Friday, December 30, 2011

Can Panthers upset Saints?

If I'm New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, I don't do a lot of scoreboard watching Sunday. The Saints may ultimately be playing a meaningless game in terms of playoff seeding, but it's going to be very hard to tell with San Francisco and St. Louis playing at the same time.

The Saints need a win over Carolina (pretty likely) and a St. Louis upset of San Francisco (very unlikely) to get the No.2 playoff seed and a playoff bye. If I'm Payton, I don't even let anyone tell me the 49ers score until halftime. And I don't pull Drew Brees and company until the fourth quarter and maybe not at all, depending on what the 49ers are up to.

If the 49ers are up by 20 or more going into the fourth, though, I'd get Brees out of there no matter the score. He's too valuable to risk in that scenario, even if New England's Tom Brady does catch him for the single-season yardage record.

-- The Panthers have a chance Sunday if they run the ball well. Remember, they got a 69-yard DeAngelo Williams touchdown in the teams' first meeting (won 30-27 by New Orleans). The Superdome is a very difficult place to convert third downs consistently because of the noise level, but running the ball effectively is how coach John Fox often beat the Saints in Louisiana. The New Orleans defense, however, allowed only 35 yards rushing to Atlanta last week.

-- The Panthers' defense had quite a time trying to defend Jimmy Graham last time, as the tight end had eight catches for 129 yards. Graham does that against just about everyone, which is why the Saints decided Jeremy Shockey was expendable. You can bet Shockey will be involved in some sort of extra-curricular activity Sunday playing his former team.

-- The Panthers have a chance, but New Orleans has one of the best homefield advantages in the NFL and the hottest quarterback, too -- and I think Brees will play most of the game.
My prediction: New Orleans 34, Carolina 24.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

D-Wade, Cam, LeBron and the Superman pose

If there was any doubt how big Cam Newton's Superman pose has gotten, it was erased Wednesday night during the Miami Heat's visit.

Dwyane Wade won the game over a gritty Charlotte Bobcats team, 96-95, with a six-foot bank shot with 2.9 seconds left. Then he did Newton's "Superman" gesture right at Newton, who was seated courtside (Cam has now come to both Bobcats' games this season and sat front and center).

LeBron James did the ripping-the-shirt-off Superman thing, too, standing slightly behind and to the right of Wade, after Wade's game-winner. Newton laughed when he saw it, Wade said, adding that he wasn't making fun of Newton with the gesture.

"That was a show of respect to him," Wade said. "Not showing nobody up."

It was a tough ending for the Bobcats, but they still have had a great first three days of the season. A Bobcats team that was supposed to be awful edged a good Milwaukee squad by a point in the season opener and then had a very good chance to beat the Heat two days later.

But Wade -- even though he said he wasn't jumping well off his sore foot -- still won it at the end. He had noticed Newton sitting courtside earlier in the game.

"First of all, the guy is huge," Wade said of Newton. "... I've seen him play a lot. He's entertaining. He had one of the best rookie years of any player to ever play the game."

Perhaps imitation really is flattery. I suppose it is a tribute to Newton that an athlete of Wade's stature was doing Newton's move after a game-winning shot. But this one still hurt Charlotte.

The Bobcats had a great chance for a signature win Wednesday night. But ultimately, they couldn't quite find their own superhero when it mattered most.

Cam got robbed and other Pro Bowl notes

Cam Newton will almost certainly end up in Hawaii, playing in the Pro Bowl for the NFC, but the rookie quarterback wasn't selected outright to the team.

That, my friends, was a bad decision. Cam got robbed. I have no argument whatsoever with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees going in ahead of Cam -- Rodgers should be the NFL MVP this year and Brees just broke Dan Marino's single-season yardage record.

But Newton should have been the third choice over the New York Giants' Eli Manning, winning his spot cleanly rather than having to wait for either Rodgers or Brees to make the Super Bowl (no Super Bowl players play in the Pro Bowl now, since the game is the week before the Super Bowl) or someone to pull out with an injury. (Newton is the first alternate at QB, and first alternates nearly always end up playing at that position).

Let's look at the numbers. Manning has more passing yards (4587 to 3893) and his team has more wins (8 to 6). His quarterback rating is slightly higher (90.3 to 85.0). Interceptions are equal (16 each).

But Newton was responsible for far more TDs, and that's the category that truly separates these two. Manning had 26 passing TDs to Cam's 20, but Cam had 14 rushing TDs to Manning's one. That makes the overall TD total 34 for Cam and 27 for Eli. Manning also had the benefit of playing in a weaker division (I'm not sure anyone in the NFC East really deserves a playoff berth).

In fact, the way I would have ordered the NFC quarterbacks would be like this:

1: Rodgers
2: Brees
3: Newton
4: Matthew Stafford (36 passing TDs and a playoff berth)
5. Manning

As for Panther center Ryan Kalil making it again, I don't judge offensive linemen very well but those who do for a living say he's great at what he does and I believe them. Steve Smith was an absolute shoo-in and should have been voted in as a starter in front of Larry Fitzgerald (I have no quarrel with Calvin Johnson as the other starter).

OT Jordan Gross and RB DeAngelo Williams may both end up in Hawaii, too -- they were selected as alternates. One player who should have been picked at least as an alternate but wasn't -- Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble, who has had an underrated, really good season.

Monday, December 26, 2011

7 quick opinions about Bobcats' opening-night win

Seven quick thoughts about the Bobcats' 96-95 home win over Milwaukee to open the season:

1) Kemba Walker can get his shot off against anybody, but what's even more impressive is his toughness and his quick hands. He scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in only 20 minutes -- his play and his burgeoning friendship with Panther QB Cam Newton (who was seated courtside) are the subject of my column for Tuesday's newspaper.

2) Stephen Jackson was obviously pressing while playing for the Bucks against his former team. He has rarely played a worse game -- six fouls, a technical and only six points in 17 minutes. And three of those points came on a didn't-mean-to-bank-it three. I know you'll be stunned that Jackson criticized the officials after the game, although he also said there's "no bad blood" between he and the Bobcats.

3) D.J. Augustin was very impressive in the game's final minute, scoring five "had-to-have-em" points after the Bobcats had lost all of the eight-point lead they held with 3:02 to go. Augustin and Walker combined for Charlotte's final seven points.

4) Who knew Byron Mullens, the seven-foot backup Bobcats center, could shoot that well? Wait, who knew Byron Mullens was even on the team? He tied his career high with 10 points.

5) How did the shorter Bobcats out-rebound Milwaukee by 13? By outhustling them. Boris Diaw did some really good work (11 rebounds, nine assists, nine points).

6) Corey Maggette had only 12 points (and six turnovers) and yet the Bobcats nearly got to 100. That won't happen that often -- Maggette needs to score more than that and get to the line more often (only one free throw attempt Monday, which he missed). Still, he's obviously a positive leader on the floor anytime he's out there.

7) Does it amaze you that some tickets are still available for the Miami Heat's only appearance this season in Charlotte on Wednesday night? It does me.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Picking the Panthers to win again

Two rarities about Saturday's game -- it's being played on Christmas Eve and the Panthers are favored.

Because of the schedule, it will be interesting to see how many Panther fans actually show up for this one (or stay for the whole thing). Lots of people are traveling or involved with Christmas events. Any scalper who manages to make a lot of money Saturday is one fine scalper. If you've never seen a Panther game before and want to go see Cam Newton play without spending a fortune, this is the day. Just show up and make a deal.

One guarantee, though -- it will be more crowded at Bank of America Stadium than it was in Tampa three weeks ago. I was there for Carolina's 19-point win that day, and Raymond James Stadium looked about half full for most of the game and was far less than that in the fourth quarter.

-- If ever there was a chance for Newton to commit a turnover and still win a game, this is it. Even with Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman returning -- Josh Johnson played three weeks ago -- the Bucs aren't very good.

One of the most startling statistics about this year's Panthers is that the team is 5-0 when Newton doesn't make a single turnover and 0-9 when he commits one or more. That's too much pressure on Newton -- it's not realistic for a quarterback to have one turnover-free game after another, as much as the ball is in his hands. The unraveling Buccaneers, though, have lost eight games in a row and are a team that can be had even with some errors.

-- Hard to imagine that the Bucs on defense will do anything but stack up the middle of the line in all short-yardage situations Saturday. Newton ran for three touchdowns in the first meeting -- a 38-19 Carolina win -- and they were all from one yard away.

-- The Panthers won so convincingly the first time in part because they were the best in the red zone that they have been all year. Five times Carolina's offense got inside the Tampa Bay 20, and all five times the Panthers scored touchdowns. Carolina's run defense was also surprisingly good against the Bucs and will need to be again Saturday. Freeman has a better arm than Johnson, too, so he will likely attack deep against Carolina's injury-depleted secondary.

-- I misfired on Carolina's upset win over Houston Sunday, incorrectly picking the Texans to win. I'll try to get back on track with this prediction: Carolina 32, Tampa Bay 23.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shockey rips Texans' anthem etiquette; then Ryans rips Shockey

Here’s a hot-button topic to debate:

Jeremy Shockey had another good game for Carolina with a touchdown and a key 26-yard catch late in the 28-13 road win over Houston, but he was more interested in talking postgame about what he perceived as a lack of national anthem etiquette on the Texans’ part. And then my friend John McClain of the Houston Chronicle got a reaction Sunday night from Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans about Shockey’s original comments in which Ryans fires back at Shockey.

First, Shockey’s comments: “Myself, I was pretty upset they weren’t showing respect to America during the national anthem,” Shockey said, unprompted, about the Texans when he began talking to reporters in the locker room after the game. “There were about 10 players who didn’t put their arms across their chests….. This is America. They should at least give respect to America…. Maybe they just forgot to do it or something. I don’t see how you can forget something like that.”

Shockey’s comments came fairly late in the open locker room period. He repeated them almost verbatim twice. The second time they were prompted. I asked him about the issue again to make sure I had heard him correctly.

McClain got a reaction for the Houston Chronicle from Ryans about Shockey’s comments. Said Ryans: “If he’s so patriotic, why was he looking at our bench instead of the flag? Where did he come up with the number 10? Was he counting? Why was he paying attention to us during the national anthem? Of course our players are patriotic. We respect the flag and America and our soldiers that are fighting for our freedom.”

I’ve had many readers already send me the official code for national anthem etiquette, which indeed does include holding your hand over your heart (if you’re a civilian).

I have seen hundreds of athletes, fans and media members not follow this code, though, including Panthers on the current team, fans in Bank of America Stadium and myself. I stand silently at attention, look at the flag and sometimes sing along, but usually I have my hands behind my back. Perhaps I should reconsider this posture – a number of readers certainly think that I should.

Those with a long Panther memories may recall that Panther running backs Fred Lane and Tshimanga Biakabutuka were correctly criticized in 1998 when they sat down and talked with each other during one national anthem at home. A number of fans noticed. The players apologized and always stood after that.

Shockey, incidentally, twice mispronounced Ryans' name in that same interview. He was asked about the play in which he scored a touchdown and said it was a "simple play" in which he had beaten Ryans. Ryans later made a huge hit on Shockey, jarring a pass loose.

Panthers finally win a big one

Carolina got its biggest win of the season Sunday at Houston, avoiding the second-half blahs just enough to win, 28-13, on the road against a team that has already clinched a playoff berth. (Here's my column about the victory and what it means).

One more link, too: Here is a "Scott Says" I wrote for the newspaper about Jeremy Shockey ripping the Houston Texans for their national anthem etiquette.

The Panthers were up 21-0 at halftime. Houston creamed Carolina in the third quarter to cut the lead to 21-13. But the game's key drive came after that, when Carolina went 80 yards in seven plays to take a 28-13 lead with 9:54.

After James Anderson stopped Houston's next march by intercepting rookie T.J. Yates in the end zone, Carolina ran out the game's final 7:25 with "downhill football," as left tackle Jordan Gross called it. They went from their own 3 to the Houston 28 to end the game convincingly.

This is the sort of game that should give any Panther fan hope for 2012. Yes, the Texans are down to their third-string QB, who had two bad picks Sunday. But the Texans still had the NFL's No.1-rated defense, and Carolina shredded it for four TDs. Newton didn't have a turnover -- the Panthers are now 5-0 when he doesn't and 0-9 when he does -- and even a trick-play handoff through the legs to Richie Brockel worked for a seven-yard TD.

If Carolina had lost yet another big lead -- after blowing a 16-point margin to Atlanta and a 17-point lead at Detroit -- this could have been awful for the team's confidence. Instead, the Panthers got what is easily their biggest win since 2009.

A near-perfect half for Panthers

Carolina just played a holiday gift of a half for its fans here in Houston -- the Panthers lead, 21-0, at Reliant Stadium over the playoff-bound Houston Texans.

It has been a startling half, with the Panthers scoring three times (on a 26-yard pass to Steve Smith, a shorter pass to Jeremy Shockey and a hidden-ball trick run by H-back Richie Brockel) and Houston getting shut out.

While the Panthers' offense has been huge, the defensive shutout has to be the biggest surprise so far. Carolina forced a turnover on the second play from scrimmage -- a fumble James Anderson recovered -- and got an interception from Jordan Senn to snuff a Houston drive. They have forced Texans rookie T.J. Yates to look very much like a rookie thus far.

While Newton's two passing TDs were good stuff, the takeaway from this game has already occurred -- Brockel's 7-yard run on the trick play. The Panther linemen all stood up on the play to block what was happening, as Newton took a shotgun snap and slipped the ball between Brockel's legs before faking as if he were running an option to the right.

Then Brockel went left and, behind good blocking, scored untouched. It was perfectly executed and undoubtedly lifted offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's stock.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Super Bowl memories and a Texans-Panthers prediction

It has been almost eight years since the Panthers visited Houston, where the Carolina Panthers played and lost a remarkable Super Bowl against New England on Feb.1, 2004. It's ironic that on Sunday the architect of the Panthers' final three fourth-quarter touchdowns -- quarterback Jake Delhomme -- will be on the field as a backup quarterback for the Houston Texans. Only wide receiver Steve Smith and offensive tackle Jordan Gross remain from that Panthers' Super Bowl squad as active Carolina players.
I was there in Houston, watching one of the best games in any sport I've ever seen in person. A few notes that I still find interesting:

-- John Kasay's much-discussed kickoff out of bounds once the game was tied at 29-all with 1:08 left likely netted the Patriots only 13 yards. Their average drive start after kickoffs had been the 27 on the game's previous kickoffs; Kasay's errant kickoff instead meant they began on the 40.

I have always maintained Kasay's kickoff made little difference. Tom Brady had such control over the Panthers' defense at that point I think he could have gotten New England to a winning field goal even starting on his own 2.

-- Team owner Jerry Richardson gave each Panther employee two free airplane tickets, four hotel nights and two free Super Bowl tickets for the game.

-- Julius Peppers became the first athlete to ever play in both a Final Four and a Super Bowl in the game. He was generally ineffective against the Patriots, though. The Panthers' defensive line sported Peppers and an in-his-prime Kris Jenkins yet couldn't get a single sack.

-- At one point in the first half, Delhomme was 1-for-9 for one yard and had been sacked three times. He ended up with 323 yards, three TD passes and a quarterback rating of 113.6 (higher than Brady's 100.5).

-- Many remember the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" of Janet Jackson, but how many remember a streaker wearing only a jockstrap held up the second-half kickoff?

-- On a far different note, I totally agree with Smith's assertion this week that Tim Tebow is not as good a quarterback as Cam Newton. Tebow's recent streak in Denver has been remarkable, but he has so much more help on defense and special teams than Newton does.

-- As for Sunday's game in Houston, Newton and the Panthers have quite a challenge facing the NFL's top-ranked Texan defense. The Panthers can stay in this one for awhile -- they almost always do -- but Houston has quite a team and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates (formerly of North Carolina) has already shown he's cool under pressure. I've gotten the Panthers' outcome correctly the past five weeks in a row in this space.
My prediction: Houston 30, Carolina 20.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A wiser, more realistic Jordan

The contrast was striking.

A little more than a year ago, just before the 2010-11 NBA season began, Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan was full of bravado. In a town-hall type meeting with 700 of the team’s best customers, he said: “At minimum, we should make the playoffs. And I think we should go deep in the playoffs.”

But on Wednesday, when Jordan met with Observer reporters and editors just before the 2011-12 Bobcats season, he came across more as a wiser and more world-weary NBA owner who has taken a couple of lumps over the past year.

There was the NBA lockout. There was the fact the Bobcats didn’t make the playoffs at all last season, ending with a 34-48 record. There was the reality that Jordan, despite his undeniable magnetism, has not been able to stem the red ink flowing from the Bobcats and has yet to attract the superstar player the team so badly needs.

A year later, Jordan remains optimistic – he wouldn’t rule out the playoffs for this bunch and compared rookie Bismack Biyombo to a young Hakeem Olajuwon -- – but also sounded more realistic. He told us he wanted to win “today” but tempered that quickly by saying “there are certain things you have to take into consideration, like (salary) cap space.”

Since Jordan made the “deep in the playoffs” remark in October 2010, the team has changed coaches (Larry Brown to Paul Silas) and traded away its two best players (Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson).

The Bobcats are going young this season, with two top-10 draft picks joining Gerald Henderson and D.J. Augustin. They will absorb losses by the dozen this season, and although Jordan won’t say it, I will: If these Bobcats make the playoffs, it will be an utter miracle.

Still, it’s apparent Jordan has a plan. He wouldn’t say it like this, but ultimately to get better, the Bobcats are first going to have to get worse.

Their ceiling with Jackson and Wallace at the forefront was never high enough to win a single playoff game. So Jordan is trying to do something different, and I commend him for that. He still believes he can fly.

But he also now understands how difficult – although not impossible -- it is to build a pair of wings big enough to lift an entire franchise.

No-o-o-lindo Mare and the confidence question

So the Panthers have signed another kicker to compete with Olindo Mare following Mare's second huge fourth-quarter miss under 40 yards of the season -- last Sunday in a loss to Atlanta.

Good for them. Sticking stubbornly with Mare just because they paid him so much money to replace John Kasay would be silly at this point. The question is how much confidence Mare has lost and whether it can be regained, and we won't know the answer to that one until when (and if) he puts some of these misses far in his rear-view mirror.

Kunalic is not a household name in his own household -- he didn't even kick field goals in college, but was a kickoff specialist at Nebraska. So he's not all that different from Mare -- who remains on the roster -- except that he's younger and would be cheaper to employ.

Like Mare, Kunalic has a strong leg that can reach the end zone for touchbacks but is far from a sure thing with a game on the line.

At least the Panthers are doing something to try and answer the "No-o-o-lindo" question. Releasing Kasay has long been the 2011 team's most questionable offseason move. Kasay has made 98 percent of his field goals from under 40 yards over the past four years -- they are like extra points to him -- and he is now flourishing in New Orleans.

No, Kasay couldn't reach the end zone on kickoffs any longer. But the Panthers had another option there if they were dead set on not having two kickers on the roster as they did for the latter part of John Fox's tenure. They could have kept Kasay, released punter Jason Baker instead and gotten a punter who could also kick off like some other NFL teams do.

You can see why the Panthers would try to get a two-for-one roster spot special in Mare, who was paid a $4 million signing bonus as part of a $12-million, four-year deal. But he hasn't been performing in the clutch.

I think the early-season blocks may have affected him (Mare has had two field goals and an extra point blocked) and he's now trying to get the ball off too quickly, which makes him yank kicks sometimes. That's just a layman's opinion.

But whatever the reason for Mare's miscues, at least the Panthers are trying to tinker with this critical position now -- again -- after they tried over the summer to fix a position that was never really broken.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Panthers by the numbers after 13 games

Some significant numbers for the 4-9 Panthers:

1: In the past four seasons, the number of field goals from 40 yards or less that John Kasay has missed (out of 54).

7: In the past four seasons, the number of field goals from 40 yards or less that Olindo Mare has missed (out of 71), including two critical fourth-quarter misses in Panther home games this season.

12-40: The combined record of the four teams the Panthers have beaten this season.

16 -- Cam Newton's interceptions in 2011. Only Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman (18) and San Diego's Philip Rivers (17) have more.

26 -- Total number of sacks for Panthers' defense this season. Charles Johnson has nine sacks, which is at least six more than the rest of his defensive teammates.

28 -- Newton's total TDs in 2011 (15 passing, 13 rushing).

139.1 -- The Panthers' average rushing yards per game, which is No.5 in the NFL.

274.9 -- Total yards allowed per game by Houston, the Panthers' next opponent. That ranks No.1 in the NFL (Carolina ranks No.5 in yardage gained, with 399 per game).

1217: Steve Smith's reception yardage this season, good for second in the NFL to Wes Welker. Smith's career high is 1563. He would need to average 116 receiving yards per game over the Panthers' last three contests to surpass it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts on Charlotte's 1-0 loss to UNC in soccer championship

It was quite a scene today in Alabama, where Charlotte lost 1-0 to North Carolina in the national championship for men's soccer.

Like a whole lot of other people from Charlotte, I made the 400-mile trek down to Hoover, Ala. (just outside of Birmingham) to watch the 49ers try to win their first-ever national championship in a team sport. And although they fell short, they certainly won the crowd battle and played a really good game despite the loss.

"We were first in almost every category but the one that wins the game," said Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn, whose team outshot the Tar Heels 19-10 and earned six corner kicks compared to North Carolina’s two. "That’s the cruel part of soccer."

One thing I really liked: When the game concluded, the Charlotte soccer players walked en masse toward their fans.

Rather than sulking in their misery, the Charlotte players strode toward their fans and applauded them. The fans, in turn, gave the players a standing ovation for a dream season that included five straight victories in the NCAA tournament but fell one win short of a championship.

Thanks to six busloads of Charlotte students and untold numbers of others making the six-hour drive from Charlotte, the 49ers probably had 7,000 fans among the 8,777 in attendance.

"It was phenomenal," Charlotte defender Isaac Cowles said. "I couldn’t even hear a Carolina fan. All I heard was Charlotte."

Many of those 49er students will take final exams Monday. I talked to one who had two final exams scheduled Monday, had attended the Charlotte-Davidson basketball game Saturday night and still made the 400-mile trip to Alabama Sunday. There were many others just like her. It was cool to see all of the support and to watch both teams play a taut, entertaining game.

My column on the game will be in Monday's newspaper and online, and Observer soccer expert David Scott will also have a couple of stories about it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Can Panthers beat a 'real' quarterback?

Now the Panthers get to see if they can beat a big-time quarterback.

If you're keeping count, the 4-8 Panthers' four wins this season have come against starting quarterbacks named Curtis Painter, Josh Johnson, Blaine Gabbert and John Beck. That's not exactly a murderers' row -- you could argue, in fact, that only Gabbert has any sort of future among the four. The rest are basically backups who were temporarily thrust into a starting role.

But the Panthers have come close to beating a couple of big-time quarterbacks this season, and they'll get another chance Sunday when they face Matt Ryan and the Falcons.

Ryan is smart enough to avoid major errors -- especially when he's simply handing off to Michael Turner. In the teams' first game this season, Ryan only threw 22 times, Turner ran 27 times and the Falcons won by a couple of touchdowns.

Ryan isn't having a great year by his standards, but he was plenty good enough to lead the Falcons to 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points against Carolina on Oct. 16. How Carolina fares on third down against Ryan -- and how they tackle the bowling ball that is Turner -- will likely determine this game's outcome.

-- Don't forget that you can contribute to the Marine's "Toys for Tots" drive by bringing a new, unwrapped toy to the Panthers' game Sunday. Marine representatives will be at each gate to collect the toys. Fans can also visit through Dec.24th to sponsor a child.

-- If it seems like the Panthers rarely beat the Falcons these days, it's true. Atlanta holds a 21-12 edge in the series and current Falcons coach Mike Smith is 5-2 against Carolina, including three wins in a row.

-- I've picked the Panthers' outcome correctly the past four weeks in a row in this space. This week I think Carolina's two-game win streak comes to an end. My prediction: Atlanta 27, Carolina 20.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cam damage from interview? Slight, avoidable

Cam Newton has made very few false steps in his rookie season, but he took one in a videotaped interview with ESPN The Magazine that has caused a lot of comment in the Carolinas.

Newton said during the interview of the Panthers’ organization: “The house that I’m in is somewhat of a tarnished house where losing is accepted.”

And he also said some teammates don’t take losses seriously enough. Newton is known for taking losses particularly hard – the Panthers are 4-8 at the moment. He has sometimes isolated himself from teammates – and everyone else – for a relatively long time after games and once snapped at tight end Greg Olsen when Olsen was trying to console him following a defeat.

I thought most of what Newton said in his interview was just fine. And a “want-to-win-so-bad-it-hurts” demeanor, let’s remember, is part of what got Michael Jordan to where he ended up.

But occasionally what Newton said struck me as odd. Newton’s analogy in the interview where he said he was a “lion” that someone was trying to make a “house pet” was just downright confusing. And then he sounded for a second like he would consider leaving the Panthers – where he is in the first year of a four-year, $22-million contract -- before backtracking.

“But I’m trying to change that [losing attitude],” Newton said at one point, continuing his lion analogy, “if I’m going to have to turn that house into a safari [where a lion could thrive, presumably] or I’m just going to have to get out of that house. Now I’m not saying – hear me out, what I’m saying now – I’m not saying I’m trying to leave this place, I’m just trying to get everybody on my level.”

As a player, that’d be a great thing. If everyone was on Newton’s level, the Panthers would be headed to the playoffs.

In other ways, though, it’s not such a great thing. Newton is 22 years old and sometimes he sounds a lot like it. This interview was one of those times.

As for Panther fans suddenly panicked that Newton will leave, don’t be. He’s not going anywhere at least through the 2014 season, when his original rookie contract runs out. And he’s so good the Panthers will break the bank to keep him after that – or, alternately, use their franchise tag to make sure he stays in Charlotte for many more years to come.

Bottom line: this interview wasn’t Newton’s best work. But while the damage was avoidable, it was also slight -- and will be forgotten before long.

(UPDATE: I had to disable the ability to post comments to this blog on Friday, Dec.9th -- sorry. As is too often the case on any Cam Newton-related blog, after awhile too many of the comments deteriorated into a bunch of cursing and name-calling. I left up the comments that weren't out-and-out obscene. If you feel strongly that you want to express your opinion on this post to me, please feel free to email me at

Cam Newton jersey mania

Cam Newton's NFL replica jersey can be difficult to find in stores these days.

A word to the wise if you are planning to give somebody a Cam Newton jersey for Christmas.... don't wait any longer to find it.

I had heard a number of stories from Panther fans about No.1 Newton jerseys being out of stock completely at local stores, or only available in certain sizes or colors (I'm talking about the basic jersey, in either blue, black or white, which usually retails for $85).

So I made a few calls, visits and checks to websites Wednesday and confirmed it. Some stores are out of Newton jerseys entirely and don't know when they will get more.

"We get them in," one local sales clerk told me, "and they basically sell out instantly."

The Panthers' store inside Bank of America Stadium has some jerseys for their star rookie quarterback, but only in certain sizes and colors (704-358-7158 if you want to check with them). The website lists only a few adult-sized jerseys for $85, and they are mostly in 4X and 5X. They do list a number of youth Newton jerseys ($60) as available. -- the league's official supplier of jerseys -- has a very limited supply of Cam jerseys and is completely out of many popular sizes. Several other national websites I checked out told a similar story.

But the Dick's Sporting Goods store in Northlake Mall -- at least as of Wednesday night -- had a surprisingly good selection when I stopped by.

I'm sure other stores around the Carolinas have some in stock -- especially the youth sizes, they seem to be a bit easier to find -- but it's very hit or miss.

Your best bet seems to be the old-fashioned way -- calling your local sporting-goods store directly before you drive out there. While websites often list the Newton jerseys as "sold out," some stores do have a few left in stock.

As I mentioned in this blog in October, Newton's jersey had already risen to No.16 in overall sales among all NFL players. After this Christmas season, I can't imagine it won't be in the Top 10 or Top 5 the next time those rankings are released.

And no, I wasn't looking for a Newton jersey for myself. The last NFL replica jersey I owned was when I was 10 years old and wore my Roger Staubach jersey every Sunday, and I'm going to keep it that way.

If you've got a story to tell about searching for a Newton jersey this Christmas -- or any other Panther-related item -- add a comment below. And please keep it clean.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Panthers by the numbers after 12 games

Some significant numbers for the 4-8 Panthers, winners of two straight heading into Sunday's home game against Atlanta:

0 -- Steve Smith's number of 100-yard receiving games out of the past four. He had five 100-yard days in Carolina's first nine games. Still, he is tied for second in the NFL in receiving yardage (1,092).

1.5 -- Take away Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Johnson's scrambles and that's what the Bucs' running backs averaged per carry Sunday (22 carries, 33 yards). It will be tough to do that to Atlanta's Michael Turner.

3 -- Times in a row Atlanta has beaten the Panthers, including a 31-17 win on Oct.16.

4 -- Years since an NFL quarterback had run for three TDs in a single game until Cam Newton did Sunday in the Panthers' 38-19 win over Tampa Bay. Daunte Culpepper had most recently done it in 2007.

13 -- Cam Newton's TDs this season (all rushing), which ranks him third among all NFL players in that category. The only players who have scored more: Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy (15 TDs -- 12 running, three receiving) and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski (14 -- 13 receiving, one rushing).

18 -- Touchdown drives that the Panthers have had of 80 or more yards this season. The team hasn't had many short-field TD drives at all -- it is averaging 70.2 yards per TD march.

44.6 -- Cam Newton's quarterback rating the first time he played the Falcons, when he threw for 237 yards but had zero TD passes and three interceptions in the Panthers' loss.

72 -- The Panthers' number of offensive plays that have gained 20 yards or more this season, which is first in the NFL in that "big play" category. Oakland (67) is second. The Panthers were tied for last in 2010 in the same category with 44.

139 -- Rushing yards Atlanta's Michael Turner put up against Carolina in the first game this season at the Georgia Dome. He had 62 rushing yards in the first half and 77 more in the second as the Falcons gradually wore down the Panthers.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Panthers' bests and worsts from 38-19 Carolina win over Tampa Bay

Thoughts on the Panthers’ 38-19 win over Tampa Bay Sunday, in which Carolina played its most complete game of the season while improving to 4-8. (UPDATE: And here's my column from Tampa on Cam Newton and his dazzling performance).

Best start: The Panthers scored on their first two drives, taking a 14-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old. Tampa Bay never got closer than eight the rest of the way.

Best run defense: Surprisingly, the Panthers played superbly against the Bucs’ LeGarrette Blount, who was held to 19 yards in 11 carries after averaging 105 yards in his previous two games.

Best rushing quarterback in the red zone: Cam Newton may be the best the NFL has ever had at this. He scored three touchdowns from one yard out Sunday, setting a new NFL record for quarterbacks with 13 for the season (Steve Grogan had 12 for New England in 1976).

Best break: The Buccaneers are a far different team with Josh Freeman at quarterback compared to Josh Johnson. With Freeman out due to a shoulder injury, the Panthers dared Johnson to beat them. He couldn’t.

Best undrafted free agent: Thomas Keiser, the rookie defensive end from Stanford, had a sack and an interception for Carolina as he continues to show up at opportune times.

Best trend: After losing 12 road games in a row, the Panthers have now won two straight.

Best throwback uniforms: While others may differ, I’m a big fan of the Bucs’ Creamsicle orange jerseys that they broke out for a throwback day Sunday.

Worst crowd: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa looked about half full for most of the game and was far less than that in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers led by as many as 26 and the fans were anxious to get out and salvage the rest of a glorious afternoon.

Best single play: Lots of choices, but I’d pick the pass from Legedu Naanee to Newton for 27 yards just for the dazzling creativity of it.

Best breakout performance: Naanee threw that pass, caught a touchdown pass, picked up a key first down on third-and-14 and threw a number of good blocks.

Best red-zone efficiency: The Panthers got inside the Buccaneers’ 20 five times and scored touchdowns every single time.

Worst Newton throw: Newton was close to flawless – the Panthers are now 4-0 when he doesn’t commit a turnover. But he was bemoaning after the game a long pass to Steve Smith that he underthrew and that ended up incomplete. Newton thought Smith might have scored had he thrown the ball better.

Best overall performance: The Panthers played their most complete game of the season, setting season highs in points (38) and victory margin (19).

A pass to Newton?! Really?

(UPDATE: Besides the pass described below, Cam Newton had one of the best games of his short career today. Newton had three touchdown runs -- all of a yard apiece -- and also threw a 19-yard TD pass to Legedu Naanee as Carolina crushed Tampa Bay, 38-19, for its second straight win).

It wasn’t a touchdown, but the Panthers ran one of their most notable plays of the season Sunday in the first quarter – one that will be sure to make the season-ending highlight film. It was a testament to creativity – one of those plays that looks like it was drawn up haphazardly in the backyard but actually had a lot of thought put into it.

On first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 29, the Panthers put three receivers wide on the right. Then running back DeAngelo Williams motioned out of the backfield to put four receivers on the right. The defense made a corresponding shift.

Quarterback Cam Newton took the snap and immediately threw what looked like a screen to Legedu Naanee. But it was actually a lateral. The other three receivers blocked as Naanee, who was briefly a college quarterback, lofted the ball back to Newton.

Newton hauled in the first reception of his NFL career and took off behind a wall of blockers. He looked like he would score but didn’t, gaining 27 yards to the Tampa Bay 2. Carolina scored shortly after that to take a 14-0 lead.

Overall, it was a gorgeous play on a gorgeous afternoon – and the kind that bolsters offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s resume.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Carolina Panthers to win at Tampa Bay

The Creamsicles are back!

Tampa Bay will wear its throwback Creamsicle orange uniforms Sunday when the Panthers play the Bucs in Tampa, harking back to those glorious days when the Bucs once lost 26 games in a row and head coach John McKay, when asked about his team's execution, quipped that he was in favor of it.

It's actually part of a whole throwback theme. The loudspeakers will be blaring music from the 1970s and the Bucs will induct former tight end Jimmie Giles from their early days into their Ring of Honor.

I've always liked Tampa Bay’s Creamsicle uniforms myself – they are among the weirdest uniforms in sports history, joining the uniforms of the 1970s-era Pittsburgh Pirates (remember the caps?) and the 1980s-era Houston Astros. And being dressed like an ice-cream popsicle fits these Bucs, because Tampa Bay has again become one of the NFL season’s biggest disappointments.

After starting 4-2, Tampa Bay has lost five straight games. Head coach Raheem Morris was asked by reporters about his job security this week – that’s never a good sign. Only Indianapolis (11 games) and San Diego (six) are currently limping through longer losing streaks.

-- The Bucs will start a Josh at quarterback Sunday, but it's unclear which one. Josh Freeman has started the past 36 games in a row for Tampa Bay, but he suffered a throwing shoulder injury on the last play of the game last week. If Freeman can’t go – and he's been very limited in practice this week – the Bucs will go with backup Josh Johnson. Like Freeman, Johnson can run, but he’s not as physical and his arm isn’t quite as good.

-- The Bucs are very banged up on the defensive line, which makes it even more imperative that the Panthers use a run/pass ratio similar to the one last week in the win over Indianapolis (35 runs, 27 passes).

-- I've picked the Panthers' outcome correctly the past three weeks in a row, including getting the spread right against Indianapolis last week (I picked Carolina to win by eight points).

I think that the Buccaneers (4-7) are in a freefall and have had a spate of recent injuries. Carolina (3-8) will win this game as long as it runs the ball well and its defense doesn't blow it. I think the Panthers will prevail, 28-24.