Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why UNC lost (and it wasn't just missing Kendall)

So the Tar Heels' season ended Sunday in the Elite Eight with a closer-than-it-sounded-but-still-very-painful 80-67 loss to Kansas.

Kansas scored the game's final 12 points, breaking open what had been a very good game until the final three minutes. Then it turned nightmarish -- coach Roy Williams used the word "panic" to describe his club in his postgame news conference. Which sounded about right, as one late possession after another ended up in a bad shot or a turnover.

So why did UNC lose? I wasn't in St. Louis -- just watching from home like most of yall -- but here's my take:

1) Kendall Marshall's absence. It wasn't the only reason -- and Kansas certainly might have beaten the Tar Heels anyway -- but it was very big. I don't blame this loss on Stilman White -- the guy had 13 assists and zero turnovers in two games in St. Louis when thrust into a difficult situation. But he was no scoring threat whatsoever, and while that's not White's fault, it hurt.

2) Harrison Barnes' lack of offense. Barnes, simply, wasn't what he needed to be against Kansas. The Tar Heels survived his 3-for-16 off night against Ohio -- barely -- but couldn't do it again vs. a much better Kansas team (Barnes was 5-for-14 and scored 13 points). When Barnes is 8 for 30 combined over 2 games, that doesn't cut it. Whether that was his last game as a Tar Heel remains to be determined.

3) Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey. While Robinson gets the headlines and scores more, Withey is Kansas's John Henson -- a shot-blocking threat at all times. He altered several shots, blocked a couple late (while he had four fouls) and had a great weekend. Withey had blocked 10 shots Friday night against N.C. State. They both thoroughly out-rebounded UNC's big men -- UNC's leading rebounder was Reggie Bullock (7), and that doesn't have anything to do with who your point guard is.

4) John Henson's ankle. After hurting his ankle during the game, Henson seemed pretty ineffective on offense (while still OK on defense). He mostly seemed to want to launch 18-footers, which look pretty when they go in but really isn't the shot the Tar Heels want. UNC got outrebounded in the game as Henson and Tyler Zeller simply couldn't do their volleyball act on the offensive boards nearly enough (see reason No.3 as to why). Henson only had 10 points, four rebounds and zero free throws attempted.

5) Second-half shooting. The Tar Heels were on fire in the first half, which ended at 47-all. They shot over 60 percent in the first half and then a horrid 7-for-31 (22.6 percent) in the second. Particularly from three-point range they were awful in the second half. They ended up 11.8 percent from three-point range for the game (an all-time NCAA tournament low for them).

6) Bill Self. Hey, the guy can flat-out coach. He has done one of the best jobs in the country again this season.

There's no coincidence as to why Kansas keeps ending the NCAA dreams of teams from North Carolina (Davidson and UNC in 2008, State and UNC in a 3-day span this year). He got his Jayhawks to guard better in the second half and he goes to another Final Four, while the Tar Heels go home wondering what would have happened had Marshall not fractured that wrist.

Note to faithful "Scott Says" readers: I appreciate very much you so often checking in on this blog and making it one of the most popular, week after week, at The Observer's website. I am off this coming week and will return on Monday, April 2nd, with more posts. Thanks.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Burleson's true height and other Carolina-State notes

Bobby Jones shoots over a leaping David Thompson during the early 1970s, when the UNC-N.C. State basketball rivalry was at one of its peaks. The two teams could play Sunday for the first time ever in the NCAA tournament. (Photo courtesy of UNC sports information)

I wrote a long story today about the Carolina-State basketball rivalry, which once was the pre-eminent hoops rivalry in North Carolina. Although it has been usurped by UNC-Duke over the past three decades, all eyes will be on both programs if they can advance tonight in the NCAA Sweet 16. Then they would play each other for a spot in the Final Four Sunday afternoon.

The story had to be cut in The Charlotte Observer due to lack of space (although the extended version was published in full in the print edition The [Raleigh] News & Observer) and is also online here.

Here are a couple of outtakes that I thought you might enjoy from the story that didn’t make it into The Observer’s print edition:

Lennie Rosenbluth – the eventual national player of the year over Wilt Chamberlain in 1957 with a career scoring average of 26.9 – almost went to N.C. State. Everett Case had offered the New York high school player a scholarship, Rosenbluth said, and then had Rosenbluth down to Raleigh in 1952 to visit the campus.
While there, Case asked Rosenbluth to work out with some other players. Rosenbluth – out of shape and wearing unfamiliar basketball shoes that blistered his feet – was “terrible,” he said. He hadn’t been prepared for what turned out to be a tryout.
Case told Rosenbluth at the end of the visit he couldn’t give him a scholarship after all. Frank McGuire happily did so instead.
“But maybe if I had gone to State I would have never played much,” Rosenbluth said. “So it all came out fine.”
The programs interweave in many ways. Many years later, Rosenbluth would coach a young point guard in the Miami area that Rosenbluth thought would be a great fit at North Carolina.
“But once he met Jim Valvano, it was over,” Rosenbluth said. “Valvano was a lot like McGuire – similar personalities, great salesmen – and so even though I didn’t like his decision, I could understand why.”
That point guard was Chris Corchiani.

Burleson – who also was recruited hard by UNC but picked the Wolfpack – felt the same way. He still remembers a State-Carolina game in Reynolds in 1972 when he noticed a few State fans waving behind the glass while UNC’s George Karl attempted two free throws.
Burleson was on the bench, having fouled out. But he rose up and waved his arms wildly, trying to incite the fans.
“That was the night that the distraction of fans waving behind the boards really began,” Burleson said. “I helped get that going.”
Karl missed both free throws and N.C. State eventually won. As Burleson remembers it now, UNC coach Dean Smith called Burleson’s act “the worst sportsmanship in the world.”

ONE ADDITIONAL NOTE: (This didn’t make it into either newspaper, but I thought it was interesting): Burleson was always listed at 7-foot-4 at N.C. State. But he said that was a marketing gimmick and that he wasn’t that tall – he was never measured even once while in Raleigh, he said. His actual height, Burleson said, was 7-foot-2, and he wishes that he had been listed that way for his whole career in Raleigh. Burleson said the first time he ever jumped center in the NBA against Lew Alcindor (before he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Alcindor looked him dead in the eye and said, "You're not 7-4."

"You're right, Lew," Burleson replied. "I'm not. I never was."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cam Newton was target of bounty program for Saints

The New Orleans Saints just got hammered today by the NFL for their bounty program. Among the most significant punishments (and here is Joseph Person's story on this for the Wednesday newspaper):

-- Saints coach Sean Payton is suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season and general manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for half the season without pay.

-- The Saints will forfeit second-round draft picks in both 2012 and 2013.

-- St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was the keeper of the bounty program because he was the Saints' defensive coordinator at the time, has been suspended indefinitely.

But buried deep in the NFL’s press release about the punishments was this interesting – and disgusting -- nugget:

“Payments were made for plays such as interceptions or fumble recoveries. All such payments are against league rules. Payments also were made for plays on which opposing players were injured. In addition, specific players were sometimes targeted. The investigation showed bounties being placed on four quarterbacks of opposing teams – Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Kurt Warner. Multiple sources have confirmed that several players pledged funds toward bounties on specific opposing players, with defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in 2010.”

Newton played against New Orleans twice in 2011 and wasn’t hurt in either game. But the Saints were trying to hurt him – they had literally put a bounty on him. That what’s what the NFL investigation has concluded (the Saints were penalized for three personal fouls in those 2011 games, however -- read this very interesting blog by The Observer's Joe Person about that and what the Saints said about "remember-me" hits following one of those games).

In general, I’m glad the NFL has taken such a hard line on bounties, which have no place in football. I wish the league had also taken away the Saints’ No.1 draft pick in 2013 (the Saints don’t have a No.1 pick in 2012). Otherwise, suspending Payton for a year seems about right, and I would imagine Williams will never work in the league again.

Saints' player suspensions, incidentally, are still to come (linebacker Jonathan Vilma will likely be hit the very hardest). These punishments were only for the management and the team. As I’ve written before, this “BountyGate” may change the balance of power in the NFC South. And at the very least, the Saints should be a good team to play early in the season, when the yet-to-be-announced player suspensions are in full force.

I suppose Newton could take it as a compliment that the Saints thought enough of him to put a bounty on him -- he was in pretty good company on that four-QB list. Everyone else on that list has won both an NFL MVP award and at least one Super Bowl.

But still...
This is disgusting. The Saints are getting hammered for this, and rightfully so. And I imagine the Panthers will have a little extra desire to win -- and to keep Newton's jersey clean -- the next time these two teams meet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Peyton Manning and John Fox: It is what it is

So John Fox -- the coach who saddled the Carolina Panthers with 10 games worth of Jimmy Clausen as a starter in 2010 -- now gets one of the best NFL quarterbacks in history to work with in Denver.

Doesn't seem quite right, does it?

But it's apparently true. Peyton Manning -- the most scrutinized and celebrated free agent since Reggie White went to Green Bay in 1993 -- has chosen Denver as his new home, with the contract more or less a formality.

That means Fox and John Elway -- who won his two Super Bowls in Denver in his late 30s and obviously could relate to Peyton in a way no one else in this recruitment process could -- will surely trade Tim Tebow and hand the offense over to Manning. I would, anyway -- can you imagine the circus if the Broncos keep both?

Manning won't be coached in the usual way. He is, after all, is basically his own quarterbacks coach and his own offensive coordinator -- or as close as you could be to one while still playing quarterback. Fox gets a new challenge here, coaching the sort of iconic, first-ballot hall of famer he never has before (Michael Strahan was close, but he didn't play quarterback).

Will Fox like it?
He will love it.

Fox doesn't like to be flexible necessarily, but he can do it if he needs to. He did what he had to do with Tebow last year, and that string of comebacks were remarkable. Ultimately, though, despite all the breathless coverage, Denver was 9-9 in 2011. Fox and Tebow were a shotgun marriage, and neither Fox nor Elway ever bought into that college-style offense longterm. Fox prefers a more traditional dropback quarterback, and he just got one of the best in history.

Of course, it may work out badly. Maybe Manning really can't come back from multiple neck surgeries. Maybe he gets hurt again in the first game and then Denver has traded away Tebow. Then, maybe Fox and Elway both get fired.

But I don't think that will happen. I have always been a Manning fan, both of his mind and his professionalism and his ability. He's still got it -- or else he's well on the way to getting it.

I am a little surprised Peyton wants to play in the Denver cold after being insulated in a dome for so many years in Indianapolis. I am a little surprised he chose Denver over San Francisco, a team that I believe is closer to the Super Bowl today than Denver (at least Denver before Manning decided to come) is.

But it is what it is -- do you think Fox will get Peyton to start saying that one?
I can tell you one thing -- Peyton won't be running the third-and-long draw without a fight. His easy smile masks a huge competitive streak, and he's not going to go along with the "a punt is not a bad play" philosophy.

Fox will once again be stretched, but in a different way this time. Tebow stretched his idea of what a quarterback could do running the ball in the NFL. Manning will stretch the coach's idea of how much control a quarterback should have over the passing offense.
Fox will do fine with it. The guy can coach, especially on defense -- we've all seen that. Now he has a quarterback that he can hand the keys to without inwardly shuddering. It's undoubtedly a relief.

As for how this affects the Panthers -- not much, since Manning will stay in the AFC. But there are two ways I see the Broncos and Panthers possibly interacting before long:
1) The tickets to the Denver game in Charlotte this season will be very hot.

2) Fox may get one of his folks to at least make a call to his old team and inquire whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart might be available at the right price. Fox likes both of his former backs, he likes to collect lots of running backs and the Panthers just signed a third running back themselves in Mike Tolbert.

So it wouldn't hurt for Fox to ask now, would it?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Will Tolbert signing mean the end of Double Trouble?

The NFL free agency pot is boiling these days, with Peyton Manning apparently headed to Denver to play for John Fox and Tim Tebow likely to be traded. That's huge news nationally, and I'm going to blog about it soon.

The big news locally, though, is the signing of running back Mike Tolbert, a former Coastal Carolina back whose 5-9, 243-pound build has long been compared to a bowling ball. His agent Joel Turner said Tolbert wanted to join the Panthers so badly he "left over a million on the table" to come to Charlotte.

Tolbert will join a crowded backfield that, for now, includes DeAngelo Williams (signed to a huge contract last year), Jonathan Stewart (entering the final year of his contract) and Mike Goodson (who fell out of favor last season and looks very expendable). Tolbert will apparently be a fullback, first and foremost, along with a special-teams player.

The Panthers use Cam Newton as a virtual running back at times, too, especially near the goal line. So can they afford another huge investment in Stewart, who will likely want DeAngelo money (a reported five years and $43 million) and will get it somewhere? Stewart is under contract this year but becomes a free agent in 2013.

I think this is a good move for the Panthers -- Tolbert will shore up the special teams, is versatile and is generally a good utility guy who played collegiately at Coastal Carolina. Panthers GM Marty Hurney called Tolbert a "very versatile player" in a statement.

Tolbert tied for the Chargers' team lead last year with 12 special-teams tackles and also led San Diego with eight rushing TDs. He's got a nose for the end zone, with 26 career TDs despite rarely starting.

If the Panthers can keep "Double Trouble" together along with Tolbert, more power to them. We've seen over and over how well Stewart and Williams work together. Tolbert certainly sounds like he won't mind blocking for either one of them when the Panthers get in a two-back set.

But can the Panthers afford to keep Stewart after this season? Maybe not. Two huge contracts is an awful lot to invest in the position when there are many times that Stewart or Williams only carries the ball 10 or so times per game.

With that being said, if rumors that DeAngelo or Stewart are on the trading block were true (the Panthers don't comment on trade rumors) would not surprise me at all.

But it also would surprise me if either was ultimately traded -- the NFL, for various reasons, makes far fewer trades than, say, the NBA.

If Stewart is traded, he would have to sign a new contract extension with the new team -- nobody would want to trade some significant assets for him and then risk losing him after a year (much like Greg Olsen did with Carolina). If Williams is traded, another team would have to assume a huge contract, which also can be problematic.

If there are no trade takers -- and either Stewart or DeAngelo, to me, would be worth a No.1 pick at the least -- then you could at least pair them together one more time for the 2012 season and just see what develops. The Panthers have one more year of Stewart at a cheap rate, so they don't have to make any immediate decisions about this.

But ultimately, Double Trouble is going to have to end sometime. Nothing lasts forever. And given Tolbert's versatility -- he's a fine insurance policy at several positions -- this does increase the possibility that it might be sooner rather than later.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

UNC rolls, but Marshall fractures wrist

GREENSBORO – With John Henson making a triumphant return, North Carolina had a surprisingly easy time with Creighton, winning 87-73 before a baby-blue crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum to advance to the Sweet 16.

But the win was marred by the postgame news that point guard Kendall Marshall has a fractured right wrist and is questionable for UNC's next game Friday. Marshall, a lefty, said if the injury was in his left wrist "I'd tell you I'm not playing right now." But he is hopeful that he can play since the injury is to his non-dominant hand.

The Tar Heel players reacted with shock to the news of Marshall's injury. "Devastating," Harrison Barnes said.

"When you go to the Sweet 16, it's supposed to be a lot more fun than this," Coach Roy Williams said.

The Tar Heels and N.C. State both travel to St. Louis this coming week for Sweet 16 games and could meet in the Elite Eight, although both must win another game to do that.

Henson’s return from the bad wrist that had kept him out of the past three games was huge for the Tar Heels. UNC often matched him up on Doug McDermott, Creighton’s 23-point-per-game scorer. Henson had four inches on McDermott and blocked or altered his shot numerous times. Henson also was able to score and rebound well enough (he had 13 points and 10 rebounds) that he started and stayed in for most of the game.

The Tar Heels enjoyed the chance to run – Creighton also likes to play the up-and-down game that UNC is built to play. Marshall continued his recent scoring surge, knocking down his first six shots and ending with 18 points and 11 assists (the injury occured with 10:56 to play, but he played through it for most of the rest of the game).

UNC survived an off shooting day from Barnes (7-for-19) and an average one for Tyler Zeller with good performances from Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo.

Although Barnes – once a high school teammate of McDermott’s in Ames, Iowa – missed several layups, he also knocked down two straight three-pointers with five minutes to go that sealed the victory. Creighton had cut the margin to 12, but those two threes pushed it back to 18 and ensured the Tar Heels a Sweet 16 berth against the winner of the Ohio-South Florida game.

McDermott had 20 points on 19 shots, but the Tar Heels kept him enough in check they were never seriously threatened. Now Marshall's injury, however, has thrown so much into doubt.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lehigh 2012 equals Weber State 1999 (UNC and Duke fans will never forget either one)

Duke just suffered a huge upset in its first game in the 2012 NCAA tournament -- the No.2-seeded Blue Devils fell to No.15 seed Lehigh, 75-70.

While I was watching the game live in Greensboro and trying to write a column to capture it, I started thinking about another huge upset from 13 years before. Remember Weber State?

It had a (briefly) great player named Harold "The Show" Arceneaux, and Weber State upset UNC by two points in the 1999 tournament. UNC was the No.3 seed and Weber State was a No.14, but the Tar Heels couldn't use their size advantage well (future NBA player Brendan Haywood had zero rebounds and was 0-for-3 from the field in 24 minutes) and Arceneaux scored 36. (Arceneaux would later make a living playing basketball overseas, but not in the NBA).

Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum played the role of Arceneaux Friday night against Duke. He was the best player on the court, scoring 30, and he could have had a lot more if he had made his free throws and layups. The guy could drive by anyone Duke threw at him.

Duke fans for years later could tease UNC fans with only two words: "Weber State." Some went as far as to buy Weber State T-shirts to wear.

Tar Heel fans will long remember the word "Lehigh" now -- particularly the ones who were in Greensboro screaming for the Mountain Hawks and waving "Go Lehigh" signs. And there were a lot of those. Don't be surprised if some brown Lehigh T-shirts start showing up in Chapel Hill soon.

So my two equations for the night is simple:

Weber State = Lehigh

Harold Arceneaux = C.J. McCollum

And the NCAA tournament, as always, equals a whole lot of surprises.

UNC wins in routine fashion over Vermont

North Carolina used its superior height and athleticism to pull away from Vermont in the second half Friday, winning its opening game of the 2012 NCAA tournament, 77-58.

The victory came before a crowd of 16,422, which was well short of a sellout in Greensboro Coliseum. It all seemed rather routine in the second half as the Tar Heels stretched a 12-point halftime lead into the 20s for most of the final 10 minutes despite not playing post player John Henson for the third straight game.

The Tar Heels will next play No.8 seed Creighton, which squeaked by Alabama, 58-57, in the first game of the day at Greensboro. The Bluejays like to run – they had a scoring offense in the top 10 this season – and so Sunday should be fast-paced.

UNC kept alive the streak of a No.1 seed never losing to a No.16 in NCAA tournament play and had an easier time of it than, say, Syracuse over UNC Asheville Thursday.

Still, the Tar Heels had plenty of things to work on. Their offense was stagnant for much of the first half – they led only 17-15 after a little more than 12 minutes had been played.

Up by 13, frustrated coach Roy Williams caught an errant Tar Heel pass that ended up as a turnover midway through the second half while he was sitting down. He grabbed the ball and pounded it twice onto the floor before returning it. The Tar Heels motored away from Vermont not long after that.

Tyler Zeller and James Michael McAdoo led the Tar Heels in scoring with 17 points apiece, with Zeller adding 15 rebounds. Harrison Barnes had 14 points and Kendall Marshall 11 points and 10 assists.

Henson, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, continues to nurse a sprained left wrist. He was in a suit and tie instead of in uniform for this one. While the Tar Heels were still far bigger than Vermont without Henson, they will need him if he can play even for awhile against a taller and more athletic Creighton team Sunday.

Zeller got the second-biggest cheer of the afternoon when he went all Henson on the Catamounts early in the second half, blocking two consecutive shots on a single possession.

The biggest cheer came on a ridiculously athletic follow dunk from McAdoo, whose slam begged for a replay and will get many thousands of those before this NCAA tournament is over. That was the only shot McAdoo made in the first half in six attempts, but he showed his athleticism repeatedly in the second 20 minutes and was roundly cheered every time he entered or left the game.

Is Shockey worth the hassle?

Former Panther tight end Jeremy Shockey is looking for a job but didn't let that stop him on Thursday from getting into a war of words via Twitter with his old New York Giants teammate, Amani Toomer.

It was only the latest display of Shockey's "attitude" or "edginess" or whatever you want to label it -- Toomer labeled Shockey a "bad teammate, worse person" after hearing the rumor that Shockey might want to return to the Giants.

Shockey responded with characteristic vitriol, mentioning on Twitter old divorce allegations that Toomer "urinated" on his ex-wife's clothes and that Toomer "loafed on a play and got man handled in my leg that caused it to break."

Juvenile stuff from both men, to be sure. And it made me wonder once again if Shockey is really worth the hassle.

At $4 million per year, which is what the Panthers paid Shockey last season, he certainly isn't. Greg Olsen is the clear No.1 tight end for Carolina. And even though Carolina likes to run a lot of two-tight sets, that's too much for a second tight end.

Maybe if Shockey would take half that he'd be worth bringing back, but even then you have to figure the Panthers have better pass-catchers and better locker room leaders. Shockey can be high-maintenance. And although he certainly wants to win, he doesn't always think before acting.

The Twitter feud with Toomer is only the latest example -- it might have felt good to Shockey to hammer Toomer with a couple of tweets, but you can rest assured every general manager in the NFL also saw that and thought to themselves, "Hmmmm.... do we really want this guy in our locker room?"

Shockey will play somewhere in 2012 -- he's not washed up. But it's going to be at a lot less than $4 million, and I ultimately don't think it will be with the Panthers. If I were the Panthers, I wouldn't bring him back unless it was at something close to the veteran minimum, and he may be able to get more than that somewhere else where there's no Olsen.

-- On a different note, the first big day of "March Madness" was more annoying than real madness, wasn't it? Too many games that weren't close at the end, too few upsets and two bad calls that derailed UNC Asheville's last chance at the ultimate upset over No.1 Syracuse. Hopefully today will be better. Here's my column about "Fantastic Friday."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Overmatched Davidson goes out quietly to Louisville

This wasn't the way Davidson wanted it to end, but end it did Thursday in Portland, Oregon, where No.4 seed Louisville dispatched No.13 seed Davidson, 69-62, in the Wildcats' first game of the NCAA tournament.

UNC Asheville's game was much better, which was a surprise. No.16 seed UNC Asheville threw a significant scare into No.1 seed Syracuse, even though the margin was also seven points (a 72-65 win for Syracuse) thanks to some late free throws by the Orangemen.

Davidson was undone by its tepid offense -- only Jake Cohen and Clint Mann really did much as the Wildcats (averaging 78 points per game entering the contest) nearly scored a season low in points. I felt particularly sorry for De'Mon Brooks, the Charlotte product and the Southern Conference co-Player of the Year along with Cohen. Brooks looked lost during the game and was nothing like the player who dominated so many times during the season.

The Wildcats scored only 25 points in the first half -- they trailed by eight at half and never really made a serious run in the second half. Davidson was so bad on three-point shooting -- a key part of its offense -- that it got to where I would cringe every time one of them went up by midway through the game. It felt a whole lot different than when Stephen Curry was raining threes in Davidson's last NCAA tournament appearance, in 2008. This time, Davidson could never make threes with any consistency and several Davidson players got to where they were hesitant to even shoot them late.

Louisville had a lot to do with that, of course. Louisville is a strong defensive team -- you don't play for Rick Pitino if you don't play defense. And the Cardinals were far quicker than what Davidson was used to in the SoCon. Davidson had no one who could stay in front of Cardinal guard Peyton Siva (17 points), for instance.

Still, Davidson had its chances. Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng was out for much of the first half after picking up three quick fouls, but except for Cohen, Davidson failed to take advantage often enough of his absence.

By the second half, when Dieng returned, the Louisville lead seemed to constantly stay at around 10-12 points. Davidson's effort wasn't lacking -- and this team should be congratulated for what, all in all, was a very fine season. But its execution was sorely lacking. This looked nothing like the Davidson team that upset Kansas earlier in the season.

Instead, Davidson simply looked overmatched.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Panthers fire Jason Baker -- was it a year too late?

Jason Baker was a fine punter and holder for the Carolina Panthers, but he was replaceable.
The Panthers came to that decision Wednesday when they released Baker, who had punted for the team since 2005 and generally done a good job doing so (although last year his leg didn't seem as strong and he was also hampered by some occasionally awful special-teams coverage, so his net average was quite low for him). When Baker did get one blocked, which would happen every now and then, it was usually a blocking miscue.

But Baker, unlike a fair number of NFL punters, wasn't a good enough kickoff specialist to do both jobs (although he was an excellent holder). That was part of the reason why the Panthers released John Kasay shortly before the 2011 season began and signed Olindo Mare to a four-year, $12-million contract. Mare was supposed to save them a roster spot by both kicking off and kicking field goals.

Mare was great on kickoffs, all right -- he was second in the NFL in 2011 with 53 touchbacks. But he was too often disappointing in the key part of his job. He missed two critical fourth-quarter field goals from relatively short range last season. Kasay, meanwhile, landed on his feet in New Orleans for a one-year gig when the Saints' regular kicker got hurt.

The Panthers even went so far as to bring in another kicker toward the end of last season, although Mare never lost his job (and I imagine he will kick for Carolina again in 2012 even though they recently signed a different kicker, Justin Medlock, to compete with Mare in training camp. Medlock has been kicking well in the CFL).

My point is, though, that Baker could have been released before last season. Kasay -- who was and is good friends with Baker -- could have been kept. And another guy who both punted and kicked off could have been hired, and fairly cheaply, too.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and the Panthers thought with Mare they were getting a fantastic 2-for-1 special.

In reality, though, they made a questionable decision to keep Baker instead of Kasay when they decided they were going to go from three kickers down to two (Rhys Lloyd had handled kickoffs before that) and that hasn't worked out that well.

And now they have let Baker, 33, go for salary-cap reasons.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Releasing Wharton the right move -- but a tough one

The Panthers made their first big trim Tuesday as free agency began, releasing steady offensive line starter Travelle Wharton. He started every game at left guard last year but the Panthers apparently plan to replace him more cheaply with veteran guard Geoff Hangartner, who signed a new three-year contract that should be much cheaper.

Wharton will and should find work somewhere else. He's 30 -- which is fairly old but not ancient for an offensive lineman -- and he's a class guy. Wharton was one of those players you like on your team -- never involved in any controversy, no injury issues like Jeff Otah and versatile enough to play guard or tackle. He started 99 games in eight years with Carolina.

But ultimately a good contract caught up to him. Wharton's cap number was too high -- that's all this was. He was set to make $5.7 million in base salary this year and have a cap figure of $7.6 mililon. The Panthers cleared more than $3.8 million in cap space by releasing him.

In the NFL, you pay big money for your left tackle (to protect the quarterback's blind side). Your right tackle and center are also worthy investments, particularly if they are Pro Bowl caliber like Ryan Kalil. But guards are traditionally the place where teams try to get away with a lower-paid player unless the guy is one of the best 3-4 in the NFL at the position. The Panthers have occasionally tried to pay big money to a guard -- anyone remember Mike Wahle? -- and it has rarely seemed to work out.

So this was a necessary move for Carolina, but a tough one. I wish Wharton, the former South Carolina Gamecock, well and imagine he will be on another team's roster before long, because that huge cap number fortunately won't follow him elsewhere.

The Panthers have also reworked Thomas Davis's deal, which they had to do (according to a report by's Pat Yasinskas). Davis's reworking will save the team another $3.8 million off this year's salary cap.

On a totally different note, here's my column for Wednesday's newspaper about the joy of last-second shots in basketball -- even one shot in particular that I'm sure you never saw.

Matt Doherty gets fired and other notes

Former North Carolina basketball coach Matt Doherty was fired by SMU today, ending his tenure there after six seasons.

Doherty was 80-109 at SMU, where he never could quite turn the corner. He had only one winning season in his six years coaching the Mustangs, who haven't made the NCAA tournament since 1993 and traditionally have had trouble getting elite players. This year's team -- his last -- went 13-19.

"I understand that this is a business and, at the end of the day, we simply didn't win enough games," said part of Doherty's statement following the firing.

It's hard to imagine that Doherty was the national coach of the year only a decade or so ago at UNC with his first Tar Heel team. He was ousted after three years, but he did recruit the nucleus of the Tar Heels' 2005 national title team.

I've always liked Doherty personally. He's honest about the mistakes he made at UNC (not keeping Phil Ford on staff was one of the big ones) and has a great sense of humor. He also has a temper, which was part of his undoing at UNC.

This firing does call into question how far Doherty will have to go to ever get a Division I-A coaching job again. It's not easy to get a third try once two schools have fired you, although not impossible. Doherty likely will have to go somewhere as an assistant and try to burnish his image there before getting a chance to start over, assuming he wants to stay in coaching.

In other news:

-- Did you see Bismack Biyombo's two-handed block of a dunk attempt that sealed the Bobcats' win over New Orleans Monday night? It was a stunning play, and exactly why the Bobcats drafted "Biz" No.7 overall.

-- I thought the sanctions the NCAA handed down onto UNC's football program were about right. The Tar Heels deserved a one-year postseason ban, I've long thought, because there were just too many NCAA violations on the table under former coach Butch Davis.

It's too bad that innocent Tar Heels (i.e. rising seniors who had nothing to do with the violations) are punished, but the NCAA can't legislate the players who left for the NFL. UNC's primary mistake was not self-sanctioning and banning itself from a bowl last season -- now that penalty will come in 2012 instead.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

FSU edges UNC to win Seminoles' first ACC tourney title

ATLANTA – Florida State won its first ACC tournament championship ever Sunday afternoon, taking a 16-point first-half lead and never quite losing it all in a scintillating 85-82 victory over North Carolina.

The Tar Heels made a fine comeback and had a chance in the last 10 seconds, down only 82-81, but Kendall Marshall missed a long three-pointer. After two Florida State free throws by Deividas Dulkys with 3.9 seconds left, the Tar Heels then inbounded the ball to midcourt and called timeout with 3.3 seconds to go. Freshman P.J. Hairston got a decent look at a 25-foot three-pointer at the buzzer, but it hit off the back rim and the Seminoles celebrated wildly at midcourt.

Both teams will now await their destiny for Selection Sunday. The Tar Heels lost their shot at an 18th ACC tournament title but likely will still get a No.1 seed in Greensboro. Florida State has to be in the top-four conversation after taking its first-ever ACC tourney title under Leonard Hamilton, its head coach and a Gastonia native.

While the first two days of the ACC tournament were mostly snooze-worthy, the last two where fascinating. The final three games all went down to the buzzer and were decided by a total of only eight points.

The Seminoles took advantage of the absence of John Henson – the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year played only seven minutes in the entire tournament due to a left wrist injury, and none in the final. Especially in the first half, the Seminoles attacked the basket constantly.

For awhile in the first half it looked like a repeat of FSU’s 33-point regular-season win over UNC might be in the cards. The Seminoles were up 47-31 with 2:45 to go in the first half and would shoot a sizzling 62.5 percent in that period.

But Roy Williams used a rare first-half timeout and the Tar Heels cut the margin to a more manageable nine points by halftime. Then the Tar Heels got a huge boost in the second half from Hairston, whose shot had been off for most of the ACC season.

Hairston hit three three-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the second half and added two free throws, scoring 11 quick points as the Tar Heels trimmed the FSU edge to five. The rest of the way it was very tight, until Hairston’s missed three-pointer at the buzzer ended it.

It was a high-caliber game and both teams ultimately deserved some praise. UNC cut its losing margin with the Seminoles from 33 points to three points without Henson on the floor. And FSU – an experienced and deep team – won its first-ever ACC title and ended a remarkable season in which the Seminoles have beaten both UNC and Duke twice.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A great semifinal Saturday at the ACC tournament -- 10 thoughts

Ten thoughts on two fantastic games in Atlanta that ended with Florida State and UNC winning by a combined five points:

1 -- After watching the replay numerous times, I think Kendall Marshall charged on the winning basket against N.C. State in UNC's 69-67 win. That one should have been waved off, as Marshall lowered his shoulder and made contact on the drive.

2 -- I don't think N.C. State's Richard Howell was clearly fouled, however, on the last play of the game. That was the correct no-call. It looked more like a scrum and Howell never had total possession of the ball.

3 -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team lost 62-59 that Florida State's Michael Snaer was the best competitor in the ACC.

4 -- If I'm Roy Williams, I don't play John Henson against Florida State unless Henson is absolutely 100 percent without pain in that aching left wrist. Ultimately, I think the Tar Heels have a No.1 NCAA seed either way, and FSU is so physical the chance of re-injury is not out of the question.

5 -- How good is Duke anyway? That's the subject of my Sunday column. The Blue Devils need Ryan Kelly back and need to make some more shots -- they were 10-for-46 from three-point range in Atlanta.

6 -- If Seth Curry's 40-footer at the buzzer had gone in to tie that game and send it into overtime, he would have joined Christian Laettner, Austin Rivers, Jeff Capel and a couple of others on the short list of greatest Duke buzzer-beaters of all time.

7 -- How far off the radar has Duke's Andre Dawkins fallen? He played 17 minutes Saturday and had no points and no assists.

8 -- Florida State's 33-point win over UNC in the teams' only previous meeting will loom large Sunday, although everyone will say it doesn't matter. It does matter in that it has to give the Seminoles major confidence.

9 -- The Wolfpack would have had to call a timeout to get C.J. Leslie out of the game between his fourth and fifth fouls (which came 32 seconds apart -- the final one with 8:03 left). So while I blame the coaching staff for not keeping up with Leslie's fouls well enough and/or not communicating that to head coach Mark Gottfried, that was also Leslie's fault for committing a silly foul on an overly aggressive defensive play right after he had picked up his fourth one.

10 -- UNC and Duke both deserve to play in Greensboro next week for their first two games in the NCAA tournament. UNC as a No.1 seed and Duke as a No.2. I think N.C. State is in the tourney as well now and will get a seed around No.11 or so.

UNC edges NC State amid controversy

ATLANTA – In a fascinating game fueled by storylines of controversy and attrition, North Carolina edged N.C. State, 69-67, in an ACC tournament semifinal Saturday.

UNC coach Roy Williams didn’t play John Henson (left wrist injury) during the game because Henson still couldn’t catch or grip a basketball without pain. Williams said Henson was questionable for the ACC tournament final. “If it had been the Final Four, he probably would have played,” Williams said of Henson.

N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie was the best player on the floor for long stretches, but he didn’t play the final 8:03 after picking up his fourth and fifth fouls in 32 seconds when the Wolfpack coaches didn’t take him out immediately following his fourth foul.

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said he didn’t know it was Leslie’s fifth foul when it happened. He blamed the problem on himself and the N.C. State coaching staff, calling it a “miscommunication.” If he had known Leslie already had four fouls, Gottfried said, he would have taken Leslie out. It was a bad mistake by N.C. State.

N.C. State was down by five points when Leslie left, but they still made it a game – and by doing so should have assured themselves an NCAA tournament spot in my opinion. Roy Williams said he thought N.C. State (22-12) should make the field as well.

Lorenzo Brown scored five straight points and the game was tied at 67-all (and Tyler Zeller had fouled out, too) when Kendall Marshall drove with the shot clock running out and knocked down a bank shot with 10 seconds to go (N.C. State fans believed Marshall charged on the play, but no call was made).

Then N.C. State’s Scott Wood then threw the ball away trying to get it inside when Justin Watts saw the passing lane and made a timely steal. Watts heaved the ball downcourt and N.C. State recovered the ball and called timeout with 1.2 seconds remaining. There was a lot of contact on the lob pass to Richard Howell, but no foul was called and UNC won by the two-point margin of Marshall’s shot.

“I feel like in that situation I don’t think they’re going to call a ticky-tack foul,” Marshall said of the no-call on his banked jumper. “Thankfully I was able to make that play for my team.”

Gottfried said he wasn’t going to talk about the officiating because he would get fined if
he did so.

Henson looked lonely on the second row of the Tar heels’ bench, and the Tar Heels sometimes looked lonely in the paint without him. Without Henson’s Defensive Player of the Year shotblocking and rebounding, N.C. State could and did attack the basket with much more impunity. UNC finished the game without a single blocked shot but did outrebound N.C. State by one (34-33) without Henson.

Gottfried lobbied again for his team to get an at-large NCAA bid in the postgame. “We’re going to be a tough out if we get in it,” Gottfried said.

Zeller had 23 points and nine rebounds for UNC, while Leslie led the Wolfpack for 22 points and Howell had a game-high 12 rebounds. Marshall had 12 points and 10 assists for UNC.

“He makes the team run,” Zeller said of Marshall. “He’s very valuable.”

“No one has a player who’s indispensable,” Williams said, “but if we do, it’s Kendall.”

Friday, March 9, 2012

What if Peyton Manning had been a Panther?

You may have heard this. Or not. You may have forgotten it. But it's true, and I was reminded of it this week when the Peyton Manning sweepstakes began (Miami, Denver and Washington are apparently among the front-runners among the many suitors hoping to get a chance at Manning, whom the Colts parted ways with this week).

The Panthers once tried hard to make a trade that would have netted them Manning before he ever played an NFL down.

This was in early 1998 before that year's NFL draft. Carolina had Dom Capers as its coach (and he did double duty as the main personnel guy, too). The pre-flameout Kerry Collins was the quarterback (this was six months before the "My heart's not in it" fiasco of the 1998 season, which led to Collins leaving the team and Capers being fired).

By then, Bill Polian (architect of the Panthers' team that made the NFC title game in 1996) had left Carolina to become president of the Colts (in December of 1997). Polian was always enamored of Collins, having drafted him in Carolina out of Penn State. In fact, Polian finally did get an aging Collins again in the 2011 season for the Colts for a brief and unsuccessful tenure as the Colts' starter this past year.

Anyway, back in 1998, the Panthers wanted to trade Collins to Indianapolis and were willing to give up several other assets -- starters, draft picks, basically whatever the Colts wanted within some reason -- to acquire the No.1 pick of the 1998 draft. The two teams had conversations.

And Carolina had its heart set on drafting Manning out of Tennessee with that No.1 pick if the deal could be worked out.

Ultimately, of course, Polian wisely didn't pull the trigger and the trade never happened. The Colts kept the pick, grabbed Manning and had an incredible run during the first decade of the 2000s with Manning as their quarterback.

Instead, Carolina was the one with the itchy trigger finger. After being unable to trade Collins for anything substantive, the Panthers instead shipped two No.1 picks to Washington for the rights to defensive tackle Sean Gilbert in April 1998, which goes down as quite possibly the worst personnel move in Panther history (drafting Rae Carruth in the first round is also a contender).

But what if Carolina had somehow convinced Polian and gotten Manning? What would have happened next?

First of all, I think Capers would have stayed the head coach a lot longer -- there would have been no Collins drama.

Secondly, the whole George Seifert "experiment" might have never happened. A player like Muhsin Muhammad -- who had a very fine NFL career already -- could well have had a Hall of Fame career instead. If Steve Smith had still gotten drafted by the Panthers in 2001, there's no doubt he would have already had a Hall of Fame career (although he might still get there).

And on and on and on. Manning would have transformed the Panthers in many ways and a thousand different decisions would have been made if he had had a 14-year run in Carolina instead of having it in Indianapolis. And maybe Carolina -- which made a Super Bowl in that same decade but lost it -- would have won one (or two) instead.

Henson's wrist isn't broken; UNC wins

ATLANTA – The headline from North Carolina’s 85-69 win over Maryland in an ACC tournament quarterfinal Friday is this: John Henson’s left wrist apparently isn’t broken.

All else was secondary Friday in the top-seeded Tar Heels’ first game of the tourney, although there was much to like if you were a UNC fan. Kendall Marshall set the ACC single-season record for assists during the game. The Tar Heels never trailed. UNC had five players scoring in double figures, all of them scoring from 13 to 15 points.

And James Michael McAdoo (14 points, eight rebounds) had a nice game in 29 minutes after Henson’s first-half fall. Coach Roy Williams said McAdoo had “upgraded” both his work ethic and his attention to detail recently and that he thought McAdoo was the “story of the game” along with Marshall’s record-setting run of assists.

As for Henson’s wrist: Henson went down driving to the basket on a hard fall after a foul by a Maryland player that Williams said “wasn’t a bad play.” Henson started shaking his left wrist immediately. He shot his free throws, came out, went back in and then came out for good, ending up playing only seven minutes and none in the second half.

Williams said Henson had X-rays at Philips Arena and that the doctors and trainers “don’t think it’s a break.”

“He had trouble catching and gripping the basketball,” Williams said. “That left hand is his dominant hand, even though he is right-handed.”

Williams said he would have put Henson back in the game if the ACC Defensive Player of the Year had felt comfortable. Henson will be re-evaluated Friday night and Saturday morning to decide whether he can play in the Tar Heels’ Saturday semifinal.

“Something like this could have happened in practice,” Williams said, “but you do hate for it to happen.”

“We’re hoping for the best and praying it’s not the worst,” said Marshall, who had 13 points and 12 assists in the game.

The Tar Heels did give up 30 points to Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, the ACC’s leading scorer. But no other Terrapin had more than 11 and Maryland shot 38.7 percent as a team.

Reggie Bullock led the Tar Heels with 15 points as the Tar Heels played plenty well enough without Henson to win. If Henson does return quickly to full strength, this game at least should give the Tar Heels more confidence that they can get along for long stretches without their best defensive player.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bountygate Part 2 -- the punishments

I read with interest Joe Person's story in today's Charlotte Observer where former longtime Panther safety Mike Minter said that while there were no bounties when he played for Carolina that veteran players did offer cash bonuses for big plays.

Minter said the veteran players, including himself, would "pony up" and award bonuses, particularly for big special-teams plays (special-teamers usually aren't starters and don't make as much as the veterans). Coaches weren't involved in this, which was against NFL rules but from all the stories coming in from around the league also sounds pretty commonplace.

What I'm most interested in now, though, is Part 2 of this sordid affair -- the punishments.

Saints GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton issued a joint statement Tuesday (they had been silent for far too long) about the bounties, saying they took full responsibility for it happening under their watch and apologizing to owner Tom Benson. I didn't think the statement went far enough, though -- what about apologizing to the players the Saints were purposely trying to hurt?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to rule on punishments sometime this month, and I think he will come down very hard. I don't ultimately think St. Louis defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (the administrator of the bounty program while with the Saints) will keep his job. Whether he resigns or gets fired or gets suspended for life, I think Williams has to go. His violations were the most blatant.

Loomis and Payton need to at least be fined and suspended for a significant amount of time as well. The players involved -- there were between 22 and 27 of them, according to the NFL -- must be fined for sure and likely the ringleaders suspended.

I think the Saints will also have their 2013 first-round draft choice taken away (they won't have one this season) and their top pick for 2012 taken away too (No.59 overall). Maybe more.

In other words, the punishments will and should be significantly worse than the New England Patriots' Spygate ($750,000 total in fines and a first-round draft pick taken away). And they should come soon -- I think Goodell has tons of information now and don't imagine he will need to wait much longer before lowering the boom and providing a cautionary tale for any other team thinking about trying out a bounty system or even a "cash bonus for big plays" system like the Panthers used to employ, according to Minter.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Davidson win one of best games I have ever seen

My ears are still ringing after watching Davidson's 93-91, double overtime thriller of a win over Western Carolina Monday night in Asheville as the Wildcats won their way into the NCAA tournament.

It was a remarkable game, and I mentioned in my column that I thought it was one of the five best college basketball games I've ever seen. See below for more on that.

Western Carolina looked dead in the water, but made an amazing comeback from 12 points down with two minutes left to tie the score at the end of regulation. Then the first overtime ended in another tie after Davidson star forward De'Mon Brooks saw his turnaround jumper go halfway in and jump back out with a few seconds to go.

Davidson only was assured at the end when Western Carolina's Keaton Cole barely missed a long three. I admire Western going for the win there -- the Catamounts had a stunning tournament, nearly winning four games in four days.

So that got me thinking about the best college basketball games I've ever seen in person, and I want you to think about it too. Limit this to games you saw IN PERSON, not on TV -- so you can't say Duke over Kentucky on Christian Laettner's shot in 1992, for instance, unless you were there. So while that may well be the best college game ever played, I can't put it on my list.

Here's my quick list. I may be forgetting something. But more importantly I want to know what YOUR favorite game you ever saw IN PERSON was. Please put it in the "comments" below or else email me at or both. I'm just curious.

My top 5 (in no particular order, I haven't thought about it that hard yet)

-- Davidson comes from 17 points down in the second half to upset Georgetown, 74-70, in the NCAA tournament in 2008 and give full rise to Stephen Curry mania. (He had 30).

-- Wake Forest and Chris Paul outduel North Carolina and Raymond Felton, 119-114, in a wonderful triple OT regular-season game in 2003.

-- Kansas gets a last-second three-pointer from Mario Chalmers to tie the national championship game against Memphis in regulation and then wins in overtime in 2008.

-- UNC outscores Duke 11-0 in the final minutes to edge the Blue Devils, 75-73, in 2005 in Chapel Hill.

-- Davidson edges Western Carolina Monday night in double OT, 93-91.

So what's your own personal favorite?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Did "Bounty-Gate" just shift NFC South balance of power away from Saints?

Kurt Warner is knocked out of a
 game against the Saints in 2010.
The NFL released an absolutely shocking press release today, saying that between 22 and 27 New Orleans Saints defensive players had carried on a "bounty" program from 2009 through 2011, putting money in a pool and then paying it out not only for fumbles and interceptions but also for "cart-offs" ($1,000 when an opposing player was carted off the field) and "knockouts" ($1,500 when an opposing player couldn't return). Bonuses were sometimes doubled or tripled during the playoffs.

The bounty program was apparently supervised by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew about it and did nothing about it apparently. Owner Tom Benson said he didn't know.

Panther wide receiver Steve Smith -- who has had a number of conflicts with Saints' players over the years -- told Pro Football Weekly's Eric Edholm about the Saints' bounty program: "Doesn't surprise me. Wouldn't expect anything less from them."

Said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement: "The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players. The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity."

The NFL investigated this and now is about to lower the boom. There will be fines. Suspensions. (Williams, now the defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams, has admitted his role and will be seriously punished). The Saints face a likely loss of draft picks, too -- the first one they hold in the 2012 draft, though, is only No.59 overall. Here's New Orleans newspaper columnist Jeff Duncan's reaction to the news in an interesting column that predicts the scandal will follow the Saints for years and forever tarnish the Super Bowl they won.

To me this is worse than "Spygate," when New England was caught spying on opposing teams. This flies in the face of all the NFL's safety improvements. The Saints look like they have been caught red-handed and they are about to pay a heavy price.

So will it shift the balance of power away from the Saints? (And as some of the "Scott Says" commenters are saying below, don't you now have to wonder about Roman Harper's late hit on Smith this past season? I'm sure Smith does -- and yes, I know Smith can't exactly take the moral high ground on hitting people, but still that Harper hit was so ridiculous.)

A quicker way for the Saints to turn into a bad team would be for Drew Brees not to re-up with the Saints -- and I think he will eventually re-sign with New Orleans. Remember, this is just about New Orleans defensive players, and the Saints' remarkable offense apparently won't be affected.

But the loss of at least one future first-round draft pick -- which I believe will happen maybe in 2013, and I think this will be a multiple-draft-pick penalty before it's all over -- will damage the Saints. And defensive suspensions will further muddy the water. At the very least, the Saints will be a good team to play early in the season when suspensions would take effect (barring appeals).

Bottom line: The Saints just got clocked. Their feel-good Super Bowl story from 2009 will never feel nearly that good again. But more than that, the balance of power in the NFC is ripe for shifting. Atlanta and Carolina are the two teams most primed to do something about it if New Orleans falters.

And you know what? If all this is true -- and the NFL's report certainly makes it sound that way -- I hope someone does take over for the Saints. Because what they allegedly did is absolutely disgusting. I'm not naive enough to think this doesn't happen elsewhere in the NFL -- although I have never heard of such a thing with the Panthers -- but the Saints' level of blatant rule violation is shocking.

In a statement released by the Rams, Williams (the "Pay-for-Pain" administrator and also an occasional contributor to the Saints' bounty pool of money, according to the NFL) said: "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again."

Do you believe him? "We knew it was wrong while we were doing it..." Hmmm..... And so why didn't Williams stop it again? (Incidentally, I imagine Williams is done as St. Louis's defensive coordinator -- he will "resign" or be fired or something after this. At least he certainly should be).

Now why wasn't it stopped in New Orleans? Because it was working, of course. That's the sad part. The Saints won the Super Bowl when the bounty program was apparently at its height.

Why 8 points in 17 seconds is still No.1 comeback in Duke-UNC rivalry

I did a video that you can see here with my choices for top 5 all-time UNC-Duke comebacks in this remarkable 233-game series. There are a lot of great highlights of the plays I describe in the video. But if you just want the quick list, here it is, counting down from No.5 to No.1:

No.5 -- FABULOUS FRED. Obscure Duke reserve Fred Lind comes off the bench, scores 16 points, grabs nine rebounds, forces one of the overtimes with a late basket and ultimately is Duke's star in the Blue Devils' 87-86 triple OT win in 1968.

No.4 -- MARVIN WILLIAMS' OLD-FASHIONED 3-POINT PLAY. In 2005, the Tar Heels score the game's final 11 points to come back from nine down with 2:40 to play to edge Duke, 75-73. Roy Williams has said numerous times that he has never heard the Smith Center louder than when Williams grabbed a missed Raymond Felton free throw, scored and got fouled himself to score the winning points.

No.3 -- CAPEL'S 30-FOOTER. In 1995, Duke wasn't very good. UNC was. But the Blue Devils rose up, overcame an early 17-point deficit, then came back from -- yes -- eight points down with 17 seconds to go in the first overtime. The last 3 came when Capel nailed a running 30-footer -- still one of the most famous shots in the series. UNC won in double OT, however, 102-100.

No.2 -- RIVERS OVER ZELLER. This was just last month, so you remember it well. It either haunts you or sustains you, depending on which shade of blue you favor. UNC was up 10 with less than three minutes left, but kept missing free throws. Rivers nailed a long three over Tyler Zeller at the buzzer -- in Chapel Hill! -- to give Duke an amazing 85-84 victory.

No.1 -- EIGHT POINTS IN 17 SECONDS. To me, this comeback remains the series' best, because it came without the benefit of the three-pointer. UNC was down eight to Duke with 17 seconds to go. But the Tar Heels kept scoring, stealing the ball and scoring again. Still, they needed a missed Duke free throw and a BANKED Walter Davis shot from about 30 feet to force the overtime, which they then won.

A note about No.1 -- a high school star named Phil Ford was watching the game on TV and was so disgusted when UNC fell so far behind in the final minute that he went outside to wash the family car. He missed the entire comeback.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Should Carolina Panthers go after Hines Ward?

So the Pittsburgh Steelers announced plans to release wide receiver Hines Ward yesterday, and just like clockwork, I've been getting emails and tweets from Panther fans wondering if Ward would be a good pickup for Carolina this offseason.

In a word, no.

And that's not to diminish what Ward has done. He's been one of the best blocking wide receivers in the league, he caught 1,000 passes in Pittsburgh, he was a four-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl MVP and even the "Dancing with the Stars" champion.

But Ward is also turning 36 next week. His body has taken 14 years of NFL punishment. He only caught 46 passes for 381 yards and two TDs in Pittsburgh last season. His high point -- a 67-yard game -- came in Week 1, and it went slowly downhill from there. Simply, he's lost his burst.

That's not to say Ward wouldn't work somewhere as an elder statesman//third receiver type. Maybe he even ends up back in Pittsburgh at a lesser salary.

But the Panthers already have filled the role of "aging wide receiver who can still play" -- it's played by Steve Smith every week. Smith is younger and far more explosive than Ward. The Panthers don't need Ward, Terrell Owens or Randy Moss -- they need to develop some youth at the position that will be in Charlotte a long time and go along with quarterback Cam Newton. (Smith's contract expires after the 2012 season, and what happens next is anyone's guess, although he would like to stay in Charlotte and the Panthers should make every effort to keep the best player they have ever had).

David Gettis and Brandon LaFell will likely be the second and third receivers this season, but Carolina still needs another guy. Legedu Naanee started a lot over LaFell last season because he was such a good blocker and dirty-work guy. Maybe he comes back. Maybe it's someone else. Maybe Carolina lucks into Justin Blackmon at No.9 in April's NFL draft,a lthough I don't think he will last that long.

But Ward? I wish him well and I admire his good work over the years, but I think it would be a mistake for the Panthers to make that investment.

-- One additional college basketball note: As you likely know, Duke and UNC play each other Saturday night at Duke for the ACC regular-season championship and the No.1 seed in next week's ACC tournament.

The Observer will post a video with some really cool highlights on Friday morning at where I will be picking my Top 5 All-time Comebacks in this 233-game series (Austin Rivers' three-pointer is in there, but I won't say where). So watch for that -- the column to go along with the video will also be on the site and in the newspaper in the next 48 hours.