Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Do NOT trade Steve Smith

An NFC team has inquired about trading for Panther wide receiver Steve Smith in advance of the NFL's trade deadline, which is Thursday at 4 p.m.

This is a deal the Panthers absolutely should not make. Smith is 33, yes, and he won't play for too many more years (he signed a three-year contract extension in April). But he remains the Panthers' best wide receiver, and because of his age the price the Panthers could extract from another team would not be nearly enough to account for his worth to Carolina.

Put it this way. Have you ever owned a car that you absolutely loved despite its flaws? You and the car had tons of great trips and memories together. And it still ran just fine. But then it was getting sort of old and you went to a dealership, looked at the new models and asked how much you could get if you traded the car in for something else?

And then the salesman comes back and you are absolutely horrified by his lowball offer. You think to yourself, "This car is worth a lot more to me than it is to someone else. I think I'll just keep it."

That car is Steve Smith at this point in his career. As I wrote in the previous blog post, I'm absolutely fine with the Panthers trading running back DeAngelo Williams at a spot where the team has two other solid backs. But Brandon LaFell isn't consistent enough yet to be a No.1 receiver in the NFL, and the Panthers certainly don't want to have to start Louis Murphy as a No.2 guy. His hands aren't consistent enough.

Smith requested a trade in 2010 after the 2-14 season, but that wasn't granted and he ultimately made peace in returning to the Panthers, especially once they drafted Cam Newton. He told media members in the Panther locker room Wednesday that he planned to finish his career in Carolina. Of course, it's ultimately not his choice -- he doesn't have any sort of no-trade clause. Smith said Sunday after the Panthers dropped to 1-6 that the losing had grown "monotonous" and "tiresome." But No.89 can still play and can still scare defenses, and the Panthers' off-and-on offense still needs him desperately. The Panthers should not trade him. As for DeAngelo? See the blog post just below this one -- I'm fine with that.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Panthers should trade DeAngelo Williams

It’s time for the Panthers to trade running back DeAngelo Williams if they can get a decent price for him.

The NFL trade deadline is 4 p.m. Thursday (it was extended from Tuesday due to Hurricane Sandy complications), and Williams is on the market. The way things are going now, the Panthers have way too much invested in a trio of running backs – Jonathan Stewart, Williams and Mike Tolbert – and are not getting nearly enough out of them in an NFL that is, after all, a pass-first league.

Getting a third-round pick for Williams doesn’t sound like much, but that’s probably about the right price. It’s what Greg Olsen cost the Panthers, after all.

What would help the Panthers more is they could get Williams’ contract off the books and spend that money elsewhere – like on another offensive lineman. But finding a suitor at the correct price will be difficult, since it will need to have cap room and an immediate running-back need.

I doubt the trade will ultimately happen. In the NFL, trades are rarer than in most pro leagues. But the Panthers should pull the trigger on this one if they can. And given how little Williams has been used this season -- he again hardly made a dent in the Panthers' 23-22 loss to Chicago Sunday -- I doubt if he would mind a bit. (UPDATE: A team source told The Observer that at least one playoff contender has inquired about Williams, but head coach Ron Rivera said he doesn't anticipate any Panther trades before Thursday's deadline.)

Major coaching mistakes contribute heavily to Panther loss

CHICAGO -- The Carolina Panthers lost to Chicago, 23-22, on Sunday, and there is plenty of blame to go around as the team threw away a 19-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.

But let’s concentrate a minute on the coaching. Head coach Ron Rivera and his staff made two awful decisions in this game that helped the Bears to a win – and sent Carolina (1-6) reeling to its fifth straight loss.

Decision 1: With Carolina ahead 13-7 and three seconds to go before halftime, the Panthers had the ball at the Chicago 33. Justin Medlock – who already had made two field goals and won the field-goal competition in the preseason primarily because he has such a strong leg -- had a chance at a 50- or 51-yard field goal.

Instead, Rivera skipped the field goal and decided to try a desperation heave into the end zone. Cam Newton then threw the ball almost through the goalposts. No points for Carolina – in a game decided by one point.

What was the downside of going for the field goal? Practically zero. If Medlock misses, so what? The half’s over.

Only a block and a return for a touchdown could have hurt Carolina. Rivera’s reasoning on why not to go for the field goal, taken from the transcript of his postgame press conference: “Well, because of the cross wind and stuff like that, that ball comes out at that point. It’s getting pushed. That was one of the concerns. We thought our best bet was to throw it into the end zone and see what happens. In hindsight, you can say that maybe we should have gone ahead and tried it…. It’s easy to second-guess at this point.”

Decision 2: With the Panthers ahead 22-20 and Chicago needing a field goal to win, the Bears start at their own 22 and with 2:20 on the clock. Carolina goes into a soft zone defense, keeping all the Bears’ receivers in front of them. The problem: there’s way too much time left for this strategy. The Bears basically run the same play all the way down the field – a 10-12 yard pass to Jay Cutler’s left, in front of cornerback Josh Norman, usually to Brandon Marshall – and finish the game with a field goal at the final gun.

Panther players were careful not to criticize their coaches directly after the game, but several did point out the Bears ran the same play over and over against the same coverage.

Rivera’s reasoning: “We were trying to keep the ball in front of us. It’s one of those things where if you jump it and they double move you, now all of a sudden it’s a touchdown or the ball is in field goal range. We were trying to make them systematically beat us. They got in field-goal position, and you take your chances at that point.”

The part that sticks out to me in that quote? “We were trying to make them systematically beat us.”

Well, if that was the goal, the Panthers certainly succeeded.

Now the work Rivera and his team did Sunday – a lot of it was good. Although the “kick-it-away-from-Devin-Hester” strategy was ugly at times, it was pretty effective. Taking the zone-read out of the running game was a positive. The defensive front four played really well.

But you lose a game like this – one the Panthers really should have won, as they outgained the Bears almost 2-to-1 in yardage – it is the kind of game that haunts people and gets them fired.

“I don't know what to say,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “We just get our hearts ripped out every week.”

Panthers lose 23-22 on Chicago field goal on final play -- blow 12-point fourth-quarter lead

The Carolina Panthers certainly made some changes this week – they fired their general manager and significantly changed their running game. But the ultimate result was the same, as the Panthers lost 23-22 to the Chicago Bears on a 41-yard field goal from Chicago’s Robbie Gould on the game’s last play.

The Panthers (1-6) wasted a lot of good work and a 19-7 lead entering the fourth quarter. They are now 1-10 in games decided by seven points or less under coach Ron Rivera. Chicago is 6-1 this season.

Justin Medlock made five field goals for Carolina – including a 45-yarder that banged off the right upright and in with 2:27 to go – to give the Panthers a 22-20 lead. That field goal followed the Bears taking a 20-19 lead.

Chicago then got the ball down 22-20 for a final drive, needing a field goal to win. With the Panthers playing soft zone coverage, Chicago easily completed several short passes in a row. That set up Gould’s 41-yard field-goal attempt, which he banged home after missing another shorter field goal earlier in the quarter.

The game really changed, however, when the Bears scored two touchdowns in a span of eight seconds in the fourth quarter Sunday, erasing a 19-7 Carolina lead in stunning fashion.

Down 19-7 to begin the fourth quarter, the Bears missed a field goal but finally got to the end zone on a Cutler TD pass to Kellen Davis. That cut the Carolina lead to 19-14 with 6:52 to go.

The Bears then kicked the kickoff into the end zone. On the first play from his own 20, Cam Newton threw a sideline pass toward Steve Smith. But Smith slipped on the route and cornerback Tim Jennings caught the ball and danced 25 yards down the sideline for a startling TD. Chicago missed the two-point conversion when Josh Norman intercepted the pass, but the Bears still led 20-19 with 6:44 to go.

The Panthers promised changes in the wake of general manager Marty Hurney’s firing, and there certainly were some. The zone-read option – the slow-developing play where Newton sticks the ball into the running back’s stomach and then decides whether or not to pull it away – was abolished. The Panthers ran a much more traditional running game, although it was really no more effective.

But the Panthers’ defense was very good – until the fourth quarter and especially on the final drive, when they played way too soft and couldn’t get to Cutler at all.

In the first half, Carolina sacked Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler six times (three by Greg Hardy) and rattled him into three turnovers (two lost fumbles and an interception). The Bears left the field at halftime down 13-7 and to a chorus of boos, and Cutler appeared to be caught on TV cameras angrily mouthing something about those boos.

The Panthers gained far more yardage than Chicago (416-210) but couldn’t score TDs. Their only one came on Louis Murphy’s fortunate and alert fumble recovery of Newton’s fumble at the Chicago 1 in the second quarter. But Medlock had a huge day after only kicking two field goals all season prior to Sunday. But Chicago had the last-minute answer as the Panthers found a way to lose – again – after playing one of their best games of the season.

Midgame report: Panthers D playing like Monsters of Midway

Who knows if this will last, but at this writing the Carolina Panthers' defense is playing a stunning game. I am watching it at Soldier Field and am amazed.

The Panthers lead 16-7 in the third quarter, and it's mostly because of defense. The Panthers have sacked Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler six times and forced him into three turnovers and he looks totally lost out there at the moment.

The Panthers have gotten a career-high three sacks from Greg Hardy, and their defensive secondary is playing so well Cutler can hardly find an open receiver. The Panthers' offense has been pretty decent as well, although it has had to settle for three short field goals and its only TD was on an alert recovery by wide receiver Louis Murphy on a Cam Newton fumble in the end zone.

Bottom line: Upset brewing. But whether the Panthers can hold Chicago off in the final quarter will be the true test. The way the Panther defense is playing, though, anything is possible on this Sunday in Chicago.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My Panthers-Bears prediction and some pregame notes

Although in most games the quarterbacks are front and center, the Carolina Panthers' battle vs. Chicago could be an exception.

Bear running back Matt Forte and Panther wide receiver Steve Smith have often dominated this series in recent years, so watch out for No.22 and No.89 when the two teams play Sunday.

Forte rushed for a staggering 205 yards in the Bears' 34-29 victory in 2011, second all-time in yardage allowed by Carolina. He also ran for 166 yards in 2010 vs. the Panthers, which gives him two of the top 10 rushing games against Carolina ever.

But Smith has been even better, especially at Soldier Field. Three of the top 10 Panther receiving performances ever have been put up by Smith in Chicago -- 218 in the playoff win after the 2005 season (No.1), as well as 181 last year vs. the Bears and 169 in the 2005 regular season.

-- The Bears will undoubtedly try to put Charles "Peanut" Tillman on Smith in many situations. Tillman was instrumental in shutting down Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the Bears' 13-7 win Monday night. Megatron was targeted 11 times but had only three catches for 34 yards Monday. Tillman is also excellent at stripping the ball -- since 2003, he is first among NFL defensive backs with 32 forced fumbles.

-- If history holds, former Panther Julius Peppers will make exactly one big play against Carolina, and otherwise you won't notice him much. Peppers had an interception vs. Carolina in 2010 and a field-goal block in 2011 (both Chicago wins).

-- Devin Hester doesn't have a return of 40 yards on either a kickoff or a punt all season. But if I were the Panthers, I'd still avoid kicking to him after last year. His 69-yard punt return for a TD was a dagger.

-- The two current NFL quarterbacks most criticized over the years for their sideline demeanor are both playing in this game. The criticism has subsided for Chicago's Jay Cutler at the moment, though, since Chicago is 5-1.

-- Watch to see how many passes Cam Newton completes to his tight ends and running backs against the Bears. The Panthers have been emphasizing to Newton that he needs to take the sure seven-yard gain more often instead of trying for the 25-yard rocket downfield and starting to run when that's not there. Against a Bears defense that is No.1 in the NFL in scoring defense and takeaways, this is especially important.

"When shots are called, when plays are given and when plays break down," Newton said, "instead of me running it I have to have faith in my offense and just check the ball down to a tight end or running back and know they are getting paid just like I am."

-- My game-by-game prediction record for the Panthers has been horrible this season (2-4). I am going to try to fix that by not picking them to win again for awhile. Bears 27, Panthers 14.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why Cam Newton is not on Twitter -- and other Cam notes

Cam Newton held a revealing news conference Wednesday during his weekly media availability. After being around Newton for a season-and-a-half now, I’d say it was the most I’ve ever seen Newton let his guard down in a roomful of reporters. He was charismatic – as he often is – but also sounded more open than usual.

Among the highlights:

-- Many athletes have embraced Twitter as a way to talk directly to fans, but Newton does not tweet. He was asked: Why not?

Speaking hypothetically, Newton said: “The social media world has turned into they want to hear about the Steve Smith or Jonathan Stewart drunk on North Tryon rather than he’s on North Tryon giving away turkeys. One wrong tweet to the wrong person could lead into so much.

“I think if you do 10 tweets, you do nine amazing tweets they still don’t outweigh the one bad tweet a person may send off. You may send an ex-girlfriend your real feelings on how you feel and she sends it to TMZ or sends it to The Charlotte Observer.”

-- Newton said he had had numerous one-on-one conversations with players and coaches – and one with team owner Jerry Richardson – since Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney Monday. “That’s the nature of this business,” Newton said. “And I got a full dose of what this business really is like on Monday…. There were some things I feel I could have done for Marty to keep his job…. I’m talking about my play on the field…. I have the utmost respect [for Hurney]…. And I just know Mr. Richardson is going for it in the manner he thinks this team has to go. And I’m all in cahoots with him.”

I'll have a lot more from Newton in my column that will be published in Thursday's newspaper. UPDATE: HERE'S the column link.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jerry Richardson, 19-14 and a very weird coincidence

The Carolina Panthers have played football for more than 17 seasons now. Only twice have they lost home games by 19-14, which is an odd final score that rarely comes up in football.

But after both of those games, Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson did something very dramatic, and in both cases things ultimately did not end well for some of those high up in the organization.

You know about the most recent one. After the Panthers lost 19-14 Sunday to Dallas, Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney Monday morning. Hurney had been with the Panthers since 1998, had been the GM since 2002 and was as close to Richardson as anyone in the organization. But Richardson was fed up and decided he couldn't take any more, which means that everything is on the table now.

The other time? In the 1998 season opener, the Panthers lost 19-14 at home to Atlanta when a last-gasp Hail Mary pass to Rocket Ismail was nearly caught but fell incomplete in the end zone.

Richardson, according to Observer news reports at the time, convened a rare team meeting the next day in which he gave the entire squad a tongue-lashing. Richardson said then that he had spent too much money in the offseason (on forgettable players like Sean Gilbert, William Floyd, Corbin Lacina and Doug Evans, unfortunately) for the Panthers to lose like that.

As The Observer's 1998 story said, "Richardson was very upset and told the players he had spent too much money in free agency during the off-season to accept such a poor performance, said the sources, who did not want to be further identified. He vowed not to tolerate such play and specifically noted his disdain for the 98-yard touchdown drive the defense surrendered in the second quarter, the sources said. Players were startled that Richardson would rip into the team and that some players considered his comments inappropriate, the sources said."

The Falcons ultimately would go to the Super Bowl that year. The Panthers kept losing. They went 4-12. By the end of the season, coach Dom Capers had been fired, quarterback Kerry Collins was long gone and the Panthers were in disarray.

Weird, isn't it? Flash the score "19-14" in front of Richardson in a home game and the team owner is like a bull seeing a matador's red cape. Well, no, not really. It's just a coincidence. But quite a strange one.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Is Rivera coaching for his job? Absolutely

Ron Rivera had an eye-opening news conference Monday afternoon in the wake of the firing of Panther general manager Marty Hurney in which he sounded to me like he was strongly considering the possibility of firing at least one assistant coach.

Asked directly about that possibility, Rivera said: “This is a process that we’re going to go through as far as an evaluation and we’ll see how things go. If that’s what has to happen eventually, then yeah -- maybe that’s what happens. Do we cut players? Yeah. If we have to, maybe that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Everything is on the table now (and here's my Tuesday newspaper column about it). Owner Jerry Richardson firing Hurney – who he was very close to – has made that obvious. I asked Rivera if he felt safe in his own job and he said: “Yeah, I do. I mean I’m here. And so I’m going to continue to work and do the best I can and we’ll go from there.”

But Rivera also said in response to another question about whether he felt like he was coaching for his job: “I always feel like I’m coaching for my job. It’s just like when I was a player. I was drafted in the second round in 1984. For nine years, I came into that facility in Chicago, wondering if I was going to get cut. This is no different. I come to work like I did as a player, and that’s to do the best I can.”

After this season, Rivera has two years left on the four-year, $11.2-million contract he signed in January 2011.

The Panthers are trying to change things. They buried DeAngelo Williams on the bench Sunday, and that sounded like it might well continue. Chris Gamble was placed on injured reserve Monday with a shoulder injury, so another cornerback will be signed soon.

Rivera, as usual, tried to put the best face on the situation. “If I’m being overly optimistic, well, that’s my job, and I’m going to take it to the limit,” Rivera said.

But it was obvious this has been a very hard day for him. Hurney hired Rivera, and the two had developed a close friendship, and now Hurney was gone. Rivera knows he has to be skating on somewhat thin ice now. As I noted in the previous blog, Richardson is 76 years old and not known for his patience.

So Rivera is coaching for his job, yes, just like the players are playing for theirs. The Hurney domino is a very high-profile one, but it is only the first to fall.

It was time for Hurney to go

The Panthers unleashed a blockbuster on Monday morning, as team owner Jerry Richardson announced that general manager Marty Hurney "has been relieved of his duties." Hurney had been general manager of the Panthers since 2002 and with the organization since 1998.

Was it time? Yes. Probably past time, in fact. Hurney has shepherded a team that has gone 9-29 since the start of the 2010 season -- an NFL-worst record during that period. Richardson's stated goal has long been for the Panthers to post back-to-back winning seasons. They have never done that and have started this season 1-5. Hurney had publicly taken the blame for that start.

The end of Hurney's tenure likely came about because of a characteristic most would think of as a positive -- unquestioned loyalty. Over and over, Hurney signed players to enormous contracts that he had drafted and/or acquired and who had been part of occasionally decent but often bad Panther teams.

He and Richardson spent huge sums of money to retain players like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Charles Johnson, Ryan Kalil and Jon Beason -- all of whom were part of the 12-4 team of 2008, yes, but more recently were part of the 2-14 team of 2010. Before that came a huge contract extension given to quarterback Jake Delhomme coming off his nightmarish playoff game against Arizona following the 2008 season.

“This was an extremely difficult decision,” said Richardson. “Marty made every effort to bring success to the Panthers and took the team to a Super Bowl and two NFC championship games. Unfortunately, we have not enjoyed the success we hoped for in recent years. I have the greatest respect and admiration for Marty and will always appreciate the way he tirelessly served the organization.”

Hurney, who was GM when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in 2003 and to the playoffs in 2005 and 2008, issued a classy statement on the way out the door through the Panthers.

“I am very fortunate to have been a part of one of the best organizations in the NFL since 1998,” says Hurney. “As General Manager I will always regret not helping us win the Super Bowl or having back-to-back winning seasons. I hope this change starts accomplishing the direction to those goals. I understand this decision by Mr. Richardson and will always have an extremely close relationship with him. I consider him the best owner in the NFL. I am responsible for everybody in coaching, the players, the scouts and everybody in football operations. After six weeks, we are 1-5 coming off a 6-10 season.”

So now what? If I were Ron Rivera, I wouldn't be resting very easy right now. ((And he isn't -- in his news conference Monday afternoon, he made that clear). Richardson has never pulled the plug on a head coach after only two seasons, but George Seifert lasted only three and Dom Capers only four. Richardson is 76 years old, and he wants to see the Panthers win a Super Bowl while he is still in good health. It sounds like his patience is finally running out -- as it has before with his two sons, Mark and Jon, and with three other head coaches before Rivera.

So watch out, everyone at Bank of America Stadium -- the Big Cat is fully engaged. And his claws are out.

If Cam made suggestion box a reality, what would you write?

(UPDATE: Panthers owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney Monday morning. The below blog post was written before Hurney was fired -- and many of the comments were posted before that news broke as well).

Sunday in his postgame comments, Cam Newton sounded as frustrated after a loss as he's ever been. And that's saying something -- Newton has now lost 15 times in 22 starts as the Panthers' franchise quarterback, and every Panther player and fan is frustrated.

His final quote in that press conference makes me want to ask you something. As I wrote in my column for Monday's newspaper, it was posed by a female reporter, asking him what the Panthers could do to score more points.

I’m going to leave this room and I’m going to bring in a suggestion box and I want your suggestions to be in that suggestion box because I sure don’t know,” Newton said as he addressed the female reporter. “I really don’t. I wish I could tell you. But the only thing I control, sweetheart, is myself. Offensively, I am the leader of this bunch and we haven’t been getting the job done.”

OK, Newton was making a joke there (and I pointed out in the column, he shouldn't have called the reporter "sweetheart," although but I do believe it was a fairly innocent mistake). There won't be any suggestion box in the Panther locker room this week -- I feel sure of that. The Panthers -- an NFL-worst 9-29 since the beginning of the 2010 season -- still believe they can fix it themselves.

But what if there was a suggestion box and you were invited into the locker room, where you could put a slip of paper in there and know that it would be read by the Panther of your choice -- either owner Jerry Richardson, or coach Ron Rivera, or Cam Newton or whomever else?

What would you write down? Who would you address your own comments to? And what would be your suggestions on how to fix this gosh-awful mess, which has now gone on for close to three straight years? (Also, if you are a PSL holder, please note that in your comments if you wish to, along with the section in which you sit).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Panthers undone by offense -- and officiating

The Carolina Panthers lost their fourth straight game Sunday afternoon to the Dallas Cowboys due to two primary factors – the inability of their offense to score more than 14 points and some bad calls late that hurt their comeback chances. Here's my column about the game, focusing mainly on Cam Newton's interesting comments postgame and the Panthers' offensive inefficiency.

Dallas won, 19-14, on a sunny afternoon in Charlotte. The Cowboys (3-3) beat the Panthers (1-5) by overcoming Carolina’s late 14-13 lead and also getting the benefit of three questionable calls in the final three minutes of play – all three of which I thought should have gone in the Panthers’ favor.

Many fans will focus specifically on the calls – especially the “should-have-been-pass-interference” call on Louis Murphy when Cam Newton was throwing a fourth-down pass with just over two minutes remaining and the Panthers down, 16-14.

Before that, Dallas got the benefit of a very questionable timeout, managing to stop the clock on the same fourth-down situation before 1) Carolina got the play off and made the necessary yardage and 2) Dallas was flagged for having too many men on the field. Then there was a very questionable horse-collar tackle on Panther linebacker James Anderson that extended the Cowboys’ last drive.

Yes, the Panthers were hurt badly by all three of those calls. Yes, they should have kept the ball on the fourth down. But let’s not forget they were also on their own side of the 50 at the time, with no guarantee that they would have driven for a winning field goal.

The bottom line is that the Panthers have to score more points. In six games, this is the fourth in which they have scored 14 or fewer points, and they’ve lost all four of those. Said frustrated Panther wide receiver Brandon LaFell: "The offense has to step up. Me included, all these guys -- we have to quit talking. Everybody's saying what they're going to do. We just need to make some plays, play ball and shut up."

Hear, hear. The Panthers have only scored two offensive touchdowns during the entire month of October. And while that statistic is somewhat skewed because of the bye week, it remains a fact that Carolina simply isn’t getting the ball into the end zone enough. For all their offensive firepower, the Panthers have been a tease offensively all season.

Even in their final drive, in which they needed to go 80 yards in 53 seconds, they got it close to midfield but then sputtered out, with a last-second lateral play going nowhere and ultimately ending in a turnover.

It’s been that kind of season. The defense has slightly overachieved, I believe. But the offense has dramatically underachieved. Add that to a couple of bad officiating mistakes, and you've got another loss in a Panther season that has been full of them. "Someone said deja vu, and that's what it is," Panther offensive tackle Jordan Gross said afterward. "It's a different team, but the same scenario.... It's too up and down, that's what we've all been saying all season."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

My favorite interview ever with Sam Mills

Sam Mills III, a Panthers' assistant coach, poses in front of a mural of his father -- former Panther linebacker and assistant Sam Mills Jr. (Photo by Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer)

I have been fortunate to cover the Carolina Panthers since they played their first season in 1995, so I was there for the late Sam Mills’ great run as a player and assistant coach with the team. My story about the starring role Mills played for the team in two home Dallas playoff victories – as well as the legacy he has firmly in place with the “Keep Pounding” slogan and his son, Sam Mills III, as an assistant coach – can be found here.

While I interviewed Mills many times over the years, my favorite moments came with Sam on March 31, 2004, at a Jillian’s restaurant in Charlotte. We met there for lunch and ended up staying three hours. He was fighting cancer, as he had been for almost a year at that time. The date was roughly three months after Mills gave the famous “Keep Pounding” speech before the Dallas game and a little more than a year before he would die in April 2005 at age 45.

I know there is a tendency sometimes to over-dramatize the attributes of those who die at a young age, but believe me when I tell you that everything good you have heard about Sam Mills was true. He really was kind, funny and a gentleman off the field and an explosive hitter with great smarts on it.

Mills said during that interview that when doctors originally diagnosed him with colon cancer in August 2003 that he started to cry. They told him then it was possible he had only three to four months to live.

“The doctors told me, ‘Let’s just see if we can get you to 2004,” Mills said.

Later, when talking about his battle, Mills said: “I just made the decision after I got diagnosed that I was going to fight it all the way. That’s the way I was built: to fight.”

At the time of the interview, Mills was feeling relatively good but admitted he only looked at life in two-week segments -- he rarely planned anything more than two weeks out anymore. It was a poignant afternoon for me, for Mills was long one of my favorite men to cover and it was hard to hear some of his stories. Yet he made it far easier, because he was so relaxed and self-deprecating, as always.

Mills and his wife Melanie had four children, and Sierra, the youngest daughter, is significantly younger than the others. He told me a story that day about a time he and seven-year-old Sierra had gone to Concord Mills and parked far from the entrance, which began a discussion about the benefits of exercise.

Mills recounted the conversation like this:

"Daddy," Sierra said, "you always told me you work out so you can live a long time and be around for me."

"That's true," Sam said.

"Well, how come they're saying you won't live a long time now?" Sierra asked.

Sam smiled.

"Oh, baby," he said. "Dad's going to be around."

Sierra is a freshman in high school now – she lives with her mother in New Jersey -- and it is truly sad that her father isn’t physically around.

But spiritually, everyone in Mills’ family and in the Panthers organization knows he’s there. His statue is outside the stadium. His No.51 is retired. His “Keep Pounding” slogan is embroidered in the collar of the Panther jerseys, and his son Sam III keeps pounding even now as an assistant defensive line coach for the Panthers.

So when I think of that day with Sam, like all the fans who met him during his time with the Panthers and the New Orleans Saints, I’m more glad that we had those three hours than anything else.

It’s rare that Dr. Seuss makes his way into a football story, but I’ll quote him here, because I think of this Dr. Seuss quote when I think of that interview eight years ago with Sam and in a larger sense in the decade that the Panthers employed him:

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Can Panthers spring the upset against Dallas? My prediction

The Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers have a strange history. Carolina fans generally remember Cowboy games fondly, because the two biggest games in the 11-game series were both playoff games in Charlotte. And the Panthers won both of those convincingly -- following the 1996 and 2003 seasons -- to produce two of the franchise's best moments.

But in the regular season it's been a far different story. The Cowboys are 8-1 against Carolina in regular-season games. Current Dallas coach Jason Garrett threw for 287 yards against the Panthers in one of those victories back in 1998. And Dallas has won the last four matchups in a row. So Panther fans' happy memories of this series are getting pretty ancient.

** In the NFL, the Cowboys are always a friend for the opposing team's ticket director. Dallas will play in front of its 83rd consecutive road sellout Sunday in Charlotte -- the Cowboys' last "non-sellout" on the road was at Arizona 10 years ago. So Panther fans must brace for the inevitable influx of Dallas fans Sunday, because as always a large number of Cowboy fans will have bought their way into the stadium. At least they'll have as hard a time getting through security as everyone else.

** The Panthers better watch out for No.94 Sunday. DeMarcus Ware already has six sacks this season and is fourth on the Cowboys' all-time sack list. Ranking fourth doesn't sound that impressive until you consider the first three (according to the Cowboys' statistics) are Harvey Martin, Randy White and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. Ware only needs nine more sacks to pass them all.

** What the Panthers need most of all Sunday is a ground game. Did you realize Carolina that since the beginning of 2008, which was Jonathan Stewart's first year in the NFL, the Panthers have produced more rushing yards than any other team? But they have been mediocre at running the ball this season (ranked 13th). With the Cowboys' defense No.1 in the NFL against the pass, the Panthers keeping themselves away from third-and-10 situations will be huge.

** Dallas is the slight favorite in this one. But I picked the Panthers to go 8-8 before the season began. If they don't get started winning some games soon, there's no way they will get close to that. Both teams lost to Seattle, but the Panthers played the Seahawks a far better game. Just playing a hunch here -- and my hunches are suspect, given my game-by-game prediction record on the Panthers so far this season is only 2-3: Carolina 24, Dallas 23.

Monday, October 15, 2012

How hard is it to clear security for a Panthers home game?

Besides the on-field problems the 1-4 Carolina Panthers have had, some of their fans have also had trouble getting into their seats for kickoff. It has not been uncommon so far this season for Bank of America Stadium to have 10,000-20,000 empty seats when the game begins, only to have most of those seats filled in by the time the first quarter ends.

I received the following email from a reader in Charlotte named Keith regarding the Panthers’ last home game against Seattle, which kicked off at 4:05 p.m. on Oct.7th.

“The security to get in the stadium is horrible,” wrote Keith, who did not want his last name published. “It took my wife and I 30 minutes to get through the North Gate at 3:35 p.m. We missed the opening kickoff. This is why the crowd is so late arriving. The staff working the gate acted if they were getting paid by the hour. No sense of urgency at all and in fact I saw three or four yellow-jacket folks standing around talking. I can tell you that I will not go through that again.”

The Panthers acknowledge the new NFL-mandated security policies -- which include every fan being screened by a handheld metal-detecting wand and/or a pat-down -- have slowed things down. The team now recommends that any fans going to the 1 p.m. home game Sunday vs. Dallas arrive 30 minutes earlier to the stadium than they normally would (this replaces the team's previous recommendation to arrive 15 minutes earlier).

“We understand the writer’s frustration,” said Charlie Dayton, a Panther spokesman.

Gates will open at 11 a.m. Sunday, two hours before kickoff. But if tradition holds, the majority of the crowd will attempt to enter the stadium in the final 30 minutes before kickoff and mostly through the North gate.

“Overall, it is a late-arriving crowd, with nearly 70 percent of the crowd still coming in the last half hour,” Dayton said. “If we can lower that percentage during the last half hour, it should improve the process. Until 12 p.m., there are not any lines.”

So consider this your public-service announcement. If you really want to see the opening kickoff, you need to get to the stadium earlier than you think you should.

Also, if you have a comment about an experience you've had this season while attempting to get into a Panther game -- either positive or negative -- please post it below.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What is your theory on why Panthers seem so disappointing?

Why are fans so disappointed with the Carolina Panthers?

I wrote my column for Monday's newspaper about this subject. The short answer, of course, is the 1-4 record. But it's more complicated than that. In 2011, after five games, the Panthers were 1-4. In 2012, after five games and coming off a bye on Sunday, they are also 1-4.

So why all the outcry this season? Why – in my own opinion and also based on the emails I trade and the conversations I have with fans (along with the comments posted in this blog) -- does this year seem so much worse?

I propose a three-part theory in my column, but I'd like to hear your thoughts as well. Here's the short version -- check the column for more details:

1) A simple lack of scoring.

In 2011, the Panthers lost their fifth game at home, 30-27, to New Orleans. It was a compelling game to the end.

In 2012, the Panthers lost their fifth game at home, 16-12, to Seattle. It was a compelling game to the end.

The difference? The Panthers scored more last year. Steve Smith caught a 54-yard touchdown pass in that New Orleans game. DeAngelo Williams had a 69-yard touchdown run. Even though they went home frustrated, fans also had more big moments to talk about. The games were more fun to watch in 2011.

2. Cam Newton’s temporary on-field regression.

I would agree with head coach Ron Rivera, who said last week that Newton is pressing too much on the field. I would go further, in fact, and say that Newton has regressed compared to the first five games of his rookie year. Remember, he threw for more than 400 yards in his first two NFL games ever (although the Panthers lost both).

And as Newton’s honeymoon period concludes, he is also being judged against a far tougher standard – his own performance of 2011, rather than Jimmy Clausen’s performance of 2010.

3) The Ryan Kalil ad.

In late July, without mentioning it to anyone in the Panther organization, Kalil took out a full-page advertisement in The Charlotte Observer which began: “Why the Carolina Panthers will win Super Bowl XLVII” and which ended with Kalil’s signature.

I loved the gesture. But it had some unintended consequences. It was so unusual it gave rise to unbridled optimism from Panther fans. The ad raised expectations dramatically and the Panthers have come nowhere close so far to meeting them. To make matters worse, Kalil is now on injured reserve -- an unwilling symbol for how things can chase for the worse so quickly in the NFL.

What's your theory? And do you think the Panthers have any chance at rebounding this season?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Rest in peace, Bill Friday -- a man who treated everyone with kindness and dignity

Like tens of thousands of people who came through the University of North Carolina collegiate system, I loved Bill Friday. And like so many of those people, I still remember a couple of the personal kindnesses he took time to bestow upon me.

Friday died in his sleep at age 92 in Chapel Hill on Friday.

He was a towering figure in state education and his graciousness was unsurpassed. You can read about his many accomplishments elsewhere -- to list them all here would require an encyclopedia.

While Friday was the president of the UNC collegiate system for 30 years, from 1956-86, he always maintained a keen interest in sports (and in keeping them in their proper place on campus).

Friday was a fine baseball catcher in high school. As an undergraduate at N.C. State, he was the sports editor of the student newspaper. More than 50 years ago, he abolished the very popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament after a point-shaving scandal. He always had one of the most reasonable voices when critiquing how college sports should be reined in and how important it was to keep academics No.1 on campuses.

But like so many touched by Friday's gentlemanly and dignified manner, I will remember him mostly for our brief personal interactions.

When I was a student at UNC in the mid-1980s, Friday came to a journalism feature writing class I was taking and let us interview him en masse so we could write practice stories. My teacher later showed him some of those stories and he took the time to pass along a compliment about an analogy I had used comparing him to the owner of an old-time general store. I'm sure it was overwritten -- I liked to include three or four adjectives in every sentence back then -- but hearing that Friday liked something I had written made me redden with pleasure.

Later, when working for UNC's student newspaper, I called his office and asked to interview President Friday for an interview about some issue or another. I was expecting a five-minute phone conversation. He instead invited me to his office and gave me more than an hour of his time, quizzing me about my own life at Chapel Hill in between my questions to him.

I walked out of that office with a dizzying thought -- I think the president of the whole UNC system might be my friend! Friday had that sort of effect on people. As important a man as he was, he always seemed to have time for you.

I love this quote he provided to another interviewer from the Associated Press in 1995: "Courage, manners and decency cost a person so little," he said. "But disregard them and see what you get."

In 2006, I co-wrote a book about UNC's championship 1982 basketball season with former UNC point guard Jimmy Black.

Friday was in his late 80s by then. But Jimmy was insistent that there was only one person we should ask to write the book's foreword -- Bill Friday. We sent it to Friday through his longtime personal assistant, Virginia Taylor. He read it and sent back a wonderful foreword in which he also couldn't resist taking a couple of cracks at the current state of college athletics.

"College sports is now struggling to regain control over its destiny," Friday wrote. "Being an entertainment industry is not its purpose. The consequences are too costly, as we see all too often now."

Those words, written well before UNC's football turmoil of recent years, have never been truer.

Rest in peace, Bill Friday. And thank you for treating everyone you met with such respect and kindness.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Christmas comes to NASCAR -- and she's a front tire changer

Christmas Joye Abbott got that name from her mother, who was delighted with the daughter who was born on Dec. 20th after the mother had to go through a number of weeks of bedrest to sustain the pregnancy. (Photo by Corey Lowenstein/News & Observer)

I have written a number of stories about NASCAR hopefuls over the years -- Charlotte attracts them, as it is the epicenter for most of the best teams in the sport.

The one I've been working on the last couple of weeks with photographer Corey Lowenstein and is being published here is pretty different, though -- it is about a tough, driven, 30-year-old woman named Christmas Joye Abbott who is in incredible shape, has absolutely no NASCAR background and is now trying to become an over-the-wall member of a NASCAR pit crew.

Christmas Joye Abbott is no publicity stunt. She's an elite athlete who specializes in fitness workouts and co-owns her own CrossFit gym in Raleigh. Turner Motorsports convinced her after seeing her at a pit crew challenge in January to come to Charlotte and try to make it as a pit crew member (women have been in the pits before, mostly at NASCAR's lower levels, but it usually hasn't lasted long. Christmas's goal is to latch onto a Cup team by 2014).

This story came about first through Lowenstein, who shoots great pictures for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Once bitter competitors, The Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer are now brothers in arms, as we are owned by the same company (McClatchy) and frequently share content. We provide Raleigh's sports section with most of its Panthers coverage, for instance, and Raleigh generally provides our sports section with ACC coverage of the Triangle-area teams. When I covered the Olympics this summer, it was with an eye toward stories that would benefit both newspapers.

Lowenstein had happened upon Christmas because the gym Christmas co-owns was near the N&O. Once she visited the gym with an eye toward a possible story, Lowenstein was told that Christmas was actually moving to Charlotte in hopes of joining a pit crew. Lowenstein believed this would be a great story to tell journalistically, and I volunteered to be writer assigned to the story after seeing some of the first photos.

We'll continue to check in periodically with Christmas as she progresses (or doesn't progress) through NASCAR's ranks. She's only at the beginning stages of this journey now, but she's a very interesting and charismatic young woman, and how this all turns out will be something to see.

Kuechly should start over Beason in the middle for Panthers

Jon Beason or Luke Kuechly in the middle?

For now, I choose Kuechly. (Joe Person has a nice story describing the choice the Panthers must make here).

Choosing Kuechly is not an indictment of Beason. When healthy this year -- and he has had both shoulder and knee injuries -- Beason has been good (although not great, he has missed some tackles you would expect him to make and had a key possible interception go right through his hands). And Beason has done excellent work in the past in the middle, enough so that he has played in three Pro Bowls.

The primary reason I choose Kuechly in the middle right now, in fact, is because I think Beason plays the weakside linebacker spot better than Kuechly does. When Kuechly plays weakside (or "Will," in football terminology), you can sometimes go whole drives without noticing him. Beason has started in the position before -- once for half a season -- and seems to get to the ball better when he's on the weakside than Kuechly does.

At middle, however, Kuechly shines. He was very good Sunday in the Panthers' 16-12 loss to Seattle. He was involved in enough big plays (including an interception and a career-high 16 tackles) that fans started chanting "L-u-u-u-u-ke" when he made a tackle, and they chanted it numerous times. It seems like that's the place he fits best (even though it's also the spot Beason prefers).

Beason and Kuechly both need to be on the field, for they are two of the Panthers' best players. But that's how I'd line them up for the Oct.21 home game against Dallas -- James Anderson at his normal strongside position, Kuechly in the middle and Beason on the weakside.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Charlotte Bobcats are 500-1 to win 2013 NBA title

Want to take a really long shot at making some money? You could go to Las Vegas and bet the Charlotte Bobcats to win the NBA championship at 500-1 odds. A $20 bet, on the other hand, would win you $10,000 if the Bobcats (an NBA-worst 7-59 last season) pull off one of the biggest sports miracles of all time.

You probably are better off saving your $20. But as the NBA season opens in less than a month, I thought you might like a look at the odds for each NBA team to win the title, starting with the obvious favorite, the defending champion Miami Heat, and continuing all the way down to Charlotte:

Odds to win 2013 NBA Championship (provided by Note: these odds are for entertainment purposes only -- I'm certainly not encouraging anyone to gamble illegally.

Miami Heat 11/5

Los Angeles Lakers 5/2

Oklahoma City Thunder 9/2

Chicago Bulls 14/1

Boston Celtics 18/1

San Antonio Spurs 18/1

Los Angeles Clippers 25/1

Brooklyn Nets 30/1

Dallas Mavericks 33/1

Indiana Pacers 35/1

Memphis Grizzlies 35/1

New York Knicks 35/1

Philadelphia 76ers 50/1

Denver Nuggets 66/1

Houston Rockets 75/1

Atlanta Hawks 75/1

Minnesota Timberwolves 75/1

Portland Trailblazers 100/1

Utah Jazz 100/1

Golden State Warriors 125/1

Milwaukee Bucks 125/1

New Orleans Hornets 150/1

Orlando Magic 150/1

Phoenix Suns 150/1

Cleveland Cavaliers 200/1

Detroit Pistons 200/1

Sacramento Kings 200/1

Toronto Raptors 200/1

Washington Wizards 200/1

Charlotte Bobcats 500/1


Twitter reacts to Bobcats at 500-1.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bobcats want Kemba Walker to look before he leaps

Stay out of the air. Play below the rim. Keep your feet on the ground.

They seem like weird things to tell an NBA player, especially one who is generously listed at 6-foot-1 like the Charlotte Bobcats’ Kemba Walker.

But new Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap believes that Walker’s gruesome shooting percentage for his rookie season – 36.6 percent – will improve along with his total assists if he will look before he leaps.

Said Dunlap of Walker: “Last year he would get up in the air a lot, and it was difficult for him up there. So we’re working on teaching him to play on the ground and service other people within the spacing of our [fast] break.”

Walker has a tremendous first step and great confidence in his ability. He used both to lead the University of Connecticut to the 2011 national championship and convince the Bobcats to select him with the No.9 pick of the 2011 draft.

In the NBA, Walker’s quickness still allows him to get into the lane. But too often as a rookie Walker would get to within six feet of the goal, fling himself into the air and throw up a prayer over an opposing center that was fortunate to hit the backboard. He seemed to specialize in 4-for-13 shooting nights.

After winning 32 games at UConn during his national championship season, Walker won less than a fourth that many for a 7-59 Bobcats team that ended the season with the worst winning percentage in NBA history.

“It was tough,” Walker said. “Especially coming off such a great year that I had, and then coming in here and struggling like that. At the same time, it humbled me. It just made me work extremely hard and gave me an idea of what it takes to win at this level.”

I'll write more about Kemba and the Bobcats in Tuesday's Charlotte Observer.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Panther offense fails miserably in 16-12 defeat to Seattle

The Carolina Panthers played another very ugly game at home Sunday, losing 16-12 to Seattle to drop to 1-4 on what is rapidly becoming another lost season.

Much like the season opener against Tampa Bay, the Panthers’ offense ultimately let the team down this time. Carolina’s defense not only kept the game close but also scored the Panthers’ only touchdown, on a 33-yard interception return by Captain Munnerlyn that briefly put Carolina ahead, 10-6.

But the Panthers’ offense was horrible. It couldn’t run the ball and DeAngelo Williams lost a key fumble that eventually led to Seattle’s only TD. And Cam Newton threw the ball more poorly than I’ve ever seen him throw it, generating more boos at Bank of America Stadium than he ever has before. Newton placed the blame squarely on himself after the game -- here's my column about his performance.

Entering the fourth quarter, Newton was 5-for-20 for 55 yards. It was stunningly bad, and Newton fell on the sword after the game, saying he just wasn't playing well enough to win. The Seahawks’ pass rush was great, yes, and Newton had several dropped balls, but still – five completions in three quarters?!

Trailing 16-10, the Panthers got untracked for one last drive and, after several straight completions, had a first-and-goal at the 6 and a fourth-and-goal at the 1.

But on that fourth-and-goal play, Carolina took out all of its wide receivers and then tried to trick Seattle with a play-action pass (Newton also had the option to run). Tight end Greg Olsen was double-covered and Newton tried to guide the ball to his secondary target, Ben Hartsock, who was open for a moment -- "wide open," coach Ron Rivera would say later -- but Newton grounded the ball five yards short.

"The run-pass option worked in our favor," Rivera said. "We had a guy wide open. And unfortunately we just didn’t get it done."

Carolina got one last shot, starting its final drive with 54 seconds left and no timeouts from its own 31 after Seattle took an intentional safety in its own end zone to make the score 16-12 instead of 16-10. The Panthers still would need to score a TD either way.

But 69 yards in 54 seconds proved far too tall of a task, as Newton was sacked and fumbled on the second play and Seattle recovered and ran out the clock. Carolina would end up being outgained 310-190 in this game, and only because of the defense was the game even close. "Our defense needs to know that if they're going to play like that, we're going to win," said offensive tackle Jordan Gross. Instead this game was much like the Tampa Bay game, when the defense also played decently, allowed 16 points and then saw the once-fearsome Panther offense crumble when the team needed points the most. It was nasty, all in all, and the Panthers now have almost two weeks to think about it -- they don't play again until Oct.21st at home against Dallas (a team Seattle beat by 20).

What a great win for NC State over FSU

Like a lot of sports fans throughout the Carolinas, I watched N.C. State come back from a 16-0 deficit to upset No.3 Florida State, 17-16, in Raleigh on Saturday night.

What a win for N.C. State, which richly deserved it. The Wolfpack not only played better than FSU throughout the second half, they played smarter. And the final touchdown drive, which included two fourth-down conversion passes from quarterback Mike Glennon, was a thing of beauty.

FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher deserves a lot of blame for this one, though. He wouldn't let his very experienced field-goal kicker try a 51-yarder midway through the fourth quarter, instead deciding to punt the ball away. A field goal there makes State's final TD drive irrelevant, because the score is 19-10.

But the punt kept State in the game. And then Fisher got all conservative on everyone again, simply running the ball three times to use up State's timeouts with a little more than two minutes left. No throw. No real attempt at the first down that would probably have sealed the game.

Instead Fisher was playing the old John Fox "A punt is not a bad play" philosophy, and was rightly burned when State then partially blocked that second punt and took over only a little more than 40 yards away from paydirt.

Still, State had to make that final drive, and it was something else. It was the polar opposite for State fans from their feeling at the end of last week, when the Wolfpack gave up a long TD pass to Miami to lose in the final seconds.

So bravo to the Wolfpack.

And I hope Panther coach Ron Rivera was watching. Rivera decided to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 45 last week in Carolina's close loss, and the defense then let him down. I hope next time he goes for it. Rivera's decision, however, was more understandable than Fisher's -- the FSU coach just drew into a turtle shell for those final 10 minutes, wishing the game were over, and it cost him and paid off big-time for N.C. State.

One other consequence of this State win: No.6 South Carolina, which had a dominating 35-7 win over No.5 Georgia, should move to No.3 in the country. That's pretty amazing, too -- the Gamecocks at No.3. But the teams at 3,4 and 5 all lost, so it only stands to reason and USC certainly deserves it after blasting the Dawgs.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My Panthers vs Seahawks prediction and some pregame notes

I'm really interested to watch two things Sunday for the Carolina-Seattle game at 4:05 p.m.: how well the Seahawks rush Cam Newton and how well the Panthers contain running back Marshawn Lynch.

The Seahawks decimated Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in the first half of their game -- sacking him an astonishing eight times. Newton and his offensive line have quite a task in front of them.

Lynch is having a Pro Bowl type of year so far for the Seahawks -- the least number of rushing yards he had had in any game this year is 85. Lynch has only two fewer rushing yards by himself as DeAngelo Williams, Newton and Jonathan Stewart do put together (423 for Lynch, 425 for the Panthers' trio). I think Lynch and Newton will have more to do with who wins this game than any other player, including Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

Because Seattle's run defense is so good -- the Seahawks are No.2 in the NFL in yards per carry (2.99) -- Newton's arm will be as important as it ever has been.

** Justin Medlock has an important job Sunday -- kick the ball all the way out of the end zone so Seattle's Leon Washington can't get to it. Washington is one of the most dangerous kickoff return men in the game, averaging an astonishing 37.7 yards per kickoff return so far this season. He's good on punt returns, too. The Panthers' coverage teams have been improved this season, but Washington will really test them.

** Carolina and Seattle don't play each other very much, and when they do the games haven't been terribly significant except for one. That was the 2005 NFC Championship, played in Seattle and won easily by the Seahawks, 34-14.

That game doesn't seem terribly long ago -- I still remember being shocked at how loud the crowd in Seattle was and how bad Jake Delhomme and the Panthers' offense was (until midway in the fourth quarter, Carolina's only score was on a Steve Smith punt return). Only four Panther players on that 2005 team remain on this one: Smith, Thomas Davis, Chris Gamble and Jordan Gross.

** Carolina-Seattle fact that may be interesting only to me: When the two teams last played in 2010 (and Seattle won), Seattle's kicker was Olindo Mare.

** Prediction time: I missed the Panthers' result the first two weeks and have hit it the last two. Sunday's pick: Carolina 24, Seattle 20.

Monday, October 1, 2012

2 coaching mistakes by Rivera cost Panthers

The Panthers had a number of high-profile mistakes on the field Sunday in their 30-28 loss to Atlanta -- a loss that I believe will scar this team for the rest of the season, as I wrote in this column. (After listening to Ron Rivera on Monday, too, I am pretty convinced that Haruki Nakamura will be benched for Sunday's game vs. Seattle.)

But there were also two big mistakes made by head coach Rivera and his coaching staff in my opinion.

The most important was at the end of the game when Rivera didn't go for it on fourth and 1 at the Atlanta 45, instead punting to Atlanta and giving the Falcons one more chance to win. He said after the game he might have gone for it on fourth-and-inches (the ball was originally marked closer to the first-down line after a Cam Newton fumble that the Panthers recovered) but never seriously considered it on fourth and one.

Why? "Because if you don't get it right there, they only have to go 30 yards to try a field goal and that's why we decided to punt," Rivera said. The punt then was downed at the Atlanta 1, where the Falcons began with 59 seconds left and no timeouts.

Rivera's players stood behind him for that call. (ESPN's stats department did not, though, saying Panthers actually went against the percentages there based on this excellent blog item from Pat Yasinskas). But even as it was happening the pressbox I was shaking my head. Why not win or lose the game with your strength (offense) instead of counting on your weakness (defense) to win it for you?

As I wrote in today's column:

Rivera’s call was understandable in a vacuum. A great Panthers punt meant the Falcons took over at their 1, with just 59 seconds left and no timeouts.

But the coach has also seen the Panthers defense for two years. He knows its weakness against the deep ball (Haruki Nakamura had already given up a 49-yard touchdown earlier) and the big play (Carolina had also allowed a short dump pass to Michael Turner to go for a 60-yard TD).

And Rivera knows how good Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is. Yet the coach played the same percentages John Fox and every other conservative NFL coach undoubtedly would have in the same situation. Instead of trying to seal the game by running the ball for a single yard – and the Panthers already had 199 rushing yards – Rivera punted.

It was, simply, a bad call – a “play not to lose” sort of call.

The other call was at the end of the first half, when the Panthers totally mismanaged the clock in a two-minute drill.

Down 17-14, the Panthers took over at their 20 with 1:49 left and all three timeouts. What followed was a succession of short passes and runs – but no timeout taken until there were only 35 seconds left and Carolina faced second-and-2 from its 40.

By then it was too late, and the Panthers’ hurry-up offense never even crossed midfield (and the Panthers never used one of their timeouts). If Carolina had gotten a field goal there, it might have changed things.

Now it's also true that the coaching staff had the Panthers extremely well prepared as a whole compared to 10 days ago -- they give Atlanta everything. The play-calling was creative. The Panthers figured out a way to pressure Ryan (7 sacks). But coaches are judged by wins and losses, as they all know. And the bottom line is that Rivera is now 7-13 in his first 20 games as the Panthers' head man.