Thursday, November 29, 2012

Predicting Panthers to beat the Chiefs Sunday

Can you say two in a row?

The Panthers haven't won consecutive games all season, but they'll never have a better opportunity than Sunday when they go on the road to face the woeful Kansas City Chiefs.

While the Panthers (3-8) have had it bad this season, the Chiefs (1-10) have had it worse. Think of the 2010 version of the Panthers -- that 2-14 team whose offense couldn't score a TD if it got a turnover inside the opponents' 10 -- and you've got a good feel for the Chiefs.

Kansas City has lost eight in a row, and here are their point totals in the last seven of those games: 6, 10, 16, 13, 13, 6 and 9. They can run the ball decently and they can play defense sometimes, but that's about it. And their once-vaunted homefield advantage has slipped away -- Kansas City is 0-6 in Arrowhead Stadium this season.

The only way I see Kansas City winning is if Jamaal Charles rushes for more than 200 yards, which is how the Chiefs beat New Orleans earlier this year.

-- Weird Panther trivia question: Do you know what college is represented the most on the Panthers' roster? Answer below, just before my prediction.

-- I don't normally root for Panther players to perform well individually, but on Sunday I want one Panther to grab 111 yards or more worth of receptions. Why? Because the all-time Panther single-game reception yards leader in the very brief series with Kansas City is Rae Carruth, who had a 110-yard receiving game in 1997. I am always in favor of Carruth's terrible name being erased from Panther history, although the stain will never quite go away.

-- Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Cam Newton has 20 rushing touchdowns. That's better than everyone else in the NFL in that time period except Houston's Arian Foster (22). Still, Newton's rushing TD pace (six so far in 2012) is way off his QB record of 14 in 2011.

-- The trivia answer, according to the Panthers: Oregon State, with three players, is the most well-represented. They are Derek Anderson, James Dockery and Dwan Edwards.

-- I have finally edged over .500 on Panther predictions this season at 6-5 after getting the last three games in a row correct. Going for four straight with this one, which I don't think will be that close: Carolina 28, Kansas City 13.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

David Thompson is selling off a lot of his old basketball memorabilia

David Thompson's 1974 national title ring he won at N.C. State and his old high school jersey from Crest are two of the items he is auctioning off.Photos courtesy of SCP Auctions.

Legendary N.C. State basketball player David Thompson is selling a lot of his personal basketball memorabilia through an auction site (, including his 1974 N.C. State national championship ring and his old high school jersey.

The high bid on the championship ring is $9,746. The current high bid on the Crest high school jersey is $3,300. Among the other items in the 48-item “David Thompson Collection” is the net from the 1974 N.C. State-Maryland ACC final, considered one of the greatest games ever played (minimum bid of $750). Not everything is that expensive – a number of plaques Thompson received throughout his career have minimum bids of $200.

In an interview Wednesday, Thompson, 58, said he was selling some (but not all) of the stuff he collected through his Hall of Fame basketball career because that while he “isn’t broke by any means” that he wasn’t particularly nostalgic and that the money wouldn’t hurt, either.

“Everybody needs money,” said Thompson, who makes a living these days with motivational speaking and personal appearances. “Everybody has bills. A lot of the guys from my generation have done this, and I just felt like the time was right.”

Thompson said many of the items he put up for sale (alongside items from NBA hall of famers Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones) were gathering dust in his late parents’ family home outside of Shelby or in his own attic at his house in Charlotte. He said he planned to give some of the money he earns from the auction to charity, including an increase in his annual donation to The “V” Foundation for cancer research.

He is not selling everything. The auction house, which is located in California, asked him about his basketball hall of fame ring. But he refused to sell that as well as some mementoes from his ABA and NBA days.

Thompson said the N.C. State national championship ring was the “hardest” to give up, even though he had only worn it “once or twice” to reunions. His hope is that an N.C. State fan would buy the ring and ultimately donate it to the school’s newly-established athletic hall of fame.

More about Thompson, my interview with him and the auction will be in my Thursday sports column. The online auction itself closes on Saturday.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Panthers win 30-22 over Eagles thanks to Cam Newton and his 4 TDs

PHILADELPHIA -- Say what you want about Cam Newton, but he was the best player in the game Monday night.

Newton threw for two touchdowns, ran for two more and never turned the ball over in the Panthers’ 30-22 win over Philadelphia, as Carolina improved to 3-8 this season.

Newton 2.0 seemed a lot like Newton 1.0 Monday night, which was a good thing. The Eagles couldn’t get hold of him on critical third downs. He didn’t make every throw perfectly, but he completed passes of 55 and 43 yards and generally made the right decisions (he threw for 306 yards, with a QB rating of 125.0). He was back to “Superman,” in other words, dominating much of the evening before a national TV audience. Worth noting also: it was Newton's second straight game without a turnover.

-- The Eagles (3-8) were without their top quarterback (Michael Vick), their top running back (LeSean McCoy) and – for almost the entire game – their top wide receiver (DeSean Jackson). And still the Eagles hung in there. Carolina was fortunate to cause and recover three second-half fumbles that helped ensure the victory. And how about a game ball for Gary Barnidge -- the reserve tight end caught a 24-yard TD pass and recovered the Eagles' final fumble on a kickoff.

-- One of the most amazing stats of the season: The Panthers are now 0-for-12 on coin tosses (including an overtime coin toss they also lost). As the visitors, the Panthers get to call the opening toss on Sunday at Kansas City. I think the team should have an online “heads” or “tails” poll of fans on their website, have fans pay a quarter for each vote with all the money going to charity and let the winner be the Panthers’ call on Sunday.

-- The way the Panthers shuffle through placekickers, Graham Gano has to be on somewhat thin ice now after missing an extra point in the fourth quarter that would have iced the game (the Panthers then led by eight points, not nine). His kickoffs were generally good, though. He did make a 23-yard field goal.

-- Although Eagles fans are renowned for their loyalty – and their frequent booing – even that loyalty has some limits. The stands at Lincoln Financial Field probably included at least 10,000 empty seats.

-- Sherrod Martin dropped two potential interceptions on the same series – the Eagles’ first of the first quarter. If Martin makes either of those picks, I think rookie Nick Foles’ confidence would have eroded early. But Martin did cause that key fourth-quarter fumble on special teams.

-- The Eagles actually were offsides on three consecutive plays late in the fourth quarter – on defense. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before.

-- Even in the Philadelphia pressbox, word spread of the Charlotte Bobcats’ astonishing 64-24 halftime deficit to the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s just a score you don’t see very often.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Picking the Panthers to edge the Eagles Monday night

Locally, this game will be kind of cool -- a rare chance to see the Carolina Panthers on "Monday Night Football."

Nationally, though -- what a clunker! You can imagine what NFL and TV executives were thinking when this one got put on prime time back in the spring -- two dynamic quarterbacks, two teams at least likely to be in the playoff hunt (or surely at least one would be) and the cacophony of noise that is always there in a night game in Philadelphia.

Well.... The noise will be there, although the Eagle fans are angry and liable to turn on their 3-7 team at any second. One of the quarterbacks will be there for sure in Cam Newton, although he has regressed in Year Two. Michael Vick may not play for Philadelphia, and even when he has he has been a turnover machine too often in 2012. And ain't nobody going to the playoffs -- with the Panthers at 2-8, the teams have only five wins between them. I don't envy Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico trying to make this one sound good for a national audience.

-- Head coaches Andy Reid and Ron Rivera worked together for years in Philadelphia (with Rivera coaching under Reid). Now they are in roughly similar situations, with both men's job security in question. Reid has even been speculated to be a possible successor to Rivera in Charlotte should both be fired at season's end.

-- When the Panthers played (and won) at Philadelphia in the 2003 NFC championship game, some players refused to even let their friends and families travel to the game. The reason? A well-founded fear of the nastiness that is prevalence at an Eagles home game, which is one place that you truly never want to be caught wearing a jersey for the opposing team.

-- While the Panthers' record is slightly worse than the Eagles, I actually think they are a slightly better team. At least the Panthers have led most of their losses in the fourth quarter. By that time the Eagles are often out of the game. My prediction: Carolina 20, Philadelphia 16.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keep Rivera through the end of 2012 -- then make the decision

To fire Ron Rivera at this point of the season would serve no real purpose, other than to throw the Carolina Panthers into chaos and embarrass a good man.

Rivera believes that he will at least be allowed to coach the 2-8 Panthers' final six games, and if so, that's the right call.

The calls for Rivera's head grow among the fan base, which is understandable. Carolina is 8-18 in his two-year tenure and 1-11 in games decided by seven or fewer points. The Panthers blew an 11-point lead in the final six minutes to lose at home against Tampa Bay. They have mastered the art of coming from ahead to lose.

An unofficial poll on The Observer's website asked whether Rivera would still be the coach on Monday night after the Panthers' latest loss. Out of nearly 4,800 votes by 6 p.m., 54 percent said "No."

Rivera still was the coach as of Monday night, though. And while I can't say I would give him a vote of confidence to be the coach in 2013, he deserves to coach the rest of the 2012 season. Jerry Richardson has never fired a coach midseason, and there's no need to start doing that right now.

“I’m not concerned about me, I’m really not. I’m concerned about them,” Rivera said. “We have a group of coaches that I believe in 100 percent. I’ll be all right. No matter what happens I’ll be OK. Whether I’m here next year or not, I will be A-OK.

“I will go forward, I will make things happen whether it’s here or somewhere else. I will. I believe in who I am and I firmly do believe in my abilities as a coach."

Rivera doesn't have very long left to prove himself. Richardson, 76, has shown he is impatient for a turnaround by already firing general manager Marty Hurney in the middle of the season. Rivera may well be next, and he probably should be next unless the Panthers perform some miraculous turnaround. But he deserves to coach these final six games first.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bucs beat Panthers 27-21 in OT as Carolina blows 11-point lead in last 6 minutes

The Panthers snatched another defeat from victory’s jaws Sunday, blowing a 21-10 lead in the final six minutes and losing, 27-21, in overtime to Tampa Bay before a disconsolate home crowd. Here's my column, focusing on the uncanny ability of the Panthers to lose close games.

In a game with wild swings, Tampa Bay scored the game’s first 10 points, Carolina scored the next 21 and then the Bucs scored the final 17 – including a 15-yard pass from Josh Freeman to Dallas Clark on the first possession of overtime. Clark beat Carolina linebacker James Anderson on the play. Because the Bucs scored a TD, Carolina didn’t get a chance to possess the ball in OT, so the Panther defense ended up allowing 80-yard touchdown drives on the game’s final two possessions. In the postgame, quarterback Cam Newton called the Panthers' inability to finish games out "the story of our lives." Tight end Greg Olsen said that of all the close losses this year that this one "takes the cake." Defensive end Charles Johnson tweeted out that he was "embarrassed" by the loss. "Some people study and work harder than others and they get expose [sic]" read part of Johnson's tweet.

Carolina was seemingly in control late, when Cam Newton’s 29-yard pass to Brandon LaFell pushed the Panthers to a 21-10 lead with six minutes to go. The Bucs got a field goal to slice the lead to 21-13 and then – after the Panthers bled the clock awhile – Tampa Bay started its final drive with 62 seconds to go, zero timeouts and 80 yards to go.

But the Bucs went all the way down the field – helped by a 15-yard penalty on linebacker Thomas Davis for hitting a defenseless receiver in the head. Vincent Jackson burned the Panthers badly late, scoring on both a 24-yard touchdown and then on the ensuing two-point conversion.

The Panthers dropped to 2-8 on the season after leading for most of the game, and you have to think a loss like this will come back to haunt a lot of people at Bank of America Stadium at season’s end. Tampa Bay improved to 6-4.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My Panthers-Bucs prediction and a few pregame notes

Once upon a time, the 2012 Carolina Panthers were considered a real possibility to make the NFL playoffs. They brimmed with optimism in training camp. Their Pro Bowl center took out a newspaper ad saying they would win the next Super Bowl.

And then Tampa happened.

On Sept.9th, the loss to Tampa Bay set the tone for this season -- and what a jarring tone it was. The Panthers had crushed Tampa Bay twice in 2011, but the season opener for both teams was a completely different story.

Carolina could only rush for 10 yards, foreshadowing what would be a season-long problem. DeAngelo Williams had minus-1 yard in six carries, which meant Jonathan Stewart (who didn't play) actually led his backfield mate in rushing after the first game.

Tampa Bay led 13-0 at halftime and won 16-10. The Panthers really have never quite recovered. At 2-7, they now reside in the cellar that was supposed to be the Bucs' home in 2012. Tampa Bay, at 5-4, has a shot at a wild card playoff berth.

-- Have you seen how many points the Bucs have been putting up? In going 4-1 over their past five games, they have scored at least 28 points in every single game. Luke Kuechly and company will have quite a struggle Sunday, particularly with rookie running back Doug Martin (862 rushing yards). Martin has been one of the best rookies in the NFL this season, and his yardage total is nearly as much as Cam Newton, Stewart and Williams combined (873).

-- Newton's arm will be the key to the Panthers' offense Sunday, not his legs. Tampa Bay gives up a ton of yardage through the air -- the Bucs are dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (Newton had 303 in the first game). With the attention Tampa Bay always pays to Steve Smith, this could be a Sunday where Brandon LaFell comes up big.

-- With the Panthers fumbling through another season and the holidays around the corner, I expect Sunday's crowd will be somewhat down. But the game that really might end Carolina' 101-game sellout streak comes Dec.23rd, when the Panthers host the Oakland Raiders two days before Christmas.

-- The Panthers have played seven close games this year and only been blown out twice (to each of the Manning brothers). I foresee another close game Sunday -- I am only 4-5 on Panther predictions this season after getting the Denver game right last week. My prediction: Tampa Bay 26, Carolina 22.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kemba, Cam going in separate directions in Year 2

Charlotte guard Kemba Walker used a wicked crossover move to get open for a 19-footer Wednesday night, then swished it to win the Bobcats their third straight game, 89-87, on the road over Minnesota.

The Bobcats are now 4-3. The other young star in Charlotte -- Carolina's Cam Newton -- quarterbacks a team that is 2-7.

It's interesting how Kemba and Cam have gone in two separate directions in Year 2. They were very different in Year 1 -- Cam was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year and had what I still consider the best rookie year by any player ever (Lawrence Taylor would have an argument, few others would).

Kemba, meanwhile, was shooting a nasty 36.6 percent for the 7-59 Bobcats. So he was at rock bottom and Cam was high on the mountain in Year One in Charlotte. In some ways, it is natural they have both moved toward each other in Year Two.

Now Kemba has far more help than he did a year ago. Cam has less (have you checked out his offensive line lately?) Kemba has more confidence. Cam has less. Kemba is making the big shots he mostly missed a season ago. Cam just isn't quite getting it done, especially in the fourth quarters of games.

Cam can still be great -- although right now he's an average NFL quarterback, as I wrote earlier this week. The cool thing, though, is that Kemba now looks like he can be great, too. And if both these young players stick around Charlotte for the next 5-10 years, it will be very interesting to watch their development.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Heads keep rolling at Bank of America Stadium as Panthers fire special-teams coach

The heads continue to roll at Bank of America Stadium -- Panthers head coach Ron Rivera fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy Monday. He has replaced Murphy with Richard Rodgers, a college teammate of Rivera's at California who he had brought in as the special teams assistant for 2012. Here's my column about the firing and what it means for Tuesday's newspaper.

Murphy's coverage teams allowed a 76-yard punt return touchdown in Denver's 36-14 whipping of Carolina on Sunday. It also got a missed field goal from Justin Medlock and, as usual, nothing good from its own kick and punt coverage teams.

By doing this in midseason, we get another indication of how serious Rivera's own situation is. General manager Marty Hurney has already been fired -- team owner Jerry Richardson issued that pink slip -- and Rivera and his staff are also coaching for their jobs over the final seven games of the season.

So was this a good move? I think so. Murphy's special teams have mostly underperformed for the past year and a half. Rivera characterized the move as necessary because of "philosophical differences" and a lack of production from the special teams. He's got to try something, and of the three chief Panther assistants (the offensive and defensive coordinators being the other two), Murphy has shown the least when you look at the entire history of all the coaches' 25-game tenure.

Of course, no one has shown too much -- the Panthers are 8-17 under Rivera and this staff, which is why all of them have a tenuous hold on their jobs. But if you were going to shake things up, as Rivera obviously thinks he needs to, Murphy was the likely choice to go.

Now what about Rodgers? Well, he shares a name with the American composer who co-wrote Oklahoma, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. But he's not that guy. This is the Richard Rodgers who was part of the five-lateral affair called "The Play" that beat Stanford in 1982. This is his first year in the NFL, so there's really no telling how he will do.

One thing it sounds like is going to happen, though: Joe Adams is going to start returning kicks again before long. Adams got in Rivera's doghouse because he fumbled three times this season, but the Panthers are getting so little out of their punt and kickoff returns that they've got to try something. Rivera said Adams would be getting an opportunity before long.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Panthers take a 36-14 beating from Denver

Carolina fans got to be happy Sunday for almost one whole quarter. The Panthers scored the second time they got the ball, the defense held the Broncos to no points on their first two possessions and it was 7-0, Carolina, late in the first period.

From there, though, it was all downhill. (Here's my column about the game, on the scary thought that Cam Newton has become an average NFL quarterback). The Broncos scored 29 straight points before the Panthers finally got on the board again late in the fourth quarter, thumping Carolina, 36-14, in Denver head coach John Fox's return to Charlotte. By the end, more than half the fans in a mostly empty stadium wore Denver orange.

Four reasons the Panthers (2-7) lost so badly:

1) Offensive third-down conversions. The Panthers were 0-for-19 on third downs. I mean, really? After that one TD drive early -- when they didn't even need a third down to score -- they couldn't sustain a thing.

2) Awful special teams. The Panthers had improved in this area for much of 2012, but reverted to their 2011 ways in this game. Denver's Trindon Holliday, the shortest player in the NFL at 5-foot-5, took a punt back 76 yards for a score in the second quarter. Justin Medlock also missed a 43-yard field goal that would have cut the Broncos' lead to 17-10. (Note: Holliday did throw the ball out of bounds before crossing the plane of the goal line, though, so that TD technically should have been overturned.)

3) Peyton Manning. In only his second game ever in Charlotte, Manning was pretty much just what you would expect. At one point, he was 13-for-14 and the only incompletion was a drop. He did lose a fumble, but in general his errors weren't bad ones and his throws, while occasionally fluttery, almost always were perfect. He threw for 301 yards, one TD and no interceptions.

4) Cam Newton and his offensive line. Can't put this all on Newton, because he got hit over and over as the Panthers' offensive line was simply overwhelmed -- especially by Broncos linebacker Von Miller. But Newton's throw while under heavy pressure that got picked off by Tony Carter and returned 40 yards for a TD was the game's back-breaker, and he overthrew Steve Smith several times. And Newton just kept holding and holding and holding the ball. Newton also took a fourth-quarter safety on the Broncos' seventh -- yes, their seventh -- sack.

At least the towel Newton covered his head in on the sidelines was cool -- camouflage color, in honor of Veterans Day. (Steve Smith later used one of those towels to cover his head while the Panthers were driving for their late fourth-quarter score while the rest of the Panther first-teamers were still on the field -- Ron Rivera said later he asked for Smith to be pulled because he wanted to let the young guys play some, but that it wasn't a "performance issue." Smith would not talk to reporters after the game.

On the plus side: It was a beautiful day. Panther owner Jerry Richardson released a statement more or less discounting reports that he might move the team to Los Angeles. Greg Olsen caught two TD passes. And the Panthers' defense actually played pretty well.

The Panthers' defense, in fact, only allowed 20 points -- the other 16 came from the Broncos' return scores on the punt and interception and the safety. But the Panthers' offense was so inept when it mattered that this bird never had a chance to fly.

Geez, the Bobcats are better than they were last season

It was only one victory over Dallas and both Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion were out for the Mavericks. But the Charlotte Bobcats' 101-97 overtime victory over the Mavericks Saturday night still was quite a sign as to how far they've come from that horrid 23-game loss streak that ended last season.

This was the Bobcats' second victory, both of them at home. This one also came over the only NBA team the Bobcats had never beaten. I was in the stands, watching with my son and one of his buddies, which was a nice place to be. I wasn't working the game for the newspaper, but thought I'd weigh in anyway with a bonus blog since it was so good. Five quick impressions:

1) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (25 points, 12 rebounds) looked like a major player against the Mavericks. This was exactly what the Bobcats (2-3) hoped he would be when they drafted him No.2 this summer -- a little bit of everything. Michael Jordan compared MKG to Scottie Pippen in The Observer's recent interview with MJ -- on this night, it didn't seem quite as farfetched.

2) I thought I was dreaming, but it was reality: Gana Diop actually played in the third quarter and had a block and a steal on consecutive possessions.

3) Kemba Walker (26 points, eight steals) has taken a major leap in Year Two. His quickness can be stunning. Either he or MKG were involved in just about every key play for Charlotte. And Walker is getting so much better at working himself free and then hitting the mid-range jumper.

4) Dallas's Vince Carter got in Brendan Haywood's face after the game ended, as Haywood tried to keep Carter away from the Bobcats' bench. Looked like it could have gotten ugly for about 30 seconds, but the two former Tar Heels ultimately kept it (mostly) a verbal altercation except for some light shoving. Carter was furious about something, though.

5) The Bobcats' recovery in the final 25 seconds of regulation was quite a feat. Down four with 25 seconds left, they got a dunk by Haywood, a missed free throw, a rebound and finally a driving layup by Ramon Sessions (who has been a very good closer so far) to tie it. After that, winning the OT was comparatively easy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Longtime Panther fan who sells tickets because of team's inferior play ignites firestorm

The comments of longtime PSL holder Todd Pedersen have ignited quite a debate among Panther fans. Pedersen, in this column I wrote for Friday's newspaper, routinely sells his Panther tickets and makes no apologies for doing so. They often end up in the hands of fans of the other team. He said it's his way of recouping some of his investment in the PSLs and boycotting the inferior product the Panthers have put on the field since 2010 (they are 10-30 in that time frame, the NFL's worst record).

Well, that column started a firestorm. Presented here, without names attached except for one prominent Panther fan most people would know in the final comment, are some excerpts from the comments that the story has gotten and emails I've received:

-- Todd Pedersen -- RIGHT ON!!!!!! My wife and I are PSL holders from the team's inception, and his comments express my sentiments perfectly.

-- He's no FAN. He's a sell-out, bandwagon rider, and proud of it. Pathetic.

-- When the Packers didn't win for decades, they still had loyal fans. Just sell your tickets and quit dogging on your team in public. You're an embarrassment to yourself and the city.

-- I am a displaced Panther Fan, I get DirecTV so I can watch the games from Eglin AFB, FL. My whole family is driving up (11 hrs) for the long Veteran's Day weekend so we can go to the Panther Game and support our team....and this is the guy you choose to profile?

-- I absolutely agree with Mr. Pedersen. I grew up a N.Y. Giants football fan. Knowing how difficult it was to get Giants tickets, I purchased six PSLs. Unfortunately, I still have them. For the last three years I have sold the whole season.

-- When I read the first few paragraphs, I was ready to fry this guy! But having read the article all the way through, I (also a Clemson SC/Year 1 Vet and having only missed about 7 games since Day 1) can't blame him. Understand his frustration completely. And he offered up his name.

-- I sold about half of my tickets this year mainly for economic reasons. All but one game I sold to friends at face value who I know are Panther fans. I did sell my Cowboys tickets online and not sure who bought them, but expect it was a Cowboys fan as they are the only ones stupid enough to pay $300 for (2) $41 tickets. That $218 profit helped me to be able to go to the games that I did.

--You don't QUIT as a fan because of losing; his family doesn't quit on him, when he doesn't sell his wares consistently! I challenge the guy to sit with me at a game next year so that I can show him what he lacks!....... LOYALTY. -- Greg "Catman" Good

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My Panthers-Broncos prediction and some pregame notes

Sunday is a special day for the NFL in Charlotte, but not because John Fox is coming back to Carolina to coach the Denver Broncos.

We've seen Fox coach before -- nine years worth of him. He will be working the gum, listening to the the headset, slapping some hands, making a few smart and a few very conservative decisions and saying "It is what it is" in his postgame press conference. No big deal.

But Peyton Manning in Charlotte? Now that's something different. Even though Manning has been in the league since 1998, he has only played in Charlotte once. That was in 2007, when Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to a 31-7 rout of a Carolina team coached by Fox and quarterbacked by Vinny Testaverde and David Carr (i.e., the bad old days).

Manning also lost a game to the Panthers in 2003, when Carolina won on the road at Indianapolis in overtime during the Panthers' Super Bowl season under Fox.

Manning is one of those guys all NFL fans should feel slightly richer for having seen in person. So if you've got a ticket for Sunday, consider yourself lucky no matter the outcome. There's no guarantee Manning, 36, will ever play football in Charlotte again -- in fact, it's more likely that he won't.

** It's worth remembering that the Panthers once tried hard to trade for Manning. In 1998, before the draft, the Panthers offered Indianapolis and former Carolina general manager Bill Polian (then running the Colts) a slew of assets for the No.1 pick Indianapolis held. Those assets included quarterback Kerry Collins (a Polian favorite -- he had taken him in 1995 while at Carolina), wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and some high draft picks.

The Colts thought about it, but ultimately said no. Then they took Manning.

Oh, what might have been. Collins was allowed to quit the team only a few months later by Panther coach Dom Capers and Manning became the only man ever to be a four-time NFL MVP.

** If the Panthers plan to spring this upset, they better have a lead built up once the fourth quarter rolls around. Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes and zero interceptions this year in the fourth quarter, leading Denver to a 103-23 point advantage in the last 15 minutes. That's easily tops in the NFL (Carolina has been outscored 65-36 in the fourth period).

** Two really good young linebackers are in this game -- Denver's Von Miller and Carolina's Luke Kuechly. Miller makes more splashy plays -- he is tied for the NFL lead in tackles for loss -- but Kuechly has already established himself as one of the surest tacklers in the league.

** The Broncos aren't unbeatable, as their 5-3 record will attest. Carolina has been in every game but one this season, but the Panthers are 2-6 because they are 0-5 in games decided by seven points or less.

I don't think the Broncos will utterly dominate the Panthers, but it's hard to take Cam Newton over Manning in the fourth quarter at this point in their respective careers. My prediction: Denver 27, Carolina 21.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A story about Darrell Royal, who passed away Thursday

Legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal died Thursday at age 88, which reminds me of a story.

When I was seven years old, I was a huge Longhorn football fan. Everyone was where I lived back then – my birthplace of Austin, Texas. Royal by then had won two national championships (in 1963 and 1969) at Texas and was, as you might expect, a virtual king in Austin.

Anyway, I wrote Royal a fan letter. I can’t remember much about it, except it included a couple of illustrations of Longhorns doing various great things with the football and maybe a play-calling suggestion or two (yes, I was trying to tell football coaches what to do back then, too).

And Royal wrote back.

I wish I had saved his letter, but I still have the memory. He had signed his letter, I do remember that, and it had my name at the top. And he had thanked me for my support of Texas football and my drawings (there was no mention of the play-calling, however).

It’s very possible a Texas football secretary had a standard letter to send out in such cases and put them in front of Royal by the dozens to sign every day. But in any case, it was powerful to me.

Those sorts of things too often get lost in athletics sometimes now – the power of a letter, or an autograph, or a player or coach taking a few moments to speak with someone who idolizes him. But if you ever had a moment like that yourself with an athlete or coach, I bet you still remember it (and feel free to share it in comments section below).

I wasn’t a big letter writer at age seven – I believe I only wrote two of them to sports figures. But the other one got answered, too. I’ve told this story before in a column from 10 years ago, but indulge me:

In 1972, I was also a big fan of the L.A. Lakers. Back then, I had written a letter to the coach of the 1971-72 Lakers NBA championship team – Bill Sharman.

Although I hadn’t asked for any autographs in that letter 30 years ago, Sharman had written back from California and enclosed a sheet with all of the team’s signatures – Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich among them. I loved that sheet of paper and stuck it on my bulletin board with thumbtacks. But a few years later, I lost it.

Fast-forward thirty years. Sharman’s son-in-law in Florida somehow saw my 2002 column about my original letter. He told Sharman -- who made basketball's hall of fame as both a player and a coach -- about it.

Sharman, who is now 86 years old and at the time was 76, dug through his files. He found a picture of that 1971-72 team and signed it. He found a copy of that original set of team autographs, which he Xeroxed for me.

Then Sharman stuffed all that in an envelope and sent it to me from California along with a note that concluded, “Thanks for bringing back some very nice, exciting memories!” I still have that one.

And I still have the memory of Darrell Royal, too – who originated the Wishbone, famously disdained the forward pass and once made the day of a seven-year-old boy.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Panther Bests and Worsts at midseason -- what do you think?

I know everyone is a little busy with it being Election Day, so please VOTE before you read this.

OK, you're done? Good. I'm writing a column for Wednesday's newspaper and online with the working title of "Panther Bests & Worsts at Midseason." I'd like your help. I'm trying to pick out some of the most extreme moments, both good and bad, at the halfway point.

UPDATE: HERE'S THE COLUMN that resulted -- I did read closely everyone's comments who submitted something down below and they helped very much in making my final selections.

Some of the categories will be pretty straightforward, like: "Best Player." I'm leaning toward Charles Johnson there, although Luke Kuechly certainly deserves consideration. Other categories may include "Worst Single Play," "Best Single Play," "Worst Coaching Decision," "Worst Call by an Official For and Against the Panthers," "Worst Thing An Announcer Said on TV About the Panthers" and so on. They don't all have to be serious -- I plan to have some fun with this.

If you have any input on the categories and what you'd put in them, leave it in the comments section below. Also, feel free to make up your own category. If you post your comment before 4 p.m., I will be able to read it and take it into account before submitting this story and might even quote from it in my story. So let your voice be heard on Election Day -- twice -- and tell me what Panther moments, both good and bad, you remember most from the first eight games.

P.S. -- Also remember that I moderate my own comments below this blog. Anything goes as long as you don't use profanity (this is the No.1 reason when comments don't get posted) or you don't outright slander someone.

You absolutely don't have to agree with anything I write -- I've been a sportswriter for 25 years now, so I have a very thick skin. But since kids read this blog, too (it ranks as one of the 2-3 most popular blogs on the website), we're not going to have a bunch of cursing and name-calling on it. Thanks, Scott

Monday, November 5, 2012

What does Ron Rivera need to do in the second half of Panther season to save his job?

No one knows the answer to the question posed in the title of this blog except Panther team owner Jerry Richardson, and he’s not talking.

Rivera used the phrase “trend up” again Monday when I asked him what would be realistic for his 2-6 Carolina Panthers over the season’s final eight games.

“You want to win them all,” said Rivera, whose Panthers host Denver and former Carolina coach John Fox on Sunday. “You want to win as many as you can. What that number is I don’t know…. There’s a lot of people watching. We have to make sure they see we are trying to do things the right way. This game is about production. It’s a business of production.”

A 6-2 second half would show major progress and might save the jobs of Rivera and his staff. Anything less would mean a losing record for the 2012 season and could be the kiss of death.

At 2-6 after Sunday's impressive win at Washington, the Panthers would need to go 7-1 or 8-0 in the second half of the season to make a very unlikely playoff run. That is almost out of the realm of possibility, but not quite. Only two teams left on the Panthers’ schedule (Denver and Atlanta, both home games) have a winning record.

Interesting historical note: In 2004, the Panthers started 1-7. Then they went on a 6-1 tear and ultimately needed to only beat New Orleans at home in the final game of the season to sneak into the playoffs at 8-8. But they lost that one, finishing 7-9.

That season came under Fox, as did three of Carolina’s four playoff seasons and the Panthers’ only Super Bowl appearance. Until the last of his nine seasons, when the team imploded and went 2-14 in 2010, Fox was relatively popular in Charlotte.

Rivera was popular last year, too. But the honeymoon has ended and the tough work has begun. Even after Sunday’s win, Rivera is 8-16 as the Panther coach.

A victory over the Broncos would make Rivera’s life a whole lot easier. Then a trend really might start to take hold at Bank of America Stadium.

But a loss to the favored Broncos would push Rivera one step closer to the precipice.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Panthers whip Washington 21-13 in most complete game of season

The Carolina Panthers just played their best game of the season, breaking a five-game losing streak by whipping Washington, 21-13, Sunday on the road.

What was most impressive about this victory? How many contributors there were for Carolina. The Panthers' defense, first and foremost, was the key.

It didn't allow the Redskins and dangerous rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III into the end zone for the first 58 minutes. And when Washington did finally score with 1:28 to go, Steve Smith recovered the ensuing onside kick and Carolina ran out most of the clock. Washington (3-6) finally got the ball back with 18 seconds left, no timeouts and on its own 17-yard line, and only got one play off for a loss before the game was over.

The Panthers got a strong rush with just their front four for much of the game -- Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both had huge afternoons. The Panthers also made a key stop early in the game on a fourth-and-goal run by Griffin in which cornerback Josh Thomas blew up the play by forcing Griffin away from the sideline so the pursuit could catch him. Santana Moss was also no factor for Washington. Give defensive coordinator Sean McDermott some credit for this one.

On offense, it wasn't just Cam Newton. DeAngelo Williams scored on a 30-yard rushing TD. Steve Smith scored his first TD of the season on a tough catch and forced two important pass interference penalties.

Most unlikely of all, Armanti Edwards -- yes, that guy -- took advantage of a blown Redskins coverage and went 82 yards with his second career NFL catch. Armanti didn't score, but he set up a touchdown with the play, which went from one 9-yard line to the other.

The Panthers' offensive line was much better (albeit against a Redskins defense that doesn't scare much of anybody). And Newton scored on a rushing TD, gleefully doing his "Superman" routine before the jeering fans. Two of the Panthers' three scoring drives were more than 90 yards -- the first time in franchise history they have had two 90-yard-plus TD drives in the same game.

The Panthers (2-6) should have won last week, too, when they nearly doubled Chicago in yardage and still managed to mess the game up in the fourth quarter. This time, they finished the game the way a team should.

There were quibbles certainly -- Brad Nortman seems to shank one punt per game, Newton's throws were on and off and Hardy and Thomas Davis both picked up silly penalties -- but that's all they were Sunday. Just quibbles. The main things went right, as the Panthers won for the first time since September 16th.

One other note: According to the "Redskins Rule," which has worked 17 of the last 18 presidential elections, the Redskins' loss in their final home game before the election means the incumbent party will lose the presidential race and that Mitt Romney will be elected president Tuesday. If that actually happens, a lot of Republicans owe the Panthers big. (The rule didn't apply in 2004, however -- that was the one miss -- so Democrats can take heart in that).

Friday, November 2, 2012

My Panthers-Redskins prediction and some pregame notes

For a game between two losing teams, Sunday should be a lot of fun. That's primarily because we can watch two young quarterbacks -- Washington's Robert Griffin III, shown above, and Carolina's Cam Newton -- as they try to one-up each other.

Griffin and Newton have very similar skill sets, although Newton is a lot bigger. Griffin's hype very much matches Newton's from a year ago -- there's nothing like a rookie coming in and dazzling people to get ESPN all aflutter. Watching him play against a Panther defense that is very used to mobile quarterbacks, having faced Newton every day, will be cool. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will be particularly important for Carolina Sunday, because he's one of the few people in the Panthers' front seven who can keep up with Griffin in the open field.

-- There is far more at stake Sunday than a simple football victory. According to the "Redskins Rule" -- which has proven true in 17 of the 18 presidential elections contested since the Redskins moved to Washington in 1937 -- a Redskins win in the team's final home game before Election Day has meant a win for the incumbent party occupying the White House. A Redskins loss has meant a victory for the challenging party.

The rule didn't work out in 2004, but has every other time. Remarkable, isn't it? So if Washington wins, the "Redskins Rule" says that Barack Obama wins another four years on Tuesday. If the Panthers win, expect Mitt Romney to become the next president.

-- You've gotta love this: According to a story in The Washington Post, Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris still drives a silver 1991 Mazda 626 with 124,000 miles on it. The pastor at his church sold it to him for two dollars.

-- Expect a high-scoring game, because that's the kind the Redskins usually play. The short version of the Washington scouting report: great offense, terrible defense. The Redskins are dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, and if Steve Smith doesn't get 100 yards receiving Sunday I will be very surprised. But the Redskins have a strong offense and one that is a lot more balanced than Carolina's because the run is mixed in so effectively.

-- The 1-6 Panthers have made an art out of losing close games this season, having lost their past four by a total of 12 points. I foresee the trend continuing. My predictions haven't been very good this season on the Panthers -- I am 3-4 picking their games because I have trusted them too often. Not this time: Washington 27, Carolina 24.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Photo of 7th-graders dressing up as disgruntled Panther fans for Halloween

Five seventh-grade boys at one of Charlotte's private schools banded together to dress as "Disgruntled Panther Fans" for Halloween 2012. (Photo courtesy of Page Hull).

OK, so the Panthers are getting to that jokey stage now -- the picture above only cements that logic. Last year I saw a lot of kids dressed as Cam Newton for Halloween. This year? Well, the Newton jerseys are still out there, but as you can see from the above photo, some youngsters are becoming a little more creative with them in 2012. That's what happens when you start 1-6. Did anyone else out there see any Panther-oriented costumes for Halloween?

Jordan backs Dunlap's l-o-o-ong practices, says Bobcats must get back to basics

It wasn’t the newsiest section of Michael Jordan’s exclusive interview with The Observer Thursday – that would be either the part where he said he was going to own the Charlotte Bobcats for the “long haul” or when he said he had a definite “interest” in renaming the team the Charlotte Hornets if the New Orleans Hornets ever changed names themselves.

But here was one of the most interesting parts to me that came out of Michael Jordan’s 23-minute “state-of-the-team” interview with five Charlotte Observer sportswriters and editors Thursday on the eve of the team's season opener at home against Indiana Friday.

Jordan addressed the Bobcat players Monday to make sure they knew he endorsed new coach Mike Dunlap’s methods, including the three-hour-plus practices that Dunlap has been prone to holding (one even stretched to four hours). Jordan said he knew some players had been grumbling about the extra work – he didn’t name names – and wanted to set them straight.

“This is what championship teams do,” Jordan said he told the squad, adding that those practices reminded him of his own time in the league. “If we did it in Chicago and we became a championship team, why wouldn’t we want to do that here? If you turn your nose up to it, then maybe you need to look in the mirror and see that you’re a part of the problem.”

Jordan said he was particularly happy with Dunlap’s emphasis on fundamentals, such as: “Boxing out. Making good passes. Utilizing each other’s talents. Understanding basic basketball….. One of the reasons I felt compelled to speak to the team was, ‘Look, I endorse what Coach is talking about.’

“Unfortunately we had some guys who were not receiving it that way…. They didn’t want to do it. And I felt the need to step in and say, ‘Look, this is how we’re going to do this. The culture of what’s happening in Charlotte is going to be this. Either you buy in or you’re not going to be here.’

Jordan said he thought his message had been received, but that he wanted Dunlap to reiterate the message of getting back to basics all season.