Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bill Polian, Thomas Davis take home huge honors

As usual, the Carolina Panthers are not in this Super Bowl. But a couple of Panthers -- one former GM, one current linebacker -- had very big and well-deserved days on the day before the big game.

Bill Polian, who was the Panthers' general manager from 1995-97 and constructed the team that got to the NFC championship in 1996, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday. And Thomas Davis won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which honors exemplary community service by a current NFL player. He is the Panthers' first winner of that award and was also a finalist for it a year ago.

The Panthers have been fortunate that Davis has played his entire career with Carolina. They would have been well-served had Polian stuck around longer than three years. Polian won everywhere he went and had even greater success before Carolina (in Buffalo, where he put together the nucleus of a Bills team that went to four Super Bowls but never won one) and afterward in Indianapolis (where his drafting of Peyton Manning with the No.1 overall pick in 1998 eventually helped the Colts win the Super Bowl). He is the most accomplished GM the Panthers have ever employed, although it wasn't all roses. Polian's last Panther squad, in 1997, got old in a hurry on defense.

There was one other former Panther who didn't have a good Saturday. Kevin Greene, who I believe one day will make the Hall of Fame, missed by an eyelash yet again.

Greene made it to the final cut, but was not selected. Greene only played three of his 15 years in Carolina, but if and when he does get in he will be the first hall of famer who had more than one season in a Panther uniform. He averaged nearly 14 sacks per game in those three seasons. (The late Reggie White, who got in because of his great work in Green Bay and Philadelphia, played one forgettable season in Carolina at the end of his career).

Polian still lives in Cornelius. He and his wife kept an offseason home in the Lake Norman area for years even when he worked in Indianapolis, and now that he is working primarily for ESPN they still make their home only about 20 minutes from the stadium where Davis still does his work.

I have always thought Davis should have made at least one Pro Bowl. Last year and this year he has done the best work of his career -- this after three serious knee operations on the same knee -- and that should be more nationally recognized. But winning the Walter Payton award is a major honor and one that should help Davis do even more good work in this community, as well as in his Georgia hometown. For that, we can all be grateful.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Prediction: New England to edge Seattle in fully inflated Super Bowl thriller

Is there any way both teams can lose?

That's what I keep hearing from Carolina Panther fans when they are talking about this season's Seattle-New England Super Bowl.

Panther fans have no love for Seattle, a team that has beaten Carolina four times in the last three seasons -- including three weeks ago in the playoffs. The Seahawks feature Marshawn Lynch, who likes to make a mockery of press conferences and, based on my own brief personal experiences with him, is an unpleasant person to be around. But that pales compared to New England, the team America loves to hate after Spygate, Deflategate and the fact that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have just won too many darn times already.

There is no lovable underdog in this one -- and no obvious favorite, either. The No.1 seeds from each conference advanced to the Super Bowl.

The upside: It should be a really good game. I will be surprised if we see another blowout anywhere close to what Seattle did to Denver last season. I just don't think the Patriots are nearly that fragile.

-- I hope you have a good place to watch the Super Bowl (kickoff, 6:30 p.m.) and some good food to eat while doing so. It's an unofficial national holiday, and it comes at exactly the right time to liven up a long winter.

And if you feel the least bit guilty about spending money on Super Bowl-related food, here's something to make you feel better. As of late this week, the cheapest Super Bowl tickets available were going for about $8,000 a seat on the most popular resale sites. You will be watching the game for free with what is undoubtedly a better view. So don't sweat a few extra bucks for the seven-layer dip.

-- OK, prediction time. I only predicted the Panthers' outcome each week this past season and ended up with a 12-5-1 record doing that after picking Carolina's final five games in a row correctly. I am going to venture out of that familiar territory to pick the Super Bowl, though.

If Seattle's stupendous secondary can rattle Tom Brady, that will do it and the Seahawks will win their second straight title. I don't think the Seahawks can do that, though. The Seahawks needed an incredible last few minutes in the NFC championship game -- and a dropped onsides kick by Green Bay -- to get to the Super Bowl. And that was against an immobile Aaron Rodgers.

Brady is used to being immobile. It's his standard operating procedure. And the Patriots' defense is better than Green Bay's. Using fully inflated balls, I think the final score will be New England 24, Seattle 20.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Coach K really has 1075 wins if you count USA Basketball

Yes, Coach K has hit 1K as of Sunday, but that does not even count 75 wins he has had at an even higher level of basketball.

Really, he is at 1,075. I have been fortunate enough to cover Mike Krzyzewski while he coached the U.S. men's senior national team at the past two Olympics. That team has won a gold medal in both 2008 and 2012 and has proved emphatically that Krzyzewski is not just a college coach -- he's a basketball coach. He treated the pro players a little differently -- giving them more rope, talking to them more as peers -- and it worked beautifully. He has coached the men's national team since 2005, compiling an overall 75-1 record in various world championships and Olympics. The team's lone loss under Coach K came in 2006.

Coach K's close relationships with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were key to the past two gold medals for the U.S. As Bryant said after the 2012 gold medal game of Coach K: "He’s brilliant. Very intelligent. Communicates very well. And he’s fun. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. We all have enjoyed him immensely.”

Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball's chairman, once told me a story. In 2005, Colangelo had been charged with helping the U.S. men’s team rise from the ashes of the 2004 Olympic squad. That team had been coached by Larry Brown and had lost three times in Greece after many of the top NBA players found convenient excuses not to play.

Brown obviously wasn’t going to get to come back after that performance. So Colangelo started asking lots of basketball people who should next coach the team in 2008.

One of those he asked at a meeting in Chicago was Dean Smith, the legendary UNC coach who had directed the 1976 U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal. That was back when the U.S. used only college players – Smith put four of his Tar Heels on the squad.

Colangelo showed Smith a blackboard filled with possible head coaches from the NBA and college ranks.

“Dean Smith said there’s only one college guy up there who I believe I can get the job done, and that’s Coach K,” Colangelo told me. “Which was really a statement, coming from his biggest rival.”

Coach K was recommended by many others, too, of course. But that one carried particular weight with Colangelo. And Smith was right -- Coach K sure got the job done, and still believes he has the energy to do it again. He will return as the Olympic men's head coach for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Appreciating Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon has spent half his life turning left at NASCAR's highest level. Now, at 43, he says this will be his last full-time season as a driver.

Remember Gordon in 1994? He won the first of his 92 Cup races then, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He had a skimpy moustache -- "It just looked ridiculous," he told me last year, reminiscing for this story -- and incredible talent. He cried through the last 10 laps of that race.

Now in 2015, Gordon will be taking his last laps as a driver. The four-time Cup champion is still near the top of the pack, making the playoffs and coming very close to a spot in the final four last season.

Gordon has always struck me as one of the most thoughtful people in racing. So if he thinks it's time, it's time. He has had some injury problems over the past few years -- mostly chronic back pain -- and he is a doting father. He and his wife have a son and a daughter.

As he told me last year: "My daughter.... lights up when I walk in a room. When I leave she says, 'Where are you going? Don't leave?' A lot of times I wish I didn't have to run off."

He won't have to run off nearly as much after this season, although knowing Gordon I am sure he will stay busy. Third on the all-time win list (trailing only Richard Petty and David Pearson), it would be a fairytale ending if Gordon could win a fifth and final championship in his final season.

That likely won't happen. But who knows? I still remember what Gordon said in 1994, when I covered his very first win at CMS.

Said Gordon then: "This is the highest feeling in the world.... If I only win one Winston Cup race in my career, I'd be happy."

If you want a few laughs and memories, check out our photo gallery of Gordon through the years here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

5 reasons Panthers lost to Seattle

SEATTLE -- Here is a quick take on 5 of the biggest reasons Carolina lost 31-17 to Seattle Saturday night:

1) Turnovers. Seattle had zero. Carolina had three -- all charged to quarterback Cam Newton. Newton's turnovers were the worst part of this, certainly, but the Panthers' defense really needed to come up with at least one big play on this night, and it did not.

2) The young secondary got exposed. Tre Boston allowed a 16-yard TD pass. Bene Benwikere allowed a 63-yarder. On both plays, the rookies simply lost sight of the ball and were taken advantage of by Seattle's Russell Wilson, who was the best player in this game.

3) Luke Willson. Seattle's young tight end is overshadowed by the quarterback who shares his surname (except for that extra 'L'), but the Panthers couldn't cover him all day. He was targeted four times, caught all four and gained 68 yards with one TD. His numbers were better than Carolina Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen (4-58, no TDs). Willson must love the Panthers -- he scored the game's only TD in October in the final minute to beat Carolina, 13-9.

4) Kam Chancellor. Seattle's star safety was all over the field. He nearly blocked a Carolina kick -- twice! -- by jumping entirely over the Panthers' line. And although that ploy didn't work, he later baited Newton and got a 90-yard pick six for his trouble that clinched the game.

5) Talent differential. Look, Carolina doesn't have as many good players as Seattle does. That's just a fact. When you are asking Philly Brown to make a play on a deep ball against Richard Sherman, or you are asking Colin Jones to figure out how to not allow Wilson to complete a pass -- that's just a mismatch. There were too many of them on the field, and eventually Seattle was bound to exploit a number of them.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How Johnny Manziel almost wrecked Panther season

I am writing a story for Friday's newspaper and online about the 10 defining plays of the Panthers' surprising season. To do so, I enlisted the help from a panel of 10 current Panthers as well as coach Ron Rivera.

The following play, described by enthusiastic Panther cornerback Josh Norman, ultimately didn't make the final cut. But it was interesting.

The way Norman sees it, the Panthers knocking Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the game on Dec.21st nearly ruined Carolina's season. Manziel, in other words, nearly wrecked the Panthers' year by getting hurt.

Needing to beat Cleveland at home to make the playoffs, the Panthers' Colin Jones and Luke Kuechly combined on a hit of Manziel early in the second quarter on a designed run by Manziel. Manziel tried to get up, couldn't (you can see him reaching for his leg in this picture from The Observer's Jeff Siner, which shows the aftermath of the tackle) and left the game with a hamstring injury. Brian Hoyer -- a player Norman considers a far better quarterback -- replaced Manziel and nearly led the Browns to a win.

"We were [unhappy] that he didn't stay in," Norman said of Manziel, who ended up 3-for-8 for 32 yards. "It was like, 'Oh, ----, now we've got a better quarterback.'"

Hoyer threw an 81-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter that put Cleveland ahead, 13-10. If the Browns had held on, Carolina would have finished 6-9-1 and New Orleans would have won the NFC South. Instead, Carolina got a late touchdown on Cam Newton's nine-yard pass to Jonathan Stewart (which did make the "top 10" cut). But Norman said the outcome never would have been in doubt and that the Panthers would have won much more easily had Manziel not been knocked out of the game.

"If he [Manziel] had stayed in, it would been a nightmare," Norman said. "His numbers would have been horrible. The best thing that happened to him was getting hurt. That was going to get ugly real quick."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Panthers can beat Seattle if these 6 things happen

Oddsmakers have established Seattle as an 11-point favorite against Carolina. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle is perhaps the most extreme challenge in the NFL right now. Here are six things that would have to happen in my opinion for Carolina to get there:

1) Jonathan Stewart has to rush for more than 100 yards. Seattle's secondary is the best in the NFL, so it's no wonder Cam Newton struggles against the Seahawks. Remember what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning in the last Super Bowl? But Stewart has been on such a roll that a great game from him could be a huge difference and a crowd-quieter (he had 79 yards in Carolina's October loss).

2) Carolina can have no more than one total turnover. Preferably, this number would be zero. I think the Panthers could survive one turnover in some circumstances. More than one? No chance.

3) Never fall behind by more than 10 points. This Carolina offense, against that Seattle defense, in that environment? It's not going to work to have to play catch-up. If the Seahawks get ahead by more than 10, it's over. If the Panthers stay close and don't make big mistakes, though -- in other words, Kelvin Benjamin can't drop a ball in the end zone like he did in October (see above picture) -- they will have a chance in the fourth quarter.

4) Two turnovers from Russell Wilson. You're not going to stop Wilson all the time -- he's just too good. But occasionally he will throw a bad pass, and because he runs so often (and takes some sacks because he is so confident in his running ability) the ball is sometimes available. I think Wilson would need to turn it over twice for Carolina to win.

5) Two big plays by relative unknowns. Remember Fozzy Whittaker's 39-yard touchdown off a screen pass last week vs. Arizona? Or Kevin Reddick's fumble recovery inside Arizona's 5? I'm talking about something like that -- twice.

6) Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have to be "hellacious." That was Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald's word for Nos.58 and 59 last week after both Panther linebackers played a fantastic game in Carolina's 27-16 win. They will have to be just as good vs. Seattle -- and maybe better.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Panthers to edge Cardinals on a memorable Saturday

When you are sitting in the rain and the football stadium where you are sitting doesn't allow umbrellas, it's all a matter of perspective.

Carolina Panther fans will almost certainly have that experience Saturday, as rain looms over the forecast. It will be cold, it will be wet and it could be very nasty -- if the Panthers are losing.

If the Panthers are winning, on the other hand, this will turn into one of those "I'll Never Forget When...." sort of games. Panther fans who sat through the monsoon in December 2013 in Charlotte when the Panthers faced New Orleans were rewarded with a last-second touchdown catch to win the game by Domenik Hixon (shown above). Making it through that game is now worn as a badge of honor among Carolina supporters.

This one could be the same way. Panther fans haven't seen their team win a playoff game in nine years. A little rain would only get them singin' in the rain if that happens. But if Arizona wins and it pours, everyone in blue will just seem as miserable as a soaked cat.

-- Although Arizona is on the road for this game in Charlotte, both teams' dream is to return to Phoenix 29 days from the kickoff. The Cardinals' home stadium hosts the Super Bowl on Feb.1.

-- It wasn't that long ago that the Cardinals were vilified as one of the worst franchises in sports, but that has changed. The Cardinals have played seven playoff games in the past seven seasons. In the previous 74 years combined, they also played in seven total playoff games.

-- A wet field would slightly work to the Panthers' advantage, since they are a far better running team than Arizona. Then again the Cardinals have the best deep threat on the field -- Michael Floyd -- and one slip by the Carolina secondary could change things in a hurry.

-- Why are the Panthers wearing white jerseys in January for this game when they usually wear black once the weather gets cold? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact Carolina has been more successful in white uniforms than in any other color during the playoffs.

-- Prediction time: I am 10-5-1 picking the Panthers' outcomes this season. I don't think either team will score much more than 20 points in this one.

Arizona has held 13 of 16 opponents to 20 or under this season (best in the league in that category).

Carolina has allowed only 43 total points in the last four games, which is two points less than it allowed in November to a Philadelphia team that ultimately didn't even make the playoffs.

The difference? It will come down to the quarterbacks and their offensive lines. Carolina's Cam Newton should and absolutely has to outplay Ryan Lindley in this one. Newton can't pull a "Jake Delhomme six years ago" Saturday. The Panthers have been handed a tremendous break due to the fact that Arizona must start its third-string quarterback. I think they will take advantage of it.

My prediction: Carolina 17, Arizona 12.