Friday, September 30, 2011

Predicting a Panther upset Sunday in Chicago

Chicago is the original home of The Second City, which has launched the careers of some of the best comedians ever (John Belushi, Steve Carell, Mike Myers, Tina Fey and on and on and on). It's my favorite thing to do when I'm in Chicago.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the best Second City alums have always been masters of improvisation, and the Panthers will have to do exactly the same thing in Chicago Sunday to come away with an upset victory.

There will be a moment or two that all hinges on improv -- what Cam Newton while being chased on the full run by Julius Peppers, or what Jay Cutler does when he sees a small window that might open for a 50-yard pass or might close for an interception.

I think these teams have similar talent levels, so a couple of snap decisions will make the difference.

-- The Panthers got creamed by Bears running back Matt Forte a year ago, as he had touchdown runs of 18 and 68 yards in the game's first eight minutes. The Bears throw the ball to Forte a lot, too. I think containing him is even more important that containing Cutler.

-- Bears coach Lovie Smith can try to spin this decision all he wants to, but Chicago letting a talent like Greg Olsen go to Carolina for a third-round pick was quite a mistake. I don't care what offensive system you are playing. You don't let a guy who can catch the ball like that get away.

-- It's fitting that Steve Smith should surpass Muhsin Muhammad Sunday as Carolina's all-time leader in receiving yards. The best game I've ever seen Smith play came in Chicago in the 2005 playoffs, when he decimated the Bears with a 218-yard receiving game. Afterward, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher called Smith the NFL's best offensive player.

-- I'm 15-3 over the last 18 games picking the Panthers' outcome, and today I'm going out on a limb. I think the Panthers will improvise just well enough to win: Carolina 24, Chicago 22.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cam Newton, Jon Gruden and the "36" controversy

I wrote my column today on Jon Gruden's views about Cam Newton and devoted a large part of it to the controversy of the "36" -- that refers to a video segment with Gruden and Newton from a pre-draft show this past April. The video is worth watching, at least the first minute of it, to show you what we're talking about if you didn't see it originally.

Gruden had asked Newton for the show to give him a playcall used at Auburn, presenting him with a 20-syllable NFL call first to show an example of what an NFL quarterback might say in the huddle.

Newton struggled for an answer before coming up with "36," which fed the doubters who thought Newton wasn't smart enough to play NFL quarterback.

Gruden said Wednesday he wanted to "squash" that notion right now and that he was sorry if his interview with Newton had fed into it. He also said a lot of complimentary things about Newton -- again, here's the column link.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Jon Gruden says Cam Newton has been 'absolutely jaw-dropping'

I talked with Jon Gruden today by phone about Cam Newton to get some insight from the former Tampa Bay head coach and Super Bowl winner who’s now a color analyst for “Monday Night Football.”

I will write a lot more about this in my column for Thursday’s newspaper, but I will tell you that Gruden absolutely loves the Panthers’ rookie quarterback.

“What Cam has done so far from a statistical standpoint has been spectacular -- absolutely jaw-dropping,” Gruden said. “I’m in total shock and awe about him. The fact that he’s had two 400-yard games already – and one of them against the Packers – I’m not sure any quarterback has ever started out better.”

Not that Gruden didn’t think Newton would be good. He did, and he became more convinced of it when the two spent about eight hours together one day for a show that aired on ESPN before April’s draft.

“From a talent standpoint, the guy is a physical freak for his position,” Gruden said. “I knew it would happen for him, but I didn’t know it would happen this quickly. But Cam has a certain degree of magic.”

That show produced one of the primary bits of ammunition for the anti-Cam crowd, when Newton struggled to come up with an Auburn play after Gruden asked him to call one as if he were in the Auburn huddle. Newton finally said, “Thirty-six.”

Gruden explains more about that situation and what he took away from Newton’s answer to that question in Thursday's column.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Carolina Panthers by the numbers after Week 3

Here are some Panther numbers I find significant or weird after the conclusion of the third week of NFL play:

0 -- Number of kicks (both extra points and field goals combined) missed by former Panther kicker John Kasay and current Panther kicker Olindo Mare so far this season. They are a combined 11-for-11 on field goals and 15-for-15 on extra points. Kasay's 53-yarder for New Orleans is by far the longest field goal either man has made -- coach Ron Rivera three times this season has disdained allowing Mare to kick a field goal of around 50 yards and instead opted to punt.

1.7 -- Extra yardage Jonathan Stewart (5.3 per carry) gets you compared to DeAngelo Williams (3.6) over the past 10 games. I go into this more in depth in my column today, which advocates Stewart getting more touches.

3 -- NFL quarterbacks over 1,000 yards passing so far this season. They are Tom Brady (1327), Drew Brees (1059) and Cam Newton (1012).

3-16 -- Panthers' record over their last 19 real games after their win over Jacksonville Sunday.

7 -- Panther rank in total offense so far this season (based on yardage) after they ranked 32nd in 2010. They are only tied for 17th (with Chicago and Atlanta) in total points, however.

17 -- Panther rank in total defense (based on yardage) so far this season. Given the loss of two big-time starters in Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, that's not bad at all.

349 -- Steve Smith's total receiving yardage. He dropped from first to third in that category after last week's performance, behind New England's Wes Welker and Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bests and worsts from Carolina Panthers' 16-10 win over Jacksonville

Best performance: The Panthers' stitched-together defense shut out Jacksonville in the second half, which turned a 10-5 Jacksonville halftime lead into a 16-10 Panther victory.

Best Cam Newton stat: He didn't pass for 400 yards - only 158 this time - but he also didn't commit any turnovers in a virtual monsoon.

Second-best Cam stat: Somehow, he was never sacked. He eluded pressure numerous times to avoid negative plays.

Worst Cam trend: How many balls did he throw high in the first half? Newton may have actually played a little better when the conditions got worse, because he was really airmailing it early.

Worst sequence: With 17 seconds left in the second quarter, Jacksonville was simply running out the clock in a torrential rain. Then Maurice Jones-Drew burst for a 39-yard run. That allowed Jacksonville to call timeout, run one more play and score on a 36-yard touchdown pass as the first half expired.

Best matchup: On both his touchdown catch and his two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, Panther tight end Greg Olsen got matched up on a linebacker. He won both.

Best sack: Greg Hardy took down Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert in the first quarter to give Carolina a 2-0 lead.

Worst time management: Jacksonville had the ball at the Carolina 36 with 16 seconds left and no timeouts, but the Jaguars didn't snap the ball until five seconds remained. That left Gabbert time to take only one shot for the TD, and his pass was deflected by Panther linebacker Thomas Williams.

Best player in a losing cause: Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 122 yards on 24 carries, caught passes for 45 more and did just about everything except get into the end zone.

Worst hands: The Jaguars fumbled five times (three by Gabbert) in the stormy conditions. Carolina somehow managed never to fumble. The worst drop came from Jacksonville punter Matt Turk, who muffed a good snap and got tackled for a field-position loss of at least 40 yards.

Best handling of a first-ever victory: Coach Ron Rivera was low-key after getting his first win and kept saying "It's about them," referring to the players in the Panther locker room.

Best weird run: Jonathan Stewart's 60-yard run through the rain in which he seemed to flip nearly upside down but never touch his knee to the ground was amazing -- even though it got reversed when Stewart's elbow was determined to have touched the ground.

Best determination: All the fans who stuck around for the fourth-quarter comeback after nearly getting drowned in the second quarter. It was impressive how many came back to their seats on one of the strangest Sunday afternoons the Panthers have ever had.

It's finally stopped raining at Panther game..

but not before a rain of near-Biblical proportions. In 17 years, I can't ever remember it raining quite that hard for that long. Now, the aftermath: the field is a sodden mess, the ball is wet and there are virtual lakes behind both teams' sideline.

Meanwhile, the Panthers -- down 10-5 at halftime -- caught a break midway through the third quarter when Jacksonville punter Matt Turk fumbled a good snap and was tackled on the Jaguar 38.

Carolina again failed to get in the end zone, but Olindo Mare hit a 32-yard field goal in the bad conditions and so now Carolina trails, 10-8, with 2:24 left in the third quarter.

Panthers lead 5-3 midway through 2nd quarter

Jacksonville just got on the board in Charlotte, as the Panthers now lead Jacksonville 5-3 with 7:41 left in the second quarter.

It would still be 5-0 except the Panthers' George Selvie -- best known for wearing Julius Peppers' old number -- jumped into the neutral zone when Jacksonville faced fourth-and-four and was lined up to punt.

That gave Jacksonville new life, and Blaine Gabbert threw a couple of nice balls to get the Jags to Carolina's 35, where the drive stalled and Josh Scobee nailed a 53-yard field goal.

Panthers 5-0 over Jaguars early in 2nd quarter

Carolina continues to lead by a baseball score -- 5-0 -- over Jacksonville with 14:12 left in the second quarter.

The Panthers outgained Jacksonville 88 to minus-1 in the first quarter but don't have a whole lot to show for it so far -- a safety due to the Greg Hardy sack and a 35-yard field goal by Olindo Mare.

Cam Newton has been off target so far for a number of his passes, going 5 for his first 12 for 43 yards. The Panther defense has been dominant early, with both Hardy and Charles Johnson getting early sacks on rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Cam Newton erratic early but Panthers lead Jaguars 2-0

The Carolina Panthers have taken a baseball lead on Jacksonville -- 2-0 -- after Greg Hardy and Terrell McClain combined for a sack of rookie Jaguar quarterback Blaine Gabbert on Jacksonville's first possession Sunday.

Cam Newton is only 3-for-9 for 26 yards so far, as both Panther drives have stalled between the Jacksonville 40 and 50. Newton has been throwing the ball high on most occasions and had two passes nearly picked off.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Carolina Panthers to beat Jacksonville Sunday

Here's a little preview of my Sunday column, with my Panthers prediction at the bottom:

We will start today's column with a quiz. When Panther cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was being interviewed this week, he uttered what has to be one of my favorite quotes of this Carolina season thus far.

Quoth the Captain: "He's a big guy to be so small."

So who do you think Munnerlyn -- who at 5-foot-8, is the shortest player on the Panthers' roster -- was talking about? Was it:

A) Himself
B) Steve Smith
C) Olindo Mare
D) Maurice Jones-Drew.

If you guessed "D," you are correct.

Jones-Drew -- at 5-foot-7 and 208 pounds -- is the little big man the Panthers' defense must stop Sunday. He's compact, strong and the Jaguars' biggest offensive weapon, having gained 185 yards on the ground in the first two games. That's more rushing yardage than the entire Carolina team.

If Carolina is going to make Blaine Gabbert look like a rookie quarterback making his first start, which he is, the simplest way would be to slow down Jones-Drew. Then Gabbert has to face more third-and-long situations and Munnerlyn's wish may come true.

"Hopefully we can confuse him, mess with his head a little and get our hands on some balls," Munnerlyn said of Gabbert.

Given that two of Carolina's biggest defensive weapons -- Thomas Davis and Jon Beason -- are on injured reserve for the season, however, that will be easier said than done.

-- I'm 14-3 over the last 17 games picking the Panthers' win-loss outcome. My prediction for Sunday:

Carolina 19, Jacksonville 16.

Aftermath of "The Magic Touch"

I had the privilege in today's newspaper of following up on a story I wrote last Christmas Day 2010 called "The Magic Touch."

It was the story of Jenna Huff and Deb Guthmann, two high school girls who ran cross country for their respective teams but had never met one another. Jenna trailed Deb for almost the entire race until -- a few yards from the finish line -- Deb's right hip basically exploded.

Deb stopped. And Jenna -- going against her training, which was to pass everyone she could no matter the circumstances -- stopped, too.

Jenna helped Deb across the finish line and then made sure to push her in front at the end, reasoning that Deb would have beaten her if not for the injury. (We made a video recounting this as well if you'd like to view it -- it's about 4 minutes long).

Jenna's action resonated with many, even on a national level. Today she will accept a national award for sportsmanship given by the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo.

I nominated her for the national award but didn't tell Jenna or the family, figuring she would be such a long shot to win it. But win it she did, and that has given me the excuse to update the story in today's newspaper.

The actions of both girls on that day still stand as the sort of exemplary behavior we would wish all our young people would show.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blaine Gabbert to start for Jaguars against Carolina Panthers

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio has decided to make it an all-rookie matchup at quarterback this Sunday -- Blaine Gabbert will make his first career start for the Jaguars against Carolina and Cam Newton.

Cam was the No.1 overall pick in April's draft, of course. Gabbert was No.10. The Jaguars got such horrid quarterback play Sunday from Luke McCown in a 32-3 loss to the New York Jets that Del Rio has pulled the trigger relatively early on this move. This comes only a couple of weeks after the Jaguars' original starting quarterback, David Garrard, was surprisingly cut just days before the start of the regular season and replaced my McCown. McCown won in the opener but then threw four interceptions and was sacked for a safety against the Jets.

Gabbert, a two-year starter at Missouri, didn't have a strong preseason. Newton didn't either, of course, but has come on like wildfire since then, becoming the first NFL quarterback ever to throw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games (however, the Panthers are 0-2).

The move is interesting, too, because Del Rio is in a far different place in his career than Panther coach Ron Rivera.

While Rivera is in his first season, joined at the hip with Newton and squarely in the middle of his honeymoon period, Del Rio is widely believed to be coaching for his future. If Jacksonville (1-1) doesn't make the playoffs this season, it's expected that the former Panther defensive coordinator won't be retained.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Carolina Panthers by the numbers after Week 2

Each Tuesday during the NFL season I am posting in this blog some significant and weird numbers about the Carolina Panthers. Today's edition:

1: Heisman Trophy winners who have ever intercepted another Heisman winner in the NFL. It happened again Sunday, when Charles Woodson (1997 winner) picked off Cam Newton (the 2010 winner) twice. In his career, Woodson has now picked off four former Heisman winners -- Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer and Vinny Testaverde are the other three.

2: Panthers' current offensive rank in total yards per game, after ranking dead last (No.32) in 2010. They trail only New England. Amazing.

3: Teams in the NFC South that won last weekend, after zero won games during the first week. That puts the Panthers (0-2) back into their accustomed last-place position in one of football's toughest divisions.

29: Panthers' current NFL team rank in rushing yards per game.

40: Panther regular-season games between Nov.15, 2009 and the end of this season. By the time this year ends, Thomas Davis will have missed 38 of those 40 games due to tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on three separate occasions. Talk about snakebitten.

334: Steve Smith's receiving yardage after two games, which gives him at least a 63-yard lead over everyone else in the NFL.

827: Kurt Warner's record for the most passing yardage ever in the first two games of an NFL season, which he set in 2000. It got broken -- twice! -- last week. Newton actually held the new record for a couple of hours with 854 yards, until Tom Brady shattered it with 940.

Monday, September 19, 2011

You've gotta be kidding... Thomas Davis tears ACL again

The news that Thomas Davis has sustained yet another torn ACL -- his third since Nov.2009 -- is sad and causes a reassessment of whether Davis is ever really going to be able to play effectively in the NFL again.

Davis tweeted Monday that he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He hurt the knee against Green Bay Sunday in a 30-23 loss to the Packers and had an MRI Monday. This should mean that Davis is lost for the season, on the heels of losing Jon Beason for the season only one week ago.

The Packers game was only the second one that Davis has played since Nov.8, 2009, when this cycle began. He had missed 24 straight games -- 8 in 2009 and 16 in 2010 -- before playing in the first two games this season.

Davis, 28, is in his seventh NFL season and played in 69 of his first 72 NFL games. He was durable and -- once the Panthers decided he was a linebacker and not a safety -- extremely productive. I thought in 2009 he was on his way to the Pro Bowl given the way he played the first half of the season.

But now it looks like Davis's career may end up something like Dan Morgan's -- another extremely fast, injury-plagued, first-round draft choice the Panthers employed at linebacker. Both men flashed Hall of Fame potential at brief moments during their careers. Both are stand-up guys -- guys you would be proud to live next door to and who did a lot for our community.

But both had bodies that just kept letting them down.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bests and worsts from Green Bay's 30-23 win over Carolina Panthers

A thrilling afternoon at Bank of America Stadium ultimately ended in disappointment for the home fans Sunday, as Green Bay beat Carolina, 30-23.

The game wasn't completely over until Green Bay's Donald Driver recovered a late onside kick by Carolina's Olindo Mare with less than 40 seconds remaining. There was much to recommend this game in general in terms of entertainment value, and some positives and negatives regarding the Panthers' play.

Best passing number: Cam Newton threw for a team-record 432 yards, which was his second straight 400-yard performance. He surpassed Chris Weinke's team mark.

Worst passing number: Newton also threw three interceptions, and he sounded very downcast about all of them after the game.

Best gesture: Thomas Davis ran onto the field in the pregame swinging injured teammate Jon Beason's jersey.

Worst possible injury: Davis was later hurt himself in the game. How bad his knee is hurt is inconclusive and more will be known Monday.

Worst statistic: DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 11 carries for 18 yards against the Packers. It was the second straight week that "Double Trouble" was no trouble at all to handle on the ground.

Best call: Ahead 23-16 at their own 16 with 2:26 remaining, Green Bay faced a first-and-10. Most teams would have simply run the ball three times and hoped to get a first down, burning the opponents' timeouts. The Packers instead threw an 84-yard touchdown pass -- Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson -- that sealed the game.

Best crowd: Fine atmosphere in Charlotte, and almost everyone stuck around for the fourth quarter.

Best catch: Brandon LaFell had a stunning 32-yarder in double coverage for the Panthers in the fourth quarter.

Best start: Carolina jumped to a 13-0 lead that really could have been as much as 21-0 on the defending Super Bowl champs.

Best comeback: Green Bay then scored 23 consecutive points to take a 23-13 lead into the fourth quarter.

Best receiver: Steve Smith broke open for 156 receiving yards, giving him two games of 150-plus yards in two weeks.

Worst fumble: Smith was carrying the ball way too far from his body after one reception and ended up getting it stripped away for a costly turnover.

Best running back (running category): Green Bay's James Starks constantly gashed the Panther defense, ending up with 9 carries for 85 yards.

Best running back (receiving category): Who knew that Jonathan Stewart could catch the ball so well? Constantly used as a safety valve by Newton, he ended up with eight catches for an even 100 yards.

Cam Newton directs Panthers to 10-0 lead over Green Bay

How do you throw for 90 yards on an 85-yard touchdown drive?

It isn't easy, but Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton managed the feat on the Panthers' first offensive series Sunday

Newton could hardly have been hotter for the game's first 5:40, directing the Panthers almost exclusively through the air. The drive ended with Newton lobbing a 3-yard fade pass to Brandon LaFell to score.

The big targets on the drive were Jeremy Shockey, who caught a 23-yard pass on the game's first play from scrimmage, and Steve Smith. An earlier TD pass to Greg Olsen was overturned because the Panthers had an illegal shift on the play, but Newton then hit Jonathan Stewart for a 19-yard screen pass to get inside the Green Bay 5.

The Panthers then recovered the ensuring kickoff when Randall Cobb fumbled. Sean Considine recovered for the Panthers, who couldn't manage a TD drive this time, stalling at the Green Bay 2. Olindo Mare's 20-yard field goal made it 10-0, Carolina, with 6:32 left in the first quarter.

Friday, September 16, 2011

5 best Panther-Packer games ever (and a prediction)

Each Friday during the NFL season I will post a blog with some notes about the Panthers' Sunday opponent and a prediction at the end of the blog. Last season my record for these week-by-week predictions was 13-3. I didn't predict last week's Arizona-Carolina game because I was off.

Before the prediction, though, here's my own personal list of the 5 most memorable games in Green Bay-Carolina history. The two teams have played each other 11 times in the past 15 seasons, which is a lot for two teams not in the same division.

1) 1997 -- Green Bay 30, Carolina 13. On a frigid day in the 1996 NFC title game, the Packers won at Lambeau Field behind Brett Favre and Reggie White. I've never been colder walking into a stadium.

2) 1999 -- Carolina 33, Green Bay 31. Steve Beuerlein's most startling play as a Panther -- a quarterback draw for a touchdown -- allows the Panthers to pull off the road upset. I was there and still remember the utter silence Steve Beuerlein's draw was greeted by when he scored.

3) 2008 -- Carolina 35, Green Bay 31. In a shootout at Lambeau, DeAngelo Williams scores four touchdowns in the Panthers' last-minute victory. Steve Smith's 54-yard reception late from Jake Delhomme set up Williams' final TD.

4) 2004 -- Green Bay 24, Carolina 14. The Packers disappoint a huge crowd in Charlotte in the Monday Night Football opener the year after Carolina made to the Super Bowl.

5) 2000 -- Carolina 31, Green Bay 14. "Ho-o-o-v!" Rookie fullback Brad Hoover subs in as a tailback and rushes for 117 yards in Charlotte in another Monday night shocker.

-- Carolina Panther fans have long wanted their team to blitz more often. On Sunday, though, they should be careful what they wish for.

When New Orleans blitzed Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers 10 days ago, Rodgers shredded the Saints. According to STATS LLC, Rodgers went 14-for-18 for 207 yards and two touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 151.6 against the blitz.

Of course, giving Rodgers time is a recipe for failure as well. But the Panthers also gave up a 70-yard touchdown pass while blitzing Arizona last week. Given that Rodgers is a far better quarterback than Kevin Kolb, I expect the Panthers at least initially will try to get almost all of their pass rush with only four rushers.

-- Sunday's prediction: Green Bay 37, Carolina 24.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Carolina Panthers by the numbers after Week 1

Some numbers I find significant and/or weird as Carolina enters its home opener vs. Green Bay Sunday:

0-1 -- The record of all four NFC South teams after one week.

1 -- Steve Smith's current rank in receiving yards in the NFL (178).

1.9 -- I had this in my column today focusing on Cam Mania, but 1.9 was the average number of pass plays of 20 yards or more the Panthers had per game in 2010. They had eight 20-yard plus pass plays Sunday.

2 -- Cam Newton's NFL rank in passing yardage after one week (422). He is sandwiched bewteen Tom Brady (517) and Drew Brees (416). Enjoy that while it lasts, Panther fans.

8 -- Kickoff or punt returns taken back for TDs in Week 1, which was an NFL record. One of them, of course, was the misplayed 89-yard punt return the Panthers allowed Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson Sunday, which turned out to be the game's winning points.

52 -- Length of the field goal head coach Ron Rivera didn't let Olindo Mare try with the game tied at 7-all in the second quarter Sunday. On fourth-and-16 from the Arizona 35, he instead elected to punt and explained this decision Monday by saying he felt field position was very important at that stage. (Jason Baker knocked it into the end zone, so the Panthers gained only 15 yards of field position there.)

I generally liked almost everything the Panthers' new coaching staff did Sunday, but this struck a false note to me. Mare, from 52 yards, kicking indoors? That's the sort of thing you signed the strong-legged kicker for, right?

Ultimately, it was a 7-point game and those 3 points wouldn't have mattered that much, I suppose, but it did make me wonder.

In case you are curious, John Kasay has made 40-of-78 field goals from 50 yards or more in his career (51.3 percent). John Fox routinely let Kasay try from the 50-52 yard range. Mare has far fewer attempts from the same distance but a similar percentage -- 19-for-41 for 46.3 percent.

68.6 -- I love this number from Sports Illustrated. Green Bay, while officially a 3-4 defense, actually played a 2-4-5 (2 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers and 5 defensive backs) on 68.6 percent of its snaps last season. The Panthers are going to need to run the ball effectively on the Packers when Dom Capers lines 'em up like that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jon Beason out for year; what's next?

The Carolina Panthers received the news they had feared Monday afternoon when Jon Beason's injury turned out to be a season-ender -- an Achilles tear suffered in Sunday's 28-21 loss to Arizona.

Beason, the Panthers' Pro Bowl linebacker, made his 65th consecutive start in the game. He hurt the Achilles trying unsuccessfully to chase down Arizona tight end Jeff King, a former Panther, on a 48-yard touchdown pass.

We can speculate all we want about whether Beason rushed back from a recent surgery to play in this game, but at this point I'm more interested in the future. Beason was the Panthers' most versatile linebacker, able to stay on the field in any situation because he was so fast and covered the pass so well.

He will be replaced in the middle by Dan Connor, at least on first and second downs, coach Ron Rivera said. Connor is not as good at pass coverage as run support and will likely come out in passing situations in favor of either an additional safety or a linebacker like Omar Gaither.

How much will it affect the Panthers defense? Maybe not as much as you'd think. Beason is a Pro Bowler, but linebacker also happens to be the one of the team's two deepest positions (running back is the other). They will miss his leadership as much as his on-field ability, but they are uniquely positioned to replace him.

What the team needs now, most of all, is for Thomas Davis to stay healthy. Losing one of the team's two fastest linebackers is damaging. Losing both -- and Davis has missed a lot of the past two seasons with knee injuries but is healthy now -- would be devastating.

Bests and worsts from Carolina Panthers' opener

Hi everyone: I'm back from a week off, and watched the Panthers' 28-21 loss to Arizona on TV like a lot of the rest of you Sunday. At the suggestion of some regular blog readers, I am replacing the "5 things I liked" or "5 things I didn't like" postgame online blog (depending on whether Panthers won or lost) with a new "Bests and Worsts" format.

This should allow me to get into more postgame shades of gray, since most games (this year at least) will have some good and bad in them. So here we go. Feel free to add your own bests and worsts at the bottom, but keep them clean:

Worst telecast: Fox really botched up this game. Most noticeably were the early signal failures, which turned my screen to black at least three times in the first quarter (this happened to you too, right?) Also, how many years does Steve Smith have to be in the league before play-by-play man Sam Rosen stops referring to him occasionally as "Steven"? That's not even the long version of his name -- it's Stevonne.

Analyst Chad Pennington was obviously breaking in as a rookie analyst and didn't add (or subtract) much. He sure likes to use the phrase "put his foot in the ground" a lot -- isn't that the way people always run?

I really didn't like the fact that we got no replays to speak of on the early downs of the Panthers' final five plays near the Arizona goal line (no way to tell how close Greg Olsen was to remaining inbounds, etc).

Best debut: Cam Newton, obviously. I've been a fan of the Newton pick for many months, since well before it occurred, but I was shocked at how well he did (422 passing yards, 3 total TDs).

Worst sequence: In those final five plays from at or inside the Arizona 11, Newton never threw once to Steve Smith. I don't blame this just on the quarterbacking, but on the play-calling, too. Throwing twice to Legedu Naanee?! Really?

Worst trend: If Carolina can't run the ball better than that (27 carries, 74 yards), teams are going to unload on Newton way too often. As exciting as all the passing was, the Panthers need a lot more 5-yard running plays.

Best re-emergence: 178 yards and two TDs for Smith undoubtedly made a lot of fantasy football owners regret not playing him (same goes for Cam, I'm sure).

Best tweet: Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner, who criticized the Newton draft pick pretty harshly right after it was made, sent out this tweet.

"Big enough man to admit when wrong: Cam Newton is impressing me today! Said he wouldn't b ready, but sure looks like he is to me!"(Note: Thanks to SwimMAC Carolina CEO/Director of Coaching David Marsh, who directs a number of current and future Olympians at that excellent program, for pointing out Warner's tweet to me).

Best revenge: Former Panther Jeff King scored on a 48-yard pass on a botched Panther coverage, which was a career long for a player mostly used as a blocking tight end during John Fox's tenure.

Worst news: Panther Pro Bowl LB Jon Beason may well be lost for all or part of the season after getting hurt while desperately trying to chase down King. (UPDATE: Beason has indeed been lost for the season due to tearing his Achilles on the play).

Worst trend: The Panthers allowed three TD plays of 48 yards or longer (a 70-yard pass and an 89-yard punt return were the others). Those breakdowns were ultimately the difference, because 21 points will win you a lot of NFL games.

Best defensive presence: Charles Johnson, who looked worth the money Sunday with a sack, a near-interception and at least a couple of hurries.

Worst mistake: Both Mike Goodson and Jordan Pugh were downfield in time to cover Patrick Peterson's punt return, but ran right by him, figuring Patrick Peterson was going to let the ball go. They were playing for maybe 10 yards of field position, tops -- instead, Peterson fooled everyone by grabbing the ball and going 89 yards the other way. And shouldn't Jason Baker's kick have been higher to begin with to force a fair catch?

Bottom line: No way that play should have ever happened.

Worst fourth quarter: Jordan Pugh. Not only was he involved in the punt return mistake, he also blew the coverage when Early Doucet went 70 yards for the TD to tie the game at 21.

Worst fumble: Beanie Wells simply dropped a pitchout inside Carolina's 10 -- he might have scored if he caught it. Arizona could have easily had more than 28, coming up empty on that drive and another inside Carolina's 10, too.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Things I liked and didn't in Carolina Panthers' 33-17 loss to Pittsburgh Steelers

Normally, I use my last blog of a game day to either write about 5 things I did or didn't like, depending on whether the Carolina Panthers lost or won.

Since this game was such a mixed bag, however, I'll do a mixed bag, too.

Things I liked:

1) Cam Newton looked like an NFL quarterback on his one drive and got the Panthers into the end zone with his first TD pass of the preseason.

2) Ron Rivera removed the tiny bit of suspense that was left postgame, announcing Newton as the starter for the regular-season opener.

3) Derek Anderson has apparently surpassed Jimmy Clausen as the No.2 QB, which makes a lot of sense given how they each performed Thursday.

4) Jeff Otah was back on the field at right tackle and obviously helped solidify the Panthers' starting line.

Things I didn't like:

1) Armanti Edwards had his hands on five balls that he didn't catch. Yes, five. Four hit the ground. One was tipped and intercepted. I'm not saying he should have caught all five -- the defense was very good on a couple -- but he should have caught several of them. Rivera says Edwards keeps trying to catch the ball with his body instead of his hands.

2) The Panthers' first-team defense again looked soft in the middle and couldn't get off the field on third down. It only played one series and allowed an 80-yard TD drive.

3) Clausen's pass rating of 33.2. He didn't have much help, but hey, Anderson was playing with backups, too. Anderson should be the No.2 -- he proved that Thursday.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Game update: Steelers up 26-17 on Panthers

The scoring slowed down in the third quarter as the teams each added a field goal to their total (Pittsburgh led 20-14 at halftime).

Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson played most of the quarter for the Panthers and ended up with 192 passing yards. He was replaced by Jimmy Clausen – who it looks like may end up as the team’s third-stringer – with 3:23 left in the third. Clausen’s first pass was a deep ball to Armanti Edwards, which instead was tipped and intercepted.

The Steelers used third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon exclusively in the third quarter – he played the lion’s share of the game after starter Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play and second-stringer Charlie Batch got just a couple of series.

A 53-yard field goal 11 seconds into the fourth quarter by Pittsurgh’s backup kicker, Swayze Waters, then gave the Steelers a 26-17 lead over Carolina.

Panthers and Steelers tied at 7-all after 1st quarter

Carolina and Pittsburgh were tied at 7-all at the end of the first quarter before a crowd at Bank of America Stadium in which there appear to be more Steeler jerseys on fans than Panther jerseys.

The Steelers didn’t play their starting quarterback at all tonight, as Ben Roethlisberger rested. The Panthers played their starter only one series, as Cam Newton led the team on a 71-yard touchdown march and looked the best he had in the preseason but then gave way to Derek Anderson after that series.

Anderson had the Panthers driving on their second series. But on fourth-and-two from the Pittsburgh 35, he hit Armanti Edwards in the hands with a 5-yard pass, and Edwards (who had made two earlier catches) dropped it.

Both teams scored in impressive fashion on their opening drives. The Steelers went 80 yards in 10 plays against Carolina’s first-team defense, with Charlie Batch completing 5 of 6 passes for 50 yards and Isaac Redman ran four times for 29 yards. The only hiccup also turned into a good play for the Steelers, as Mike Wallace stretched toward the end zone from the 1, only to have the ball knocked away. But a Pittsburgh player recovered for the TD.

On the Panthers’ drive, Newton ran 19 yards on a key third-down play and linked up with Jeremy Shockey twice – the second time for a 10-yard TD after Shockey broke two tackles on the play. The Panthers also got some nice running from Jonathan Stewart on the march, which tied the game at 7-7.