete overhaul at tight end. I'll evaluate that deal once we know what the Panthers gave Chicago to get Olsen).

Meanwhile, a few of the highlights so far....

Biggest shocker: John Kasay getting a pink slip from the Panthers. My column on why the Panthers must honor Kasay, the last original Panthers, is here.

The Steve Smith saga: Now he says he wants to be a "Panther for life," according to reports. Good. I've been advocating this -- the trade value was just too low for Smith and the Panthers need him this year as much as ever.

Quarterback countdown: Cam Newton hasn't been announced as signing his deal yet, but that figures to be a formality given the newly-instituted rookie wage scale. But who will the veteran be? I've been campaigning for Jake Delhomme (see previous blog posts), but who knows?

He's springing for dinner: Charles Johnson can't stay under the radar anymore, not after that $72-million mega-deal. Expect plenty of ribbing from Panthers teammates for that one.

The running back stable: With DeAngelo Williams back in the fold, the Panthers have one of the best running back stables in the NFL. I like this move, because the nature of the position is someone will likely be hurt in training camp.

So far, mostly so good. In Tuesday's newspaper, I advocated the Panthers doing five things right away... They've done 3.5 so far... A review...

1) Sign Charles Johnson. Check

2) Sign DeAngelo Williams. Check

3) Sign Cam Newton. No check yet, but surely this isn't going to be too difficult given the parameters established by the new CBA.

4) Sign a veteran defensive tackle and a veteran QB. DT Ron Edwards (check). The QB? Not yet. Half-credit.

5) Solve the Steve Smith situation. Check -- he's expected to be reporting for the Panthers Friday morning in Spartanburg.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

5 thoughts on Panthers' moves and what's next

Wow. What a day. I'm not sure there has ever been a wilder and weirder one in Panther offseason history, at least in terms of sheer volume of maneuvers.

Five thoughts:

1) To think that John Kasay and Butch Davis basically got fired on the same day is remarkable. Who would have imagined that Wednesday morning? To me, Kasay's firing is even more stunning -- although I do understand the logic. But Kasay had a far better year than Davis did at UNC in 2010 -- no scandal, nothing but professional as usual -- and he will and should be back in his league (assuming he doesn't want to retire) quicker than Davis will be back in his. Here's my column on Kasay's dismissal.

ALSO, re: Kasay, , faithful readers, I'd like Panther fans to e-mail me at with their favorite memories of Kasay's time as a Panther (also feel free to re-post them below, but be warned that I have had to delete all comments a number of times this month because of a noted uptick in bad posting behavior. That's why I want the e-mails, so I can be sure I get your memory intact. I will post some of the Kasay memories on this blog soon. On-field, off-field, whatever).

And now, on with the "five thoughts..."

2) I know a lot of you don't agree with this, but I think the Panthers should hire Jake Delhomme as a backup quarterback at the veteran minimum. He'll be cheap after the Cleveland experiment ended badly, I think he would like to come back and he's a perfect mentor for Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen.

3) LB Jon Beason said on Taylor Zarzour's show on WFNZ-610 AM Wednesday that he thought trading Steve Smith for a second- or third-round pick would be a "joke" because Smith was worth far more than that. That's likely his value around the NFL right now, however, which is why I think the Panthers and Smith should make one last go at working it out. THURSDAY UPDATE: Smith has now said publicly that he's staying.

4) Interesting stats: Olindo Mare had 64 touchback kickoffs the past three years. Rhys Lloyd had 62. Mare hit 88 percent of his field goals in the same time period. Kasay hit 86.2. I can understand the Panthers figuring they can save some money by letting Mare do both jobs this year, but after firing Kasay they sure better honor him in a very public way (and if the very humble Kasay balks at this, they are just going to have to convince him).

5) Has anyone ever made more money off one good season than Charles Johnson? That $72M deal has sent reverberations throughout the league and through the Panther locker room. But I think it was a risk worth taking, and I also think signing DeAngelo Williams again was correct -- Carolina has a stable of fine running backs now, but to me a healthy DeAngelo still has a slight edge over the others.

Cam picks No.1; Clausen stays No.2

The Great Jersey Debate is over.

Cam Newton came in to see Panther equipment guru Jackie Miles today and told him that he would stick with No.1, the jersey that Miles had temporarily assigned him. Miles said Newton had thought about it overnight -- he had a chance to switch the number to several other choices -- but kept it at No.1.

Jimmy Clausen will stay with No.2, the number Newton had coveted but apparently did not make much of an attempt to get. The two will compete for the starting quarterback job this season.

Newton wearing No.1 will be unusual for the Panthers, to say the least. Miles has been the team's head equipment guy -- and quite possibly the NFL's best at that job -- since the team started playing in 1995. He tells me that no Panther has EVER worn No.1 during the regular season (this in large part because Miles has never assigned it before).

"But we've also never used the No.1 overall pick on a player before," Miles said Wednesday. "That was my reasoning in giving it to him originally. Cam thought about it overnight and said he didn't want to make waves about changing numbers, that it wasn't a big deal to him and he would just keep it."

Expect the jersey to go on sale at various outlets very soon.

I said in today's column that Newton shouldn't try to get No.2 from Clausen and should make an impact with a different number than the one he wore in college, but I advocated him not taking the No.1 because of the additional pressure it would place on him. But hey, it was his decision.

Now the question will be how long it will take for that No.1 on the back of Cam's jersey to correspond to his position on the Panthers' depth chart. It certainly won't start out that way, but it may not be long.

On Panthers, Olympics and Rodney White

A few morning notes as another big day for the local NFL team kicks off:

1) My column today on "Who will wear No.2?" issue between Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen is drawing a lot of comment. Here's the link.

2) One year from today, the 2012 Olympics in London will begin. Several swimmers with Charlotte connections should have a good shot at participating, including Cullen Jones, Ricky Berens, Nick Thoman and Josh Schneider. Coach Mike Krzyzewski will again lead the U.S. basketball team and a number of track and canoe/kayak stars with Carolina connections will also have a shot at going -- it will be an Olympics flavored heavily with athletes from the Carolinas.

3) Sad story online today about former Charlotte 49ers basketball star Rodney White, who has been arrested in connection with managing what authorities are calling an "elaborate" marijuana operation in N.C. White played only one season for the 49ers, became an NBA lottery pick and never fulfilled his promise after that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

That's one giant step for Carolina...

Well, it's not exactly a big leap for mankind, this signing of DE Charles Johnson, but it is certainly a giant step for the Panthers.

Carolina has made a big splash on the first day of free agency by agreeing to terms with Johnson (and the terms are gargantuan -- $32 million guaranteed, which is the main number that matters, over the life of the contract). The Panthers have now released the news as well, following reports of the agreement, although they didn't release the monetary terms as is their policy.

This is one Carolina had to have, because Johnson is the team's only consistent pass rushing threat at the moment. He had 11.5 sacks in 2010 and would likely have been a Pro Bowler had the Panthers not gone 2-14 (that number tied for seventh in the NFL).

When I wrote about the five things the Panthers needed to do quickly once the lockout ended in Tuesday's newspaper, it was no coincidence that signing Johnson was No.1 -- he was hugely important. The Panthers have now risked a whole lot of money on him, but it was a risk worth taking.

Now it's onto DeAngelo Williams and the rest of the machinations for the Panthers -- there are many more to come. But this was a big one, and perhaps a nice foreshadowing of a season that surely won't be as cringe-worthy as the 2-14 embarrassment we all saw in 2010.

Clausen should keep No.2 -- or charities should profit

According to our excellent Charlotte Observer Panther beat writer Joe Person, Cam Newton has been assigned No.1 for the team and Jimmy Clausen will remain with the No.2 he wore last year.

I'm guessing that's the way it will end up this season, too, as any number change would probably need to be immediate since the Panthers want to sell Newton's jersey. Newton, conversely, wants the No.2 he wore in college but doesn't want to make waves this early -- the last thing he wants to seem like is a prima donna to his new teammates.

I'll now repeat a lot of the blog I wrote about this in late April, when the issue first came up right after Carolina drafted Newton No.1. I still believe all of this:

Say what you want about Jimmy Clausen's deficiencies -- and we all have done that -- but politeness isn't one of them. I thought it was classy of Clausen to welcome Newton both in private conversations and publicly via Twitter. His Twitter message: "Congrats to Cam Newton. Welcome to the Panthers."

While Clausen can’t be happy about the situation, Clausen is determined to be a good teammate. Now whether that goes as far as giving up the No.2 jersey that Clausen holds and has rights to as a veteran but Newton wants (Newton said as much in Charlotte Friday, hoping he could get his college number in the NFL).

If I were Clausen, I probably wouldn’t let Newton have it without some compensation.

I wouldn’t give No.2 away, for sure. That seems a bit emasculating to me, given that the two will be involved in a head-to-head competition for the starting job. I might sell it to Newton, though (and then give the money to charity, an idea first suggested to me by my quick-witted colleague David Scott).

In that case, Newton would get what he wants, Clausen could save some face and a worthwhile charity could benefit with a check for what should at least cost a few thousand dollars. A win-win for everyone.

On Richardson's letter and Panthers' plan

Just a quick couple of thoughts as every NFL team in the country continues its flurry of phone calls as rosters are assembled:

-- I liked Jerry Richardson's letter that was posted on and in our newspaper in a full-page ad and can also be read here. Richardson has taken on more of a public role these past few months, which is a very good thing for a team that needs leadership and to regain its mojo. The part of the letter I liked the best was this:

"As we saw last year with Green Bay and Pittsburgh, market size does not determine where the Lombardi Trophy lands. Our mission is to bring it to the Carolinas.

"You have my assurance we will make the necessary investments and aggressively pursue every avenue to make that dream come true.

"While our division remains one of the toughest in the NFL, I am excited about the upcoming season. The experience gained by our young players a year ago should pay dividends. With Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil as anchors, the offensive line can be one of the best in the League. Another Pro Bowl player, linebacker Jon Beason, is the centerpiece of the defense.

"Our new head coach, Ron Rivera, brings a history of success as a player and coach to the Carolinas. With coordinators Rob Chudzinski on offense and Sean McDermott on defense, Coach Rivera has put together an enthusiastic staff that will feature an attacking style of play on both sides of the ball. Add No. 1 choice Cam Newton, and one of the most intriguing draft classes in team history, and this has the potential for a most exciting season.

"I have learned timetables can be tricky (SIDE NOTE -- this is an apparent reference to Richardson first predicting the Panthers would win a Super Bowl in their first 10 years), but I can promise we will continue to make a total commitment to building the championship team you deserve."

2) My column today focuses on the first five "big-ticket" things the Panthers need to do now that the lockout is over. If you haven't read it, it can be found here.

3) In the "for what it's worth" department: Sports Illustrated's Peter King predicts that DeAngelo Williams will end up signing with Miami, but that Charles Johnson will end up re-signing with the Panthers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ready for some football

The NFL lockout is over, and if you're like me you feel like autumn just got a guaranteed contract.

With this new collective bargaining agreement, we are now guaranteed NFL football not only this season but for the next nine seasons after that. That means this ridiculous dance of lawyers and owners up and down various courthouse steps and through expensive hotel lobbies is almost over.

That means autumn has its mojo back.

That means we'll soon be back to the highlights that made us all fall in love with the NFL in the first place. No more suits and ties. Lots of jersey numbers and fantastic catches and juking runs. It sounds like the Panthers will be reporting to training camp in Spartanburg on Friday, just as originally planned.

Free agency is also about to start, and that will be wild. According to's rankings by John Clayton, two of the top 10 most-wanted free agents played for Carolina in 2010 -- No.3 Charles Johnson (DE had 11.5 sacks in 2010) and No.6 RB DeAngelo Williams.

The Panthers want to keep both badly, but there will surely be other suitors. (Carolina used its franchise tag on center Ryan Kalil, who also needs a new contract but won't be going anywhere because of that tag. I thought they should have used it on Johnson because he plays such an important position, but that point is moot if the Panthers manage to re-sign all 3 as they would like to.

We all could have made it through a season without the NFL, of course. There are many more important things in life. But the world would have seemed grayer, and many of us, including me, would have been grumpier.

There was no sense in this dragging into the season. The local result now is that this will be the second-most anticipated training camp in Carolina Panther history, trailing only the one in 1995 when the team was brand new. (In case you've wondered where I've been and why I haven't been writing, incidentally, I just came off vacation today in time to see the end of this lockout. Good timing, huh?)

I can't wait, and I bet you can't either.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A soft spot for Kerry

Kerry Collins -- the last quarterback the Panthers drafted in the first round prior to Cam Newton -- announced his retirement today.

Give Collins credit. He stuck around the NFL for 16 years, and his flameout in Charlotte after 3 1/4 of those seasons has long been in his rearview mirror. I'm glad he lasted so long -- I've always had a soft spot for Kerry, who I've sensed from the beginning has a good soul. Here are a few excerpts from a column I wrote about Collins in 2010, following the last time we spoke via phone before the Panthers and his Tennessee Titans were to play an exhibition game...

Kerry Collins is a cattle rancher, a father to a first-grader, a husband, an NFL quarterback (still!) and an occasional writer of country music.

Everyone in the Carolinas should now be able to agree on something Collins is not – a quitter.

In his 16th NFL season – he and the Carolina Panthers debuted in the same year -- Collins will visit his first NFL city tonight as his Tennessee Titans play the Panthers in an exhibition game.

What does Collins think about when he comes to Charlotte now?

“My memories of Charlotte are mostly pleasant ones,” Collins said. “I don’t think there’s anything that went on in Charlotte that I harbor any resentment about. I made my share of mistakes, for sure, when I was there.”

Collins still comes to North Carolina a good bit. His wife, the former Brooke Isenhour, is from Concord. The two met at a George Strait concert at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2000, married in 2002 and now have a six-year-old daughter, Riley. The family splits its time between Nashville and Troy, N.C., where Collins owns a 1,580-acre working cattle ranch.....

Collins has been gone from Charlotte a dozen years now – the Panthers controversially released him in 1998. He remains one of the most fascinating figures to ever pull on a Panther uniform.

I know he had problems in Charlotte – most of them fueled by alcohol and partying.... But he... is a fighter, not a quitter. He changed his personal ways for the better, and he has resurrected his NFL career again and again. He is smart, introspective and self-deprecating....

With Tennessee, Collins has morphed into the role of the stable veteran, much like Steve Beuerlein was to Collins in the late 1990s with Carolina.

It would have been hard to imagine a dozen years ago that Collins would still be flourishing in the NFL in 2010. After the Panthers started the 1998 season 0-4, Collins told Carolina coach Dom Capers he thought the team might be better off starting Beuerlein.

Capers said at the time that Collins told him “My heart isn’t in it anymore.” The coach presented it that way to the team and media. Collins has long said he did not use those exact words, but that he was so confused at the time he really did think the team would be better off without him. He was certainly frustrated about his fame and didn’t embrace or understand all that came with being an NFL starting quarterback. He was spiraling downward, personally and professionally.

Capers didn’t just bench Collins in 1998. Capers fired him entirely (and then got fired himself a few months later).

Collins was labeled a quitter by many after that episode. It got worse for him when he was arrested in Charlotte in November 1998 for driving under the influence of alcohol. By this time, he was with the New Orleans Saints. When released shortly after his arrest, a TV cameraman filmed Collins walking down the street with a cigar in his mouth.

But that was all a long time ago. Collins went to alcohol rehab, dried out and got the New York Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000. He later started in Oakland and in Tennessee, making the Pro Bowl in 2008 as a Titan.

Collins was a 22-year-old kid when he got to Charlotte – a rebellious one.
He’s a 37-year-old man now – a good one.

Enjoy your retirement, Kerry. You've earned it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Give me that 76K ring back!

Given the shortage of actual lockout-related news at this moment, we bring you the story of Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams, who mailed a $76,000 engagement ring to the woman he wanted to marry and now wants it back because she declined his marriage proposal.

The Odessa American has all the details in this story and it's worth a read, but can I just first say that mailing an engagement ring seems kinda weird. Who does that? Could Williams not wait to give it to her in person? Don't you want to see the woman's reaction?

And who mails a $76,000 ring if you're not absolutely sure the person who's getting it is going to say "Yes"?

The woman in question, Brooke Daniels, is a former Texas beauty pageant queen. Her father told the Texas newspaper that he now has possession of the ring and that -- although he claims Williams originally said he didn't want it back -- that he was going to return it to the wide receiver and avoid a lawsuit.

Strange story, huh? And given all the play this one is getting nationally today on ESPN and other national websites, you can tell it's a slow day in July, when the talk is of engagement rings rather than the Super Bowl kind.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dealing with the Death Race

I hadn't planned to write a followup column to my June 12th story on Paul Habenicht, the former active Marine who now holds a desk job in Charlotte and had entered a bizarre endurance race in Vermont.

There was such an outcry among readers, however, to follow up on whatever happened to Paul that the result was this column about Paul's trials and tribulations in last month's Death Race.

The short version: Paul didn't finish the race. He got 40 hours into it and then, basically, he felt like he got tricked by organizers only a few hours before the race was going to end (although no one knew that at the time). He did quite well in those 40 hours, considering -- he wasn't going to win, but he was in the Top 20 (out of a field of 156) for most of the way.

Mind games are all part of the deal at the Death Race, however. I'd never, ever want to do it, but some people are wired to want to test their personal limits constantly. Paul is one of them -- a great guy who, I bet, will at one point return to the Death Race again, thinking of it as unfinished business.