Monday, March 31, 2014

Bobcats face huge game vs Washington and other sports notes

In terms of playoff seeding, the Bobcats face a huge home game Monday night against Washington.

Simply put, if the Bobcats do not win this one, they will be out of the running in my opinion for the No.6 seed and the likely matchup with Toronto in the playoffs' first round that comes with it. As our Rick Bonnell noted in this excellent Sunday package about the Bobcats' possible first-round playoff opponents, Charlotte is 3-0 against Toronto this season and 1-9 against the other three teams it might face (Indiana, Miami and Chicago).

Here is how the Eastern Conference standings look at the relevant spots as of Monday morning:

6. Washington (38-35)

7. Charlotte (35-38)

8. Atlanta (31-41)

Charlotte plays Washington twice in the season's final 16 days, starting tonight. It would have to beat the Wizards twice to make up that three-game gap and also win the head-to-head tiebreaker. Anything less and you can basically pencil Washington in to slot No.6 and the Bobcats at No.7, where they will likely face Miami (the Heat is 4-0 against Charlotte this season).

As for a couple of other links you may find interesting:

-- Our Joseph Person had a nice series of stories Sunday on the Panthers' strengths, weaknesses and needs in Sunday's newspaper. Click here to see it.

-- On Sunday, I wrote about 20 of my most memorable days after 20 years on the job at The Observer. The time a few fans put up banners in the Panthers' stadium advocating me getting fired in 1997 (picture above)? Yeah, that made the list.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

2 Panther questions and answers

I get these two questions more than any others these days, so here is my take on two pressing Panther issues.

1) What should the Panthers do with their No.28 overall draft choice?

A. It has to be an offensive tackle or a wide receiver. The No.2 defense in the NFL is far closer to set than the inconsistent Panther offense, which only scored 10 points in the Panthers' playoff game and has taken two big blows in the past two months -- one self-inflicted (the mistaken release of Steve Smith) and one retirement (Jordan Gross).

The Panthers will have to stay flexible, given they are picking so low in the first round. Although choosing a wide receiver is the sexier selection, if all things were equal (and they rarely are) I would go for an offensive tackle in the first round and a receiver in the second.

Although the Panthers seem determined to give Byron Bell the first shot at left tackle, I am not sure he is the answer there. And even if he is, who is going to play right tackle? The Panthers absolutely must find at least one offensive line starter in this draft.

2) What do you think of Dave Gettleman?

A. He can be cold-blooded in his decisions (see Smith, Steve). He also can be exactly what the Panthers need in terms of a man who doesn't let his hands get tied due to loyalty or "I drafted this guy so I'm never going to cut him" pride.

Gettleman had a great rookie year as Panther GM in 2013. I disagreed with the Smith decision, but I have found it hard to disagree with most anything else he has done. He's not going to let Cam Newton get away, that's for sure, and his general football principles are very sound. Criticize him for the decision on No.89 all you want -- and note that Ron Rivera said Wednesday that Gettleman had "taken the hit" for the Panthers in public, implying a lot of other people agreed with this decision inside that building. But also don't forget how much good Gettleman has done in less than 15 months.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do not do it, Jerricho

UPDATE: I already have more respect for Jerricho Cotchery, who said on his conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon of the No.89: "I definitely wouldn't even think about touching that number." This news makes the blog below -- posted about 5 hours before Cotchery said that -- somewhat obsolete, but feel free to continue if you like..... Scott

If I am Jerricho Cotchery, there is no way I wear No.89 with the Carolina Panthers.

That's the number Cotchery wore last year in Pittsburgh, when he caught 10 touchdown passes and showed enough that the Panthers have signed him for 2014 after their four top wideouts of 2013 all walked out the door.

But Cotchery, a former N.C. State star, has to be smart enough to know that wearing No.89 in Charlotte would be a bad idea. He will already be incessantly compared to Steve Smith, the Panthers' best player of all time and another 30-something receiver who the Panthers controversially released last week (Smith had more receiving yards in 2013 than Cotchery, for what that's worth, but fewer TDs).

To wear No.89 in Charlotte puts Cotchery (who has worn the number in 9 of 10 seasons, as Joe Person points out) in a no-win situation -- he will just be compared to Smith all the more, and it's very difficult to win in that game. All those fans with No.89 jerseys in their closets won't like it. It will get Cotchery off on the wrong foot.

Far better, in fact, for the Panthers' very smart equipment man, Jackie Miles, to "unofficially" retire No.89 for now -- much like he seemed to for years with the No.51 and Sam Mills (the jersey was eventually retired, but Miles had pretty much mothballed it already, it seemed to me). No one should wear No.89 in the 2014 training camp. Too many memories. Too fresh. The debate as to whether the number should be permanently retired can be saved for another day -- I would come down in favor of that.

Let Cotchery pick his own number, one that doesn't have the weight of history behind it (unless it is N.C. State history -- in that case, as Joe Person points out, he should take No.82). And if he tries to insist on wearing No.89 anyway, someone over at Bank of America Stadium needs to save him from that mistake.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cam surgery is worrisome, but sky has not fallen yet

The hits just keep on coming for the Carolina Panthers. Not only does Cam Newton have no receivers to throw the ball to right now, he could not throw it anyway because he is about to undergo ankle surgery.

The Panthers confirmed Tuesday that Newton will have an ankle "procedure," as the Panthers delicately term it, in Charlotte on Wednesday. The recovery will take approximately four months, which would still allow him to be ready for training camp but will force him to miss several months of offseason workouts.

This is bad news. Not "Oh-my-gosh-nooooo!" news, but bad all the same. As we all know, Newton's mobility is one of his primary strengths. He's got to be able to run to do what he does at the highest level.

But it is hardly unusual news. Quarterbacks have offseason surgeries all the time. While he was Carolina's quarterback, Steve Beuerlein once had five offseason surgeries in a single year. When I used to cover the Miami Dolphins, quarterback Dan Marino had surgery almost annually on a troublesome knee -- he likened them to "oil changes."

Of course, Beuerlein and Marino were statues in the pocket. Newton is a running warrior. He needs two healthy ankles. He has been extremely durable -- Newton has not missed a single start in three years, and really only a few plays. But with that said, this is all a little worrisome.

The timing is also not ideal. It would obviously have made more sense to have surgery -- if you were going to have surgery at all -- a few days after the San Francisco game. But the Panthers were hoping to avoid surgery entirely and let time and rest heal the ankle. That didn't work, so here we are.

The Panthers made a major mistake by releasing their top receiver from last year in Steve Smith. I have written on that extensively and won't go back into it here. They allowed receivers No.2-4 all sign with other teams (not nearly as bad of a mistake, but you'd still like to have kept at least one of them -- preferably Ted Ginn Jr. -- for continuity's sake).

And now Newton is having ankle surgery.

So is the sky falling in Pantherland? Well, no. Actually, it isn't. They kept defensive end Greg Hardy -- who is better than any of the players they have lost. Newton will be healthy for training camp (we assume). Luke Kuechly is still Luke Kuechly.

A well-known sports oddsmaker,, had the Panthers at 25-1 to win the 2015 Super Bowl on Feb.3rd, the day after the most recent season ended.

A lot of teams' odds have jumped up or down in the past six weeks as free agency has begun and player movement has increased. New England, for instance, was listed at 14-1 six weeks ago and now is 9-1.

And what does that sports book now have the Panthers listed at to win the 2015 Super Bowl now?

Exactly the same -- 25-1.

Friday, March 14, 2014

4 thoughts on Steve Smith signing with Baltimore

1) What does it tell you that Baltimore, New England, San Diego, Seattle and Washington all showed serious interest in an unemployed man in the first 24 hours after he became unemployed? It tells me -- once again -- that Panther general manager Dave Gettleman made a major mistake by firing Steve Smith and that other teams were standing in line trying to take advantage of it. This was Gettleman's gaffe, and it will haunt him unless the Panthers go 12-4 again.

2) Smith certainly landed well, with a $3.5-million signing bonus with the Baltimore Ravens on the first free-agent visit of his career (and the Panthers still owe him $5 million). And he's an hour plane ride from home. And John Harbaugh is certainly the nicer of the two Harbaugh brothers (and also the only one of them with a Super Bowl ring as a head coach). And Joe Flacco is a heck of a quarterback who was a Super Bowl MVP. And the Ravens' receiving corps is way, way better than Carolina's right now, with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones already in the fold.

3) Gettleman's five-paragraph statement when releasing Smith did a tiny bit of good in trying to repair the PR damage caused by this move, but not much. He said it was "imperative to take an unemotional global view." I get that. What I don't get is that Gettleman still hasn't answered the main question -- the only question really -- which is: "Why?" As I mentioned on Twitter:

Gettleman has done himself a disservice on this one, first with the roster move itself (here's my original column ripping it) but secondly by choosing not to answer questions from reporters about it. Somebody over at Bank of America Stadium needs to tell him that.

4) The Panthers' game at Baltimore? I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts they stick that one in prime time now when the NFL schedule comes out next month.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The best Steve Smith moments ever as a Panther were....

Having watched Steve Smith's entire 13-year career with the Panthers, I will pick a few of my personal favorites below. He promised a "two- or three-second party" early in his career every time he scored, and I think we can all agree that promise came through. Feel free to add your own favorite memories in the comments section. As for my take on the Panthers' imminent parting of the ways with Smith, click this link (short version -- I think it's a mistake). And also take one more look at this incredible Jeff Siner picture of Smith against Green Bay -- see where that ball is? He barely has hold of it by his thumbs. And he made that catch, which won that game:

Best catch: The 69-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme that won the 2003 playoff game against St. Louis on the first play of double overtime.

Best block: On Cam Newton’s 72-yard touchdown run against Atlanta in 2012, Smith sprinted downfield to take out two Falcon defenders with one hit. He was awarded a game ball simply for the block.

Best single game: Smith’s 218-yard receiving game on the road against Chicago in the 2005 playoffs -- that was the year he was at his absolute peak.

Best touchdown celebration: Many to choose from (before the NFL reined celebrations in with 15-yard penalties), but I was always partial to Smith pretending like the football was a baby and mimicking changing its diaper, even down to wiping the football’s “bottom” in the end zone with a towel.

Best college receiver on other side: Chad Johnson – the future “Ochocinco” and Smith teamed together for awhile at Santa Monica Junior College. Wouldn’t you have liked to have been the quarterback?

Best pro receiver on other side: Muhsin Muhammad – who wasn’t as fast as Smith but was a very physical player who helped mentor Smith and teach him how to block more effectively. Too bad they never found another equal partner for Smith during his 13-year career.

Best fourth-and-10: Against Miami in 2013, Smith made a difficult catch in traffic on a "make it or lose" 4th-and-10 at Miami. The Panthers won after that catch, and 16 of his teammates voted it the most significant play of the season.

Best season: In 2005, Smith won the NFL’s “triple crown” for wide receivers by leading the league in reception yards (1563) and tying for first in receptions (103) and receiving TDs (12).

Should the Panthers consider Julius Peppers? Absolutely

UPDATE: Julius Peppers signed with the Green Bay Packers on March 15th.

While those in Carolina await the fate of wide receiver Steve Smith, another 34-year-old former star of the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl team just got his walking papers.

Julius Peppers was released by the Chicago Bears Tuesday. It was the same old NFL story -- his production had dipped and his contract numbers were unsustainable after a couple of restructures that back-ended too much money into the final years of the deal.

Peppers started every game for Chicago in 2013 but had only seven sacks, his lowest since that incomprehensible season for Carolina in 2007 when he somehow managed to have only 2.5.

But, like Smith, Peppers can still play. I can't imagine the former No.2 pick of the Panthers in 2002 -- he played in Charlotte from 2002-09 before turning down a huge contract offer to go to the Bears instead -- is ready to retire.

Smith was such a fan of Peppers' stunning athletic ability that he once joked he was just glad to be able to stand next to Peppers in all the official team pictures -- since he was No.89 and Peppers was No.90, he always got to do so.

So should Carolina consider signing Peppers again, if he came cheaply? Absolutely the Panthers should. I know what you're saying, they already have all this money tied up in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson and they've got some young defensive ends, too.

All that is true -- but pass-rushing is the name of the game on defense in the NFL. You can't have too many. Remember, I said only if Peppers comes cheap -- at a veteran-minimum type of price. Likely, he will command more than that, which would quickly put him out of the Panthers' price range (given Carolina's more pressing needs on the offensive line and at wide receiver).

But Peppers is extremely durable -- he has missed only four games due to injury in a dozen seasons (he missed four more as a rookie due to a suspension). The former UNC football and basketball player would never cause a speck of trouble in the locker room.

That said, Peppers is also a shy and unusual guy, and not a team leader type. He wanted out of Carolina badly by the time he left for Chicago, and so he's probably not interested in returning because he likes anonymity and he would be anything but anonymous here.

Still, the Panthers owe it to themselves to at least kick the tires on this one. And if by some miracle Peppers wants to return and wants to do it for very little money (in NFL terms), then that is something Carolina should seriously think about.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Firing Smith would be a mistake

Look, I am glad that Panther general manager Dave Gettleman is evaluating everyone on the roster closely. That is what he was hired to do and that is what he should do.

But Steve Smith getting outright released -- an option that is obviously on the table?! That doesn't make sense to me. It sounds like over-thinking it, aand gambling more than you should. (Smith, for his part, said very little of substance in an ESPN interview Thursday about the situation).

Gettleman's results have been solid -- and occasionally spectacular -- since he joined the Panthers before the 2013 season with the charge to remake the team. He has done so much well: Finding Mike Mitchell and Ted Ginn Jr. for bargain-basement prices in 2013. Extending coach Ron Rivera's contract. Drafting Star Lotulelei. Turning a terrible salary-cap situation into a manageable one. Gettleman has Carolina in position to have its first back-to-back winning seasons ever. His first Carolina team went 12-5 and made the playoffs.

But the receiving corps was a Panther weakness last season. In the San Francisco playoff game, the 49ers employed both of the best receivers playing in the game.

Smith, 34, is no longer a No.1 receiver in the NFL, and the Panthers should not ask him to be that. They need to find a new No.1 and let Smith be their No.2 -- in fact, they should have found the new No.1 guy already, but have misfired numerous times over the years trying to do so.

But firing Smith just doesn't make sense to me. He scored Carolina's only touchdown in the playoff loss. He had 64 catches for 745 yards and four TDs last year. His teammates voted his fourth-and-10 catch against Miami as the most important play of the 2013 season in a locker room poll I took. Absolutely he has lost a step and doesn't get the separation he used to -- Smith wouldn't argue with that -- but he still has the hands and he still has the craftiness. He can still play.

It makes sense, certainly, to ask him if he will restructure his contract to lessen the salary-cap hit. The Panthers and Smith should work out some sort of understanding.

But if Gettleman releases him, that will be a mistake. The GM doesn't have anyone waiting in the wings. He can't necessarily draft a WR at No.28 in the first round, either, because offensive tackle is just as pressing of a need. It is too much of a gamble to try and replace at least your top two and possibly your top three receivers in a single offseason (if Ted Ginn Jr. doesn't stay).

I am not saying this because Smith and I are close friends. We are longtime acquaintances and I respect him greatly for all he has done on the field and in the community, but we don't go to movies together. I am well aware of his faults.

I am basing this blog purely on the performance we saw from Smith in 2013. Quarterback Cam Newton looked either to Smith or tight end Greg Olsen first every time it was crunch time last season. No.89 still has some time left in the NFL, and it would be better spent in a Panther uniform.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Crazy sports numbers Monday night as March Madness starts early

I hope you saw some basketball Monday night, because there were some ridiculous numbers being posted all over the place on what was a great precursor to March Madness. Here are four of the most amazing:

6: The number of points Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige scored on a very off night offensively in UNC's 63-61 win. He even missed two of four free throws in the final minute against Notre Dame to give the Irish a chance to tie the game at the buzzer. But Paige is a difference-maker, and did so again in an unusual way for him Monday -- with a game-saving block. Robert Willett of the (Raleigh) News & Observer got a great picture of it, which is above.

38 and 19: Al Jefferson's points and rebounds, respectively, in the Charlotte Bobcats' 17-point loss to Miami. On most any other night, Jefferson's evening would have received widespread acclaim. But... (see 61)

41: N.C. State sophomore T.J. Warren is the ACC's best pure scorer, no doubt about that. But he outdid himself Monday, scoring 41 -- more than half of the Wolfpack's points -- in a win over Pittsburgh. No doubt Warren is a first-team All-ACC player, and a candidate for the league's Player of the Year award.

61: Oh, LeBron. King James absolutely torched the Bobcats in Miami Monday night, scoring 61 points (his career high) while making his first eight three-point shots. He's pretty unguardable already -- when LeBron is hitting threes, it's over. The point total was helped by the fact that Dwyane Wade took the night off to rest his knee. The Bobcats have now given up the two highest point totals in the NBA this season -- they earlier allowed Carmelo Anthony to go for 62.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Next up for Bobcats: Playoff preview?

The Charlotte Bobcats are halfway through the worst four-game scheduling stretch in their history, and not surprisingly they are 0-2.

Next up: possible playoff series previews. If the Bobcats (27-32) finish seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference, they will face Miami or Indiana in the first round. Charlotte would currently be seeded seventh (here are the NBA standings). The Bobcats play at Miami Monday night and at home vs. Indiana on Wednesday.

While the Bobcats talked tough before playing the top four teams in the NBA in a row -- Kemba Walker said the team's goal was to go 4-0 -- reality has intruded. They have been in games at San Antonio Friday and at Oklahoma City Sunday into the fourth quarter, but have ended up losing both by double digits.

Splitting these next two with Miami and Indiana would be nice for Charlotte, as the team could at least avoid 0-4. Regardless, Friday night's home game against Cleveland (trying to get into the playoffs, along with Detroit) will have some playoff implications as well.

In other news, I'm glad the Bobcats finally cut the cord with Ben Gordon, whom Steve Clifford obviously didn't like as a player and who didn't make any sense to keep any longer.