Monday, April 29, 2013

Tebow to Panthers simply would not work

So Tim Tebow is suddenly available to anyone, with no draft-pick compensation -- the New York Jets cut him today. They tried to trade him for weeks, apparently, but no other NFL team would even give up a seventh-round pick for him, which should tell you something.

The Panthers have the read-option offense in their package and obviously like mobile quarterbacks. Their first backup QB is old; their second is poor ol' Jimmy Clausen. Seems like Tebow might be a good fit here as a backup, right?

Absolutely wrong.

I admire Tebow for the way he handles himself personally, and for his college career at Florida, and for the way he and John Fox somehow interacted so well in that one magical month or two in Denver (whatever you think about Fox, that was some serious proof that the guy can coach).

But Tebow here doesn't work. The biggest reason why is that his mechanics aren't very good and he's simply not a very good NFL quarterback. The second-biggest reason why is this: I wouldn't want the Tebow Circus to come to town. Cam Newton's psyche doesn't need the man who used to start in Florida in front of him peering over his shoulder in a meeting room every day.

Oh, everyone would put on a happy face about it if it came to that, but it simply wouldn't work. That's a dynamic that Cam once had in a flip-flop sort of way in Florida, when Tebow was the star and Newton the backup. But Newton has since established himself as a budding NFL star. To have Tebow in that QB meeting room every day would feel like a threat to Newton, I believe. And Tebow, as genial and well-meaning as he would be, couldn't help but be a distraction. (Newton, incidentally, is getting along famously so far with new QB coach Ken Dorsey).

Plus, Derek Anderson is better than Tebow (and he's only 29). He's way more accurate. He's a better decision-maker. Shoot, Jimmy Clausen is better than... OK, wait, I'm getting carried away. Tebow could be the Panthers' third-string quarterback. He's better than Clausen.

But where he would really fit better here and elsewhere in the NFL is at tight end, and he's not interested in making that position switch. He still has the NFL quarterback dream, and I don't blame him for that.

The Panthers, though, are set at quarterback and are headed toward a good season. An ill-fated spot on the Tim Tebow's Happy Train to Nowhere might be just the sort of thing that could derail them, in much the same way it derailed the Jets only a season ago.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

An inspiring golfer, an unusual story

Eli Hager practices at his home course. (Observer photo by Diedra Laird)

About a year ago I first heard about Eli Hager, the middle-school golfer with prosthetic legs who plays on the Lincoln Charter Middle School golf team alongside able-bodied golfers in Lincoln County. He had been named MVP of his team in 2012.

By that time, though, his golf season was over. So I kept Eli in the back of my mind, figuring I would write about him in the spring of 2013. The result is this column. I like to diverge from my regular subject matter occasionally -- the Panthers, the Bobcats, college sports -- and write about a young man or woman in the sports world who can inspire others. "The Magic Touch" was another such story that comes to mind -- about two girls who didn't know each other and the moment that linked them in a cross country race.

To write this story, I interviewed Eli and his parents at their home in Alexis, which is on the Gaston-Lincoln County border. I also watched him deliver a 32-minute sermon on "Youth Sunday" at his church and talked to some of the church members there about him, as well as interviewing his golf coach and the school's athletic director.

One side note: I didn't know before writing this how accomplished a waterskier Eli also is, but it turns out that he is also one of the better trick and slalom disabled water skiers in the country. He will take a trip to Milan, Italy, this fall to represent the U.S. in a disabled water skiing competition along with two other Charlotte-area athletes. They are raising money to go on that trip. If you happen to want to help Eli and that team in their fundraising, the contribution is tax-deductible. The address to send contributions is:

Charlotte Disabled Waterski Team

2198 W.T. Carpenter Drive

Lincolnton, NC 28092

Friday, April 26, 2013

So now what for Panthers on final day of draft?

So now what?

After taking back-to-back defensive tackles with their first two choices, the Panthers have picks left in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of the 2013 NFL draft Saturday. Then they will work the phones and get their share of undrafted free agents, hoping 1-2 of those make the final roster as well.

While I’m generally a fan of the Panthers bulking up on the defensive line with Utah’s Star Lotulelei and Purdue’s Kawann Short, they now absolutely must address the offensive line. Taking an offensive lineman somewhere in every draft is a good idea given the demands of the position and how many of them you need. And the Panthers have to prepare for the eventual loss of Jordan Gross, their left tackle who will be 33 before next season begins.

General manager Dave Gettleman has done some work on the secondary already via free agency and the Panthers like some of the young talent they have there. But certainly defensive back is a strong option for Saturday, given the loss of Chris Gamble and the inconsistent play at safety last season.

Other possibilities for Saturday's three draft picks: a wide receiver, a tight end and a second offensive lineman. Coach Ron Rivera said the offensive coaches are getting “antsy,” given that the first two days of the draft have been devoted solely to defense – that should get rectified to an extent on Saturday.

One additional note, since I like to keep this blog fan-friendly: You really should consider coming out to the Panthers’ free draft party for fans on Saturday. It is free and open to the public from noon to 5 p.m., and I saw a lot of cool stuff already being set up on Friday at the stadium as they prepare for the fan onslaught. Autographs from players like Luke Kuechly and some of the new draft picks will be available, and fans will have access to behind-the-scenes tours of areas in the stadium not typically open to the public (including the Panther locker room). It's a good place to bring the kids, and the price is right.

Should Panthers take Geno Smith if he is there at 44?

No matter what you think of Geno Smith as a future NFL player, it was hard not to feel sorry for him last night. There's one player every year in the NFL green room who this happens to, and in 2013 it was Smith -- fidgeting, staring at a phone that wasn't ringing, glancing up occasionally to see if that bothersome camera was still trained on him (and it always was).

Smith is a former West Virginia quarterback thought to be a possible top-10 pick by many (The Observer had him ranked as the No.10 prospect overall). Instead, the quarterback with the "inflated stats," as Jon Gruden must have pointed out a dozen times on ESPN, wasn't selected in the first 32 picks. Now Smith will be a second-rounder at best, and it's conceivable the Panthers might even have a chance to take him at No.44 when they pick again Friday night, as a backup to Cam Newton.

Should they if that happens? In a word, no. That pick is too valuable for a player who would be a third-stringer this year. It's fine to have another mobile quarterback on the roster. At some point the Panthers will do that, likely replacing Jimmy Clausen once his cap-friendly rookie contract expires. But not with a second-round pick. Not now.

That No.44 pick, as GM Dave Gettleman said last week, really should end up giving you an every-down starter. The Panthers need too much help elsewhere -- cornerback, safety, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line -- to throw Smith a lifeline if he lasts that long.

Odds are he won't. I would imagine he's gone within the first five picks of the second round, which will still leave the Panthers with a multitude of choices. Carolina doesn't have a third-rounder, so this pick must count in the same way that they made Thursday's pick of Star Lotulelei count. I think another "hog molly" of the offensive tackle type or else a hard-hitting defensive back would be ideal.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Panthers pick a Star and it is a smart move

As I wrote in Thursday’s newspaper, I wanted the Panthers to pick a steamroller with their first pick, and they did so with Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

He was the first top-50 choice the Panthers have used on a defensive tackle since Kris Jenkins in 2001, and in the ideal world he will be the player who occupies two blockers inside and frees up Luke Kuechly to make tons of tackles and Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson to rush the passer more effectively. Lotulelei is more of a run-stopper than a pass rusher, though, and of course there was the medical issue earlier this year with his heart (he was since cleared).

I like this pick. The Panthers’ biggest talent deficiency was at defensive tackle, a hole they have often tried to fill over the years with veteran free agents or later-round draft picks that often have never quite worked out. If Star becomes a star, this will be a much better defense – and it wasn’t a bad one already.

Panthers GM Dave Gettleman said Thursday night he believed Lotulei could be a “three-down” defensive lineman, meaning he wouldn’t have to come off the field on passing downs (although the Panthers, like almost all NFL teams, rotate their defensive linemen pretty frequently). Gettleman said last week he thought the Panthers could get two starters with their first two picks – their No.44 overall choice comes up Friday. Gettleman said if you looked at Super Bowl teams that they always had strong defensive fronts, and the Panthers hope they have strengthened their defensive line considerably with this pick.

Lotulelei is married and has two daughters, and he spent draft night with his family in Utah instead of going to New York to be part of the glitz. He was the second straight Panther pick to skip out on New York in favor of home -- Kuechly did that, too, in 2012, and he turned out to be quite a pick.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Panthers must not get fancy in draft -- it is time to go big

It has been a dozen years since the Carolina Panthers used a top-50 draft pick on a defensive tackle.

They need to do it again in the 2013 NFL draft – preferably with their No.14 pick Thursday night, but if not there then definitely with their No.44 pick on Friday night.

This is the time of year that fans always want the sleek sports cars in the NFL draft – the fast offensive playmakers of the world. But the Panthers need at least one steamroller instead – and preferably two.

They need another young Kris Jenkins, the defensive tackle they drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft. That was the last time they spent a top-50 pick on the position.

By 2003, Jenkins was the best defensive tackle in the NFL. His play was a significant reason why the Panthers went to the Super Bowl that year. He was such an unstoppable force inside that he once blocked what would have been a game-winning extra point at Tampa Bay – with his elbow.

On the offensive line, the Panthers also need help. Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil aren’t getting any younger. The O-line as presently constituted has one more year together at best.

So the 2013 draft for the Panthers must be the draft for “hog mollies,” to use general manager Dave Gettleman’s colorful description. It is not the draft to take a flyer on an Armanti Edwards type.

“Big men allow you to compete,” Gettleman likes to say.

That's what the Panther need -- a few big men. I don't pretend to know which ones they will end up with, but this draft is not a time to get fancy. It's time to flatten somebody. NOTE: I will be expanding on this blog post for a full-fledged column that will appear in the printed edition of Thursday's Charlotte Observer. The NFL draft runs Thursday through Saturday this year.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bobcats a mess as usual as Dunlap gets fired

The first time I heard of Mike Dunlap conducting a four-hour NBA practice I wondered if he was really cut out for an NBA head-coaching job.

Turns out he isn't -- at least not according to the team that hired him. The Bobcats consigned Dunlap to the embarrassing area where Sam Vincent's NBA head-coaching career ended up Tuesday, firing him after a single season.

Someone who would know told me that in the team's annual season-ending exit interviews that Dunlap received a number of negative evaluations from current Bobcat players -- not only for those occasional long practices but for his general demeanor with them. Dunlap was just a demanding, negative sort of guy -- smart with Xs and Os, but snappish and hard to relate to. He was a boss that many of the players didn't particularly like working for.

Has that worked for some other basketball coaches? Sure. You could name dozens who weren't warm and cuddly and still won and kept jobs. And if Dunlap's only Bobcat team had done a lot better than 21-61 -- the NBA's second-worst record in 2012-13 -- he would still be employed here. But if you're going to micro-manage a lot and not get along that well with your players in the NBA, you sure better win a lot.

And so once again owner Michael Jordan and the Bobcats find themselves on Limbo Island, a place where they have lived so often in their team history that I believe they decided to buy a three-bedroom house there and set up residence instead of simply renting a place every summer. They have no head coach and are about to have to hire their sixth one (for a team that only began playing in 2004!). They have a lot of cap room but no all-star on the roster. They have another high draft pick coming up but no guarantee he will work out any better than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, Adam Morrison and on and on and on. They have made the playoffs only once in team history and have never won a playoff game. And they aren't even sure whether they will be the Bobcats or return to the "Charlotte Hornets" nickname for the long term (they should become the "Hornets" and sprint away from this sad history).

The Bobcats have been a mess for much of their existence, and they are still a mess. I would agree that Dunlap showed he wasn't the right guy to clean it up, so today's decision makes a certain amount of sense. But the one where they decided to hire him originally? That one, as the Bobcats have now admitted by firing him after one season, was a serious mistake.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Jeff Lewis autopsy report begs one question: Why?

Reading the autopsy report on former Panther quarterback Jeff Lewis – as I did Tuesday after The Observer’s Joseph Person acquired it and wrote this story about it -- is a stark reminder of our mortality.

But for every question the report answered, it seemed to ask another one. Most obviously: Why?

Why did this happen to Lewis, who was only 39 when he died in Arizona of an accidental drug overdose in January? Why would he have been taking morphine and zolpidem – a sedative and sleep aid more commonly known as Ambien? Why did he have a possible history of prescription medication abuse, as the medical examiner wrote?

Lewis was listed as a 6-foot-2 quarterback who weighed 211 pounds when he played for Carolina. I knew he was shorter than that – I’m 6-2, and I looked down on Lewis in the locker room. The autopsy report said he was actually six feet tall, but more strangely, that he weighed 265 pounds. The report characterized him as obese, and cited obesity that as a contributing factor to his death (along with a heart condition that included blocked arteries).

Lewis had been an assistant coach at Northern Arizona, his alma mater, for one year when he died. He had once been the Panthers’ “quarterback of the future” – George Seifert traded for him and then later released Steve Beuerlein in 2001 to try and pave the way for Lewis to inherit the starting job. Lewis was so bad in the 2001 preseason, however, that Seifert ended up reversing field, cutting Lewis and starting rookie Chris Weinke for what turned into a 1-15 season. I still remember how classy Lewis – who was generally well-liked in the locker room -- was when the Panthers fired him. “I’m not going to make any excuses, " he said after being released in 2001.

“Obviously, I'm disappointed it didn't work out. I tried as hard as I could. I probably tried too hard.”

When asked if anything could have been different about his time at Carolina he said then: “I want to take the high road on this whole thing. I played as hard as I could every time I was out there.”

What happened to Lewis when he played for Carolina wasn’t totally his fault. He wasn’t the guy who pulled the trigger on a trade in which the Panthers shipped a third- and a fourth-round pick to Denver to get him – that was Seifert. He didn’t give himself the “quarterback of the future” nickname at Carolina – that was simply what Seifert wanted him to be and so what everyone expected. He didn’t pay himself millions before he ever took a snap at Carolina – the overzealous Panthers did that before they realized he couldn’t make the right decisions under pressure in the pocket.

Strangely, Lewis and Bryan Stoltenberg – a former Panther center who used to snap the ball to Lewis in practice – died on consecutive days in January 2013.

Stoltenberg, 40, started 18 games for Carolina from 1998-2000 and is survived by a wife and three sons. The University of Colorado’s website said at the time of his death that he had undergone several surgeries after being in a car accident in mid-December and had likely died of a blood clot.

The deaths were completely unrelated, but made many former Panthers – and current fans – think of issues of life and death, just as so many of us have in the past few days after the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

As for Lewis, reading his autopsy report saddened me. And it reminded me again that elite athletes are just like the rest of us despite their prowess on a playing field – flawed and sometimes confused, trying to find a peaceful place in a difficult world.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why 4 winning Panther seasons in 18 years? Draft biggest reason

When you study the Panthers' first 18 drafts -- as I did for this column on the best and worst years in that grouping -- you get a better handle on why the team has had only four winning seasons in all that time, none of them consecutively.

Simply put, the Panthers haven't drafted well enough. In their typical draft -- one that didn't make either the "five best" or "five worst" of my list -- they would get one very good player, one decent player and not much else. In an NFL where player replenishment is huge -- given you need 22 starters and there are always injuries slicing into your numbers -- that just doesn't cut it.

Take 2003, for instance. It wasn't on either one of my "best" or "worst" lists. It was fairly typical. The Panthers got offensive tackle Jordan Gross at No.1, and he's been a force for a decade. Ricky Manning Jr. was a third-round pick -- he had four interceptions in the 2003 playoffs and then didn't do a lot else.

But Bruce Nelson (2nd)? Mike Siedman (3rd)? Colin Branch, Kindal Moorehead, Walter Young and Casey Moore?

It just wasn't enough, just like so many other Panther drafts. Former GM Marty Hurney got a lot of base hits with his No.1 picks and struck out a lot of times beyond the first round. Before that, the Panthers didn't even get hits at No.1 (Kerry Collins, Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Jason Peter, Rashard Anderson, Rae Carruth, etc.) Those are the sorts of drafts that put you at 7-9 -- the Panthers' most common record, as they have posted it seven times (including in 2012) in their 18-year history. It will be very interesting to see if new GM Dave Gettleman can upgrade this trend in the April 25-27 draft coming up. Again, here's the best/worst column link -- see if you agree with my picks.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Coincidence or not? The Hornet Air Jordans

So lots of conspiracy theorists -- as well as some major fans of the old Charlotte Hornets -- are drawing a connection between the fact that some Charlotte Hornet-colored Air Jordan shoes are being re=released next week and the fact that the Bobcats are considering whether to change their nickname back to the Charlotte Hornets.

It does seem strange, doesn't it? The Bobcats' "due diligence" on whether to go retro and grab the old nickname is coming to a close before too long. And here is all this grape and teal merchandise, ready to go, under the umbrella of Bobcat team owner Michael Jordan's far-reaching brand.

Bobcat president Fred Whitfield understands why fans would make the connection but insists there isn't one. "It's a total and complete coincidence," Whitfield said in a phone interview.

Whitfield used to work for Jordan Brand, so he said he knows how it works in the company. "They plan the release or re-release dates of shoes way in advance -- about 12-18 months out," he said. "We weren't even seriously considering this name change 12-18 months ago, because the name at the time wasn't available. These two things are not related."

Whitfield said he did not have a date as to when the team's research will be complete on whether to re-adopt the Hornets' nickname (it became available when New Orleans, which had taken the nickname when the Hornets moved, announced plans to become the "Pelicans.") Although he was once a Hornets' season ticket holder himself, Whitfield said the club was being careful not to make a "knee-jerk" reaction on the issue and noted that some of the team's youngest fans weren't even born when the Hornets existed in Charlotte (they left in 2002).

As I've written before, I'm in favor of the Bobcats changing names and becoming the Hornets once again. But don't confuse this sneaker release with some sort of secret announcement in the way the Panthers' logo tweaks accidentally got leaked online in 2012 on Nike Football's Facebook page (via a pair of gloves) before they had been officially announced. This is not the same thing. The name change issue and the Jordan Brand are running on two parallel tracks. This intersection is interesting -- but it is not the final word.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What a game as Louisville wins national title

Peyton Siva's dad sat right behind me at courtside at the Final Four in Atlanta. I snapped this picture with an iPhone as Siva came over to hug his father just after the final buzzer in Louisville's 82-76 win.

What a game this was -- this national championship win by Louisville over Michigan. This was the sort of free-flowing game that makes me realize what we've been missing too often in college basketball, which bogs down so often in a swamp of hand-checking, quick fouls and missed shots.

This game -- played before 74,326 in the Georgia Dome, the largest crowd ever for a national final -- was worthy of a championship. Michigan shot 52 percent -- and lost! There was an incredible play just about every minute.

In the first half, Spike Albrecht -- who almost went to Appalachian State -- was an unlikely star for Michigan, scoring 17 points. But he was ultimately eclipsed by Luke Hancock, Louisville's superb sixth man who scored 22 and was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. And both of them were eclipsed by Michigan's Trey Burke (24 points) and Louisville's Siva (18 points, five assists, four steals), as they pinballed around the court throughout the second half and collided above the rim on one spectacular play, when Burke blocked a dunk by Siva -- cleanly, I thought -- but was called for the foul.

It was a great end to what was too often an ugly college basketball season, both on and off the court (the Rutgers coaching scandal, the number of games where scores were in the 50s and so on). And it also shows us exactly why college basketball absolutely must change its defensive rules to allow players to cut through the lane without getting mauled every time. Despite its problems, basketball can be a beautiful sport. This was evidence.

Friday, April 5, 2013

4 Panther thoughts and 1 fond goodbye

A few Panther thoughts on a Friday while I'm in Atlanta, getting ready to cover the Final Four:

-- The Panthers' exhibition schedule is out, and the best news on it is that the team will play the most important preseason game (the third one) at Baltimore on national TV on Aug.22nd. If that was the fourth game, it would be meaningless, but NFL teams traditionally play their starters for a half or three quarters in game 3 -- it will be a natural motivator for Carolina to face the defending Super Bowl champs in that one. Carolina opens the preseason at home against Chicago on Aug.9th.

-- Signing former N.Y. Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon to a relatively cheap deal is another of those below-the-radar moves that new GM Dave Gettleman should be commended for so far. I like Hixon's potential better than Louis Murphy's (the No.3 receiver from 2012, who now has signed with tthe Giants) and figure he will win the job over the other candidates.

-- Cam Newton isn't in the race for the next cover of the Madden video series, after finishing a close second last year to Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson. I'm sure Newton isn't real happy about this -- he wanted to win so badly against Johnson last year he made a funny homemade video and put it on YouTube -- but I think it's absolutely fine.

-- Kudos to former Panther fullback Brad Hoover, who has decided to try his hand as a high school football coach at Monroe's Union Academy. Hoover will be a good one -- he's earnest, smart and will undoubtedly put in the long hours necessary in that job. I can just see the crowd after his first win at the 1A charter school as the "Hooov" chant goes up and fathers explain to their kids: "They're not saying boo, they're saying Hoov."

-- Lastly today, I bid a fond goodbye to film critic Roger Ebert -- a wonderfully gifted writer who died at age 70 on Thursday. If you're not familiar with his work, check out his website and you will see what I mean. Some know him only for the succinct "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" he made popular on TV with fellow critic Gene Siskel, but he was a deep and engaging writer who delved into all sorts of topics. I remain a huge fan of his work.

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Hixon, Ware and Curry

UPDATE: The Panthers have signed Domenik Hixon to a one-year contract -- read the story here).The Carolina Panthers host former New York Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon Monday for a visit. This would be a nice signing for the Panthers, who need some more competition at the No.3 wide receiver spot. Hixon would amount to an upgrade in my opinion over Louis Murphy at that slot (Murphy recently signed with the Giants). Hixon, 28, had 39 catches for 567 yards last season for the Giants and won two Super Bowl rings with New York.

I wrote my column for Monday's newspaper on the gruesome injury suffered by Louisville's Kevin Ware. It was the moment that made America turn away from the TV screen. I thought CBS was wise to not show the replay very often -- the network only showed it twice because it was so disturbing. ESPN later made the call not to show it at all, although it is certainly available to be seen online in many places.

Louisville was the first team that really figured out how to neutralize Seth Curry, which I thought was the biggest key to the Cardinals' 22-point victory Sunday. The Cardinals' Peyton Siva and Russ Smith were just so much quicker than the Blue Devils' guards. It's hard to imagine a scenario right now where Louisville doesn't win the national championship.