Friday, May 23, 2014

Cam Newton gets another shot at Madden cover

UPDATE: Cam Newton made it to the finals to be on the cover of Madden 15, but lost to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman.

You may recall that Cam Newton really wanted to be on the cover of Madden 13, the NFL video game. He wanted to so badly that two years ago he concocted a seven-minute homemade video calling out Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson -- his rival in the finals -- and saying he was the best choice because he was the better "Madden" player.

Nevertheless, Johnson won anyway. The results were announced in New York City's Times Square -- if you can believe this, The Observer had me cover it (although to be fair, I was already in New York for something else) -- and Newton was obviously disappointed.

Now Newton is back in the Final Four of the Madden '15 cover vote, joining Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Richard Sherman in competition for the cover. Results are determined by fan voting, which is always a fickle process (remember how the Panthers managed to win "Best NFL Uniform Ever" in a national fan vote for their all-black getup, despite having only worn that uniform once in a regular-season game at that time?). The semifinals for Madden 15 end May 30, with the two finalists being chosen and voting opening immediately for another week. The winner will be announced Friday, June 6, on ESPN's SportsCenter.

I can't get very excited about who makes a videogame cover, but it's obviously important to Newton and to a lot of other people (my teenaged sons like to keep me monitored on this contest). This time Newton faces Luck in the semifinals in a battle of the No.1 picks from 2011 and 2012.

Newton, a No.1 seed, has already won two voting matchups to get that far, trouncing Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly -- a No.6 seed who plays a starring role in the Madden 15 official trailer -- won one matchup over Denver's Demaryius Thomas but then lost to Kaepernick in the quarterfinals.

What this does mean, besides the fact that Madden 15 is getting a lot of publicity and will sell a whole lot of copies once more?

Not much, really, except that the Panthers continue to become more nationally prominent. Only 16 players were selected for this contest, and two of them were from Carolina. That tells you something, much like Carolina's renewed prominence in prime-time games in their 2014 NFL schedule, when they play three games at night. The Panthers are no longer an NFL afterthought.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Just what the Panthers do not need -- Greg Hardy gets arrested

Panther defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested Tuesday on misdemeanor charges of communicating threats and assaulting a female. Here's the news story. The Panthers quickly issued a statement saying: "We are very disappointed to learn of the allegations involving Greg and are concerned for all parties as we continue to investigate."

Like anyone, Hardy is innocent until proven guilty. But when one of the team's five best players gets arrested in Charlotte and has a mugshot that quickly has found its way all over online, that's going to make major news, and that's exactly the kind of news the Panthers don't need.

Hardy, who calls himself the "Kraken" in a nod to to the mythological sea monster, has had behavioral and maturity issues before. That's part of the reason he lasted until the sixth round of the 2010 draft despite otherworldly athletic ability. Hardy also had a bad motorcycle accident on the eve of the 2011 training camp, which cost him most of that preseason.

He was spectacular in 2013 for Carolina, with 15 sacks and his first Pro Bowl appearance. The 15 sacks tied a team record and represented a fourth of the Panthers' 60-sack total, which led the NFL. The Panthers responded by giving Hardy their "franchise tag," which guaranteed him a $13.1-million salary this season if he doesn't reach a long-term extension with the team.

As for the arrest, undoubtedly there will be more details emerging, and it is important to stress it is a misdemeanor, not a felony. See the incident report yourself if you like. But one thing you can say for sure: This isn't good, Hardy is in hot water once more, and as my colleague Tom Sorensen notes, a lot of people in the Panther organization are livid right now.

Friday, May 9, 2014

5 things to know about Benjamin

Now that the Panthers have picked Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin at No.28, what does that mean? Well....

1. One of the underrated parts of this pick if it works out: It will improve the Panthers' running game, especially at the goal line. Panther general manager Dave Gettleman said having Benjamin at wideout won't allow other teams to put eight players in the box. While that may be an oversimplification, if Benjamin produces -- especially in the end zone -- it could certainly help the run game that got stuffed too many times in the San Francisco playoff game and at other times last season. (Here is my column about the pick of Bejamin in general terms).

2. Benjamin's route-running can be improved, Gettleman acknowledged in response to a question. Then again, Gettleman said the only wide receiver in the draft whose route running is beyond question is former LSU star Odell Beckham (taken by the New York Giants at No.12 overall).

3. Although Benjamin just finished his redshirt sophomore year at Florida State, he is 23 years old. That's because he failed two grades before he got to high school. Due to being too old according to Florida high school standards, he wasn't allowed to play in the final couple of games of his senior year. Gettleman said that Benjamin has plenty of football smarts and that he proved it several times when the Panthers put him "on the board" and had Benjamin diagramming plays and coverages.

4. I liked the way Benjamin handled his first questions as a Panther. He sounded humble and genuinely happy. "I'm not looking at it like taking Steve Smith's spot," Benjamin said. "I'm just wanting to be the best that I can be." And if Benjamin catches a few of Cam Newton's overthrows, so much the better.

5. How good can he be? Benjamin is not a burner -- his 40 time is in the low 4.6 range. Neither was Muhsin Muhammad, though, and he was the Panthers' second-best WR ever behind No.89. Gettleman said Benjamin improved dramatically in the final four games of Florida State's season, and the Panthers believe he will continue to get better. And, as Gettleman kept saying: "You can't coach 6-foot-5, 240." (Note: Benjamin has played in the Panthers' stadium before -- he scored FSU's first TD on a 14-yard pass in the Seminoles' 45-7 rout of Duke in the ACC title game in December and scored again later on a 54-yard throw from Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston).

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On Panther draft, Durant speech and other sports notes

-- I do not think the Panthers will trade anywhere but down in this draft, and I think it is more likely that they do not trade at all. Better stock up on late-night snacks on Thursday, because I would guess the Panthers won't pick until at least 11 p.m.

-- I remain a believer that Carolina should take an offensive tackle with its No.1 pick Thursday night and a wide receiver at No.2 Friday, but it would be OK if that order was reversed. They need to address both those positions in the first three rounds, however.

-- The best two Panther drafts in history were in 2001 (Steve Smith, Kris Jenkins and Dan Morgan) and 2002 (Julius Peppers, DeShaun Foster, Will Witherspoon). The two worst: 1997 (Rae Carruth) and 1998 (Jason Peter, Chuck Wiley, Mitch Marrow). Dave Gettleman's first draft in 2013 ranks somewhere in the middle, but could rise to a top-5 Panther draft eventually if the two defensive tackles at the top keep progressing.

-- If you remember Grady Little -- who went to Garinger, later managed the Boston Red Sox and L.A. Dodgers and now manages the high school baseball team at Hickory Grove Christian in Charlotte -- I wrote a long profile about him here in Wednesday's Observer. You have to at least read the part about "Bull Durham" -- Little was the "baseball trainer" for that movie.

-- Kevin Durant's NBA MVP speech was one of the best and most gracious sports speeches I have ever heard. Here's the full video: skip to the 23-minute mark to see the best part, when he talks about his Mom being the "real MVP."

-- Along with more than a dozen other current and former Observer staffers who have written books, I will be signing and selling my "100 Things Panther Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" book on Thursday, May 8, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on The Observer's front lawn (600 S. Tryon Street). Books are $15 apiece, including tax. More details here.