Friday, May 31, 2013

Is Cam really ready to be a captain?

Is Cam Newton ready to be a captain? That's questionable. His demeanor has fluctuated a lot in his first two years, as we all know. I'd like to see him put together a solid year of team-first, no-pouting play. But he wants to be a captain. He's trying with some success to be a more positive, accountable player. Here's Joe Person's thoughtful story on the issue. And in fact, the Panthers actually wouldn't have to push someone else aside for Newton to assume that role.

According to the NFL, 23 teams elected season-long captains each year and nine changed it up on a week-to-week basis. The Panthers were one of the 23, with season-long captains Jordan Gross and Steve Smith on offense, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis on defense and Jordan Senn on special teams. Charles Johnson then was appointed a "substitute" captain after Beason went down with a season-ending injury.

But the NFL actually allows six season-long captains, not five. A number of teams take advantage of that and use all six slots, including New England, Denver, Kansas City, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Arizona.

Some teams add another special teams captain to have two on each of the three units. Others have three offensive captains or three defensive captains. The Panthers' captains are decided by a team vote in late August or early September, once the final roster is set.

Gross and Smith are shoo-ins for captaincy in 2013 -- their respect level is just too high for either to be replaced. Same thing with Beason and Davis. Among other logical candidates for captaincy this year would be Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, DeAngelo Williams, Luke Kuechly, Charles Godfrey and Johnson (as a permanent addition, not a substitute). So it's a crowded field, but of the 23 teams that declared permanent captains last year, 18 of them included their starting quarterback in that role. That group included such relative youngsters as Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Sam Bradford.

When will Newton be ready for such a role?

"I don’t know," Gross said. "When the team’s ready I guess."

And that's absolutely correct. The coaching staff wants Newton to lead, but it should never mess with the results of a captaincy vote. Newton has to show his teammates, day in and day out, that he is a leader, and then the "C" on his jersey will come naturally. I'd guess it won't happen this year, but likely will by 2014.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cam Newton says fastest NFL quarterback is....

I asked Cam Newton Wednesday during his 15-minute press conference about Michael Vick’s recent statement on Dan Patrick’s radio show that he was still the fastest quarterback in the NFL. Or, I asked, would Cam care to insert himself in such a contest?

“I’m taking my name off that ballot,” Newton said. “I think it’s between RG3 [Robert Griffin III], Colin [Kaepernick] and Michael Vick… I don’t want to be the fastest quarterback, I just want to be the guy that can’t be caught in the open field. Because if you get caught in the open field, that means you’re not doing something right, and that will be talked about in the locker room.”

Newton, 24, is eight years younger than the 32-year-old Vick. While growing up in suburban Atlanta, he used to idolize Vick when the current Philadelphia quarterback played for the Falcons. “He still has his jets,” Newton said, calling Vick an “unbelievable” character, athlete and person.

Vick is the NFL’s all-time career rushing leader for quarterbacks. But Newton last year became the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in 2000. He also had a 72-yard scoring run in which he did a front flip into the end zone. And given that he said Wednesday he played part of last season at 255 pounds and now is at 243, he will likely be a tick faster this year.

But in terms of pure speed, Cam is probably right. He wouldn’t win gold, silver or bronze in a quarterbacks-only 40-yard dash these days.

I think the fastest quarterback in the NFL is RG3, assuming he’s healthy, with San Francisco’s Kaepernick a close second and Vick third. RG3 ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the 2012 scouting combine and some had him timed in 4.38 (Newton’s official time the year before was 4.59).

Vick ran a 4.33 back in the day at the scouting combine and there has never, ever been a faster college quarterback. But his body has undergone a lot of wear and tear since then, and I don’t think he could beat RG3 in a footrace any longer.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What a weird sports weekend it was

If you checked out of the local sports world for the Memorial Day weekend, welcome back. You missed a couple of major surprises.

First off, the Charlotte Bobcats have hired a new coach (although the team has yet to officially confirm this). L.A. Lakers assistant Steve Clifford has never been a head coach at the NBA level, but he was one of the hot assistant names this offseason and comes highly recommended by both Van Gundys. Here's my column on Clifford, who is a brave man for taking a post that has been rife with job insecurity. He is the Bobcats' sixth head coach, and they have only been in existence since 2004.

Secondly, the 54th edition of the Coca-Cola 600 was one of the weirdest in history, thanks mostly to a wayward Fox Sports camera cable that injured 10 fans, delayed the race for 27 minutes and damaged several racecars. Here's the latest news story on what happened at the race as well as my column looking back at the bizarreness that was Sunday night.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

NASCAR hall of fame Class of 2014 -- Who made it, who should have

A few notes about the NASCAR hall of fame’s fifth class, which was announced Wednesday night in Charlotte and will be inducted in January 2014:

The five elected, in order of percentage of votes received from the panel: Tim Flock (76 percent), Maurice Petty (67 percent), Dale Jarrett (56 percent), Jack Ingram (53 percent) and Fireball Roberts (51 percent).

The next three top vote getters (and thus some of the favorites for the Class of 2016) were Jerry Cook, Joe Weatherly and Wendell Scott.

It’s nice to see that Scott, who was the closest thing NASCAR had to Jackie Robinson, finished in the top eight this year and thus will be considered one of the favorites to make the Class of 2015.

NASCAR didn’t announce how anyone else finished, but by the information it did release it is clear that racetrack owner Bruton Smith was not among the top eight.

There are 54 voting members of the panel. I am not one of them. A 55th vote is tabulated from all the combined votes of the NASCAR fans.

The fans and I each had two of our favorites get in and three that did not. I wrote a column recently advocating Flock and Roberts (both of whom made it) but also Scott, Curtis Turner and Weatherly. Turner was the only one of my top five not to finish in at least the top eight.

The fans voted for Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Jarrett, Benny Parsons and Roberts (Jarrett and Roberts made it).

One other interesting note: voting can vary widely from year to year. Roberts actually tied for fifth last year before losing on an overtime tiebreaking vote to Buck Baker, which made people think he was a shoo-in to be among the top one or two vote-getters this year. Instead, he almost missed it again, squeaking in at No.5.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Instant karma for Bobcats/Hornets?

Tonight will be one of the more unusual nights in Bobcat history -- and it also has potential to be one of the best.

First of all, the team will officially announce at 6 p.m. that it will change its nickname from "Bobcats" to "Hornets," adopting the name of the NBA team that played here from 1988-2002. As I wrote in my 10-point plan for the team to squeeze all of the juice out of this nickname, it should also adopt the old teal-and-purple color scheme and speed up the process. There's no way this should take 18 months to get finalized -- you, me and a couple of good lawyers could get it done in six, I bet.

Only a couple of hours after that, the Bobcats will make their annual appearance in the draft lottery (8:30 p.m., ESPN). They are going to pick anywhere from No.1 to No.5, depending on how the ping-pong balls shake out.

Their odds of getting the No.1 pick are 19.9 percent. Their odds of getting the No.4 pick are the highest, at 31.9 percent.

But what if the team changes its nickname and then, two hours later, wins the lottery? The NBA gods owe the Bobcats one, after all -- they missed out on Anthony Davis last year despite having the best odds of getting the No.1 pick possible (25 percent). They had to settle for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead, and that was quite a drop.

So this is a good day to do this. If the Bobcats lose in the lottery as usual, well, that's just the Bobcats' rotten luck. We can all somehow blame it on Bob Johnson. But if they win, hey, they've only been the Hornets for a couple of hours and they're already doing things right!

As for the pick itself, right now without studying it too closely my gut reaction would be to go for Nerlens Noel if the Bobcats get that No.1 pick. I know he has a lot of the same skills as Bismack Biyombo and that he's coming off a bad injury, but Charlotte still just doesn't defend the basket well enough.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Charles Woodson? Make him an offer

The Panthers are apparently in the running for the services for former Green Bay defensive back Charles Woodson. He's ancient by league standards, at age 36, but he would also undeniably improve a secondary that remains one of the team's biggest question marks.

According to The Denver Post, Woodson met with the Broncos Wednesday but left without a contract. He is believed to have an offer already from the Oakland Raiders, his former team, and apparently the Panthers have at least inquired about getting him. Coach Ron Rivera was coy about that Wednesday night.

Why not more NFL-wide interest in Woodson, who has made eight Pro Bowls -- including as recently as 2011? Because he was hampered throughout the 2012 season with a collarbone injury, he will probably still want a healthy salary and he's going to have to cover players who were in elementary school when he first came into the league.

The Panthers went down this road once before, signing a Packer in his late 30s with an enormous reputation and a recent AP NFL Defensive Player of Year award, hoping he could push them to a playoff berth. That was the late Reggie White, and that one didn't work out well. White started every game and was a steady locker room presence, but the team dropped from 8-8 in 1999 to 7-9 the year he played.

But that Panther team in 2000 was not as talented as this one is, and Woodson would be very helpful to a team that released cornerback Chris Gamble in the offseason and has questions at both safety and cornerback (Woodson has played both -- he can play pretty much every position in the secondary, including nickel corner).

If there's any shot at all at getting him -- assuming he is healthy -- the Panthers need to make a serious offer. This is quite an opportunity.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What should Panthers spend DeAngelo savings on?

The Carolina Panthers have done some clever restructuring of running back DeAngelo Williams’ contract, virtually assuring the franchise’s all-time leading rusher will at least be on the roster in 2013 and quite possibly the next two seasons as well.

By reducing Williams’ salary-cap number, the Panthers are now $8.46 million under their adjusted 2013 salary cap number of $126.232 million – these numbers were first reported by Yahoo Sports.

So what do you spend more than $8 million on in the NFL?

Actually, a fair amount of this money will be eaten up when the Panther sign their five draft picks – that’s why having some flexibility this time of year is so important. And it is also important to plan ahead for the inevitable monstrous contract extension offer Cam Newton -- who is signed through the 2014 season under relatively modest rookie contract terms -- is going to receive sometime in the next 6-18 months.

But the two places I would look hardest if I were GM Dave Gettleman right now would be on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield. He should use this savings to upgrade at least one of those positions. I’m not at all convinced the Panthers have quite enough depth (particularly at safety and at offensive tackle, two positions they were not able to address in the draft).

There’s no doubt the Panthers have already overspent at running back, but Gettleman inherited those contracts. He didn’t write them. Williams is getting huge money and only played slightly more than 40 percent of the offensive snaps last year. But in his final game of the season, he also set the franchise’s all-time record with 210 rushing yards in only 21 carries vs. New Orleans. In that game, he ripped off runs of 54 and 65 yards. Williams still has some burst.

Former Panther GM Marty Hurney gave Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined contracts worth north of $100 million. And then Cam Newton led the team in rushing in 2012 – the first quarterback to do so since Donovan McNabb in 2000.

So all this is not ideal, but Gettleman is doing his best with the cards he has been dealt. Williams, now 30 years old, doesn’t have tremendous trade value. This contract restructuring makes it far more palatable to keep him (and tough to release him because of the way the "dead money" would kick in earlier). And the running back position is fraught with the possibility of injury on every play, so having quantity at the position as well as quality is a good idea. I think the Panthers made a good move by restructuring Williams, but to turn it into a great one they have to spend the money they saved very wisely.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Panther Hall of Honor more like crawlspace

With John Kasay's official retirement as a Panther this week, I've gotten a number of fans asking me about the Panthers' "Hall of Honor" policies.

Kasay, the Panthers' all-time leading scorer by more than 1,000 points and as classy a guy as you will ever find in an NFL locker room, should definitely get into it. Right now, the Panthers' "Hall of Honor" is more like a crawlspace. Mike McCormack, the team's first president and a man instrumental in securing the franchise in the first place, was inducted in 1997. The late Sam Mills was inducted in 1998, only about nine months after he retired (and well before he was diagnosed with cancer).

And that's it.

Fifteen years, no individual inductions. Amazing, isn't it? What kind of hall is that exactly? The team did induct its permanent-seat license holders as a group in 2004.

So when I went to Kasay's "one-day contract" retirement party on Tuesday, I wouldn't have been surprised if owner Jerry Richardson had said "John will be our third individual member of the Hall of Honor."

Instead, a Panther spokesman told me that day something I had never heard before -- that the team has a five-year, post-retirement waiting period for players before they are considered.

Now it's quite possible I have just never asked the question before, because this issue rarely comes up. But certainly Mills only waited nine months -- this five-year policy wasn't in force then. The spokesman said it had been enacted at some point in the mid-2000s to "let the dust settle" before such a decision is made.

And who makes the decision? It is basically the 76-year-old Richardson, although he does have input from others. Richardson, incidentally, should be inducted into the hall himself, of course. But I would imagine that induction will be posthumous, because who would want to vote yourself into a hall you control? That will likely be left to the next team owner to do, so that induction hopefully is many years away.

I don't have a problem with the five-year rule. Many sports hall of fames have similar criteria. I do wonder why such a rule is not included in the Panthers' official statement about the hall of honor in their media guide. It should be.

Kasay, for his part, said he had never thought about the hall, didn't play for those kind of honors, didn't know whether he would want a statue of himself outside the stadium and had never had a discussion about it with Richardson one way or the other. According to the rule, Kasay wouldn't be eligible until 2018, since he didn't officially "retire" until this week even though he did not play last year.

So there's your answer, fans. If Kasay goes in, unless the Panthers change their five-year rule (and of course, they could -- it only takes one man to change it) it won't be until about the time the Panthers and the city are again doing that weird mating dance about another "tether" that will keep the team permanently in Charlotte.

Other players could be (and likely have been) considered right now -- Mike Minter, Wesley Walls and Mike Rucker for instance -- while Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad are still technically ineligible for consideration. Steve Smith should be a shoo-in once he retires but, again, his actual induction will be way down the road. Julius Peppers would be another possibility, but given his acrimonious departure for Chicago would seem less likely.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kasay, the Super Bowl kickoff and the Hall of Honor

John Kasay was one of the finest gentlemen and best players the Panthers ever employed, and so it was well and good that he signed a one-day contract Tuesday so he could officially retire as a Panther. It's even better that he will remain a part of the Charlotte community as the new athletic director at Charlotte Christian (as well as the football team's special-teams coach).

My favorite stat about Kasay is this: he not only leads the Panthers in scoring, but he is more than 1,000 points ahead of everyone else. Kasay scored 1,482 points in his 16 seasons. Steve Smith is next, with 430.

Kasay remembers the game-winning kicks, yes -- but he also said he liked the "game icers" just as much. Those kicks, when he put a game out of reach and got to enjoy his teammates' reaction for a few more minutes on the sideline, were just as satisfying as the "walk-off kicks," he said.

Almost every Kasay memory that Panther fans have is a positive, because he was so clutch. About the only high-profile one that wasn't? When he hooked a kickoff out of bounds in fourth quarter of the 2003 Super Bowl, with the game tied at 29-all and 1:08 left in regulation. Starting at his own 40 after the kick, Tom Brady got New England into field-goal range and the Panthers lost, 32-29.

Kasay said he "agonized" afterward about that kick, and he knows very well what went wrong.

"I had practiced that kick for years and years and years," said Kasay, who was trying to kick the ball toward the corner to give New England's return man fewer options. "You can try to kick it on a straight line over there. The other way is you can almost bend the ball like in golf... I did both at the same time.... I put some spin on the ball as I aimed over there as well, Because I wanted it to be so perfect. If I had just given myself more of a margin of error… I hit the ball good but when my toe hit the ball I remember thinking, ‘Oh no.'"

I have always believed Brady would have gotten the Patriots into field-goal range even if Kasay had booted the kickoff through the uprights and New England had started from the 20. Brady was just too good that day. And remember this: the Patriots' average drive-start on Kasay's previous kickoffs had been the 27. The errant kickoff likely netted New England only about 13 yards.

Still, it stung Kasay, because he hated so much to let his teammates down -- and he did it so rarely in his career.

As for the future, the 43-year-old Kasay will be a fine AD, and he will eventually be inducted into the Panthers' Hall of Honor. Kasay said Panther owner Jerry Richardson has never talked to him about that -- the only Panther player currently in this very small hall is the late Sam Mills -- but there could be no more fitting recipient than No.4.