Monthly Archives: August 2012

5 Years Ago…The Tainted Home Run King

Just five years ago this month, Hank Aaron, the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves great, lost his title to a cheater. Five years ago this month, during the so-called “Steroid Era”, Major League Baseball’s home run king (with 755), who passed the immortal Babe Ruth‘s record of 714 home runs in 1974 with such grace and humility, was himself passed by a dour, self-centered, ego-filled, bloated-cartoon-character-looking Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

Atlanta Braves great Hank Aaron hitting his historic 715th home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his home stadium

Bonds cheated. No doubt about it. But so did hundreds, maybe thousands, of baseball players of that era. That doesn’t mean you and I have to recognize him as baseball’s home run king.

Bonds was a great player BEFORE he started using “the cream and the clear”. Believe me, NO ONE gets better with age…unless they are using something. Dara Torres, the U.S. 50-meter swimmer, MAY be the exception to that rule, but in baseball…no one gets better with age.

If that was NOT the case, we would certainly see more players improving their batting averages, RBI totals, home run totals, etc. as they age.  It just doesn’t happen. No player in history – from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Willie Mays to Hank Aaron – has improved his numbers after reaching the age of 35. You can call Bonds a freak of nature…but I call him a cheater.

Injuries take MORE time to recover from as we age. That’s a simple fact. Using steroids helps you recover quicker from injuries. Another fact.

Hank Aaron on the cover of Sports Illustrated

On that historic day, even Aaron continued to show his grace. While not attending the game against the Washington Nationals in San Francisco’s beautiful PacBell Park, he was shown on the video board offering congratulations.

“It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity and determination,” Aaron said. “Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over how and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historic achievement.

“My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1874, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”

And Bonds himself, may have said it best after seeing the 10-minute video. “When I saw Hank Aaron, that made everything. We’ve always loved him. He’s always the home run king.”

Call me cynical, but Bonds (and yes, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco to name names…among others) cheated. I will say this, however, it was very exciting to see these men hit prodigious home runs (“Chicks Dig The Long Ball”) and in tremendous numbers. The race between McGwire and Sosa was fun…it brought people to the ballparks and eyeballs to television. I remember calling my son after McGwire hit home run number 63. I was watching on the West Coast (on yet another business trip) and he was watching at home in Maryland. It certainly gave us a lot to talk about.But let’s remember one thing…they cheated.

Ask most members of the Hall of Fame why Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the best players in the history of the game, is NOT in the Hall. They’ll say, “He cheated.” (By the way, ESPN wrote an article on the 10 biggest cheaters in MBL history…and Jackson is NOT among them. Here’s the link: espn.go.com/page2/s/list/cheaters/ballplayers.html

Next year, when some of the biggest names of the Steroid Era come up for voting into the Hall, none will make it. Yes, the Hall has members who were not so nice (Ty Cobb, for one) and some who admitted to throwing spitballs (Gaylord Perry)…but with the use of steroids, that took cheating to another level.

To me, Hank Aaron is THE Home Run King…he did it with grace and humility. And, in a tip of the cap to the good old days, one of the nice things about the footage of him breaking the old home run mark was seeing several fans actually running the bases with him, slapping him on the back. No, that really wasn’t allowed, but they were not tackled or shot at by a stun gun. It was a simpler time. A more civil time. Henry Aaron exemplified the time perfectly.

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Carolina Panthers look sharp in win over Miami

The Carolina Panthers proved they are more ready for prime time than the stars of HBO‘s “Hard Knocks” series, the Miami Dolphins. Bouncing back from an uninteresting effort last week, the Panthers beat the Dolphins 23-17 at Bank of America Stadium in both teams’ second preseason game.

Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton hands the ball off to running back Jonathan Stewart in Friday’s game.

Quarterback Cam Newton looked very sharp, completing 8 of 11 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown in his short time on the field Friday night. His offensive line gave him plenty of time to find open receivers, something they failed to do last week against Houston’s blitzing defense. “Last week I felt kind of rushed,” Newton said. “Today, I knew I had a lot more time to work, and when you know you are in there for longer than a couple series, you let the game come to you. I think it showed tonight.”

“I thought Cam played very well – three very solid drives,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I thought the big thing he did as far as running the show, he was very efficient. Believe me, I was disappointed last week that we didn’t win. Very happy that we won this week. I want to believe this is something we can build on. We did some really good things.”

Newton’s longest completion was a 27-yarder to tight end Greg Olson – which came after Newton remained in the pocket and took a big hit from defensive tackle Paul Soloiai after throwing the pass.

Newton said, “there was a big difference between this week and last week,” crediting the line for giving him time to throw. And, known for his running as much as his passing, Newton did not need to resort to his legs at all in his short time playing.

“(Offensive line coach John) Matsko coached us to protect what’s ours and what’s most valuable to us, and that’s the quarterback,” second-year tackle Byron Bell said. “That’s Cam, that’s (Derek Anderson) and that’s Jimmy (Clausen). We had the attitude and effort tonight, and we got the job done.”

“These guys take pride in what they do and I appreciate everything they do,” said Newton, who added he felt rushed last week. “It starts with them. Without those guys, this offense would stall out each and every time.”

Bell and rookie left guard Amini Silatolu remained in the game as the veteran linemen took a seat after the first quarter. The extra time on the field gave the younger players the opportunity to get in a few more hits and blocks, while working with the second-string.

“Coach Matsko keeps me out there. He told me to lead them all and continue my game,” Bell said. “You never know. If someone got hurt, I would have to go in. I’m still a young guy and I’m learning from (veteran tackle Jordan) Gross and all those guys so I need all the reps I can get.”

“You can prepare every week more and more in the preseason, and I think we were more ready for these guys this week,” Gross said. “The whole line gave up eight sacks last week, and that was certainly something we wanted to cut down. We didn’t give up any in the first quarter.”

The Panthers’ running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for two touchdowns. Stewart ran one in from two yards out and Williams caught a pass from Newton in the flat and scored a 9-yard TD.

Stewart left the game with a calf injury in the first quarter, but it was nothing serious. The injury occurred when Stew caught a short pass from Newton for a one-yard gain.

On the flip side, Miami’s first round draft choice (the 8th overall), quarterback Ryan Tannehill, from Texas A&M, made his first preseason start for the Dolphins and played the entire first half. His six possessions – four of which ended in three-and-outs – didn’t go as he had hoped, but he was playing against a Panthers defense that has a lot to prove. He found himself under heavy duress for most of the game as the Panthers sacked him three times and batted down three balls at the line of scrimmage.

He finished 11 of 23 for 100 yards passing.

While the Panthers’ first-team was in the game, they outgained Miami 152 to 23 in total yardage and had a 12 to 1 edge in first downs.

Panthers’ defensive end Frank Alexander sacks Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill during Friday’s game.

Defensively, the Panthers were playing with abandon. Defensive end Charles Johnson played an outstanding game, pressuring Tannehill and sacking him viciously, as did Frank Alexander and Thomas Keiser. Each pressured Tannehill, welcoming the rookie to the NFL.

“It was a big leap from what we did last week, ” Johnson said. “It really didn’t matter who was back there, we just wanted to work on our things and get better off what we did. It’s a good game to build on, see what we did wrong, what we did right. But we had a good start.”

Panthers’ defensive end Charles Johnson puts a move on Miami’s Jonathan Martin on his way to sacking quarterback Ryan Tannehill

The first-team defense did not allow a first down until the final play of the opening quarter. They forced back-to-back three-and-outs to start the game, allowing Newton and the offense to control the tempo and grab the early momentum.

Newton was replaced by back-up Derek Anderson in the second quarter, and Anderson was followed by Jimmy Clausen by the end of the third quarter. Former Panthers’ quarterback Matt Moore replaced Tannehill in the second half, returning to Bank of America Stadium for the first time since 2010.

Panthers’ wide receiver Steve Smith should get some air time on “Hard Knocks” in Wednesday’s show. He battled with  the Dolphins’ Vontae Davis twice and ended up pushing the defensive back out of the way a couple of times. Smith had one catch for 15 yards against the Fins, but was pleased with the progress made by the offense.

Miami Dolphins’ Richard Marshall (31) works to separate teammate Vontae Davis (21) from Carolina Panthers’ Steve Smith (89)

“Last week was kind of difficult getting in a rhythm. We didn’t play too many plays. That’s as excuse we can make. But we just didn’t show out very good in the short time that we had, ” Smith said. “We came out with a different mentality and we’re getting closer and closer to getting in the swing of things as the season progresses.”

The kicking battle continued for the Panthers, with placekickers Olindo Mare (incumbent) and Justin Medlock (CFL veteran free agent) going toe-to-toe. Medlock kicked a 49-yard field goal in the first quarter, a 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and kicked an extra point. Mare hit a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter along with an extra point in the first. Each handled kicking off nicely, with Mare having a slight edge in length. One of Medlock’s kickoffs was returned nearly 30 yards in the first quarter, the result of kicking to the goal line and not into the end zone.

Panthers No. 2 receiver, Brandon LaFell in pregame mode.

And the battle for the number three receiver may be getting some clarity. With Steve Smith (No. 1) and Brandon LaFell (No. 2), newcomer Louis Murphy appears to be winning out for the No. 3 position.

Panthers’ Louis Murphy (83) appears to have the inside shot at the No. 3 receiver position.

The Panthers now have a week to get ready for a nationally televised game on NBC against the New York Jets on August 26. The starters are expected to play most of the game, which will be Newton’s first one in New York.

Carolina Panthers Camp Overview: Position battles and injuries

There are several position battles being fought in the Carolina Panthers preseason. And there are other positions that have question marks due to health. Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, coming off season-ending injuries in 2011, are still hurting.

Davis, who has had three surgeries on his right knee, strained his right calf during the second practice. He has resumed individual drills and coach Ron Rivera hopes he can increase his workload next week.

Beason pulled a hamstring due to overcompensating for his surgically repaired Achilles.

Neither is expected to play Friday against Miami, but Beason hopes to return for the August 26 preseason game against the Jets.

Coach Rivera is a bit concerned about both Beason and Davis, but watching rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly gives him a bit of breathing room.

“I think Luke and James Anderson are both cornerstones for us right now as far as a linebacking crew,” Rivera said. “We do look forward to getting Jon back on the field and having Thomas contribute to what we want to become as a defense.”

I have written about some of the position battles, but before the Panthers take on Miami on Friday night, here are some thoughts:

KICKERS:

Incumbent placekicker Olindo Mare vs. former CFL star free-agent Justin Medlock.

Medlock botched one kickoff against Houston last Saturday and it was returned 90 yards. Other than that, he has shown a powerful leg and has been more accurate from further distance than the 39-year-old Mare.

Carolina Panthers veteran placekicker Olindo Mare is in a battle with free-agent Justin Medlock for a job.

Watching both at practice, I notice Mare’s kicks to the end zone are further than Medlock’s however, when kicking field goals in simulated game conditions, Medlock out-kicks Mare. He has a stronger leg and is more accurate. In making a final decision, Rivera said he would definitely like to have it done by the third preseason game, so both kickers have a very short window to win the job. Ideally, Rivera said, he would like to see each kicker get the opportunity to kick a field goal, under game conditions, at the end of each half against Miami. Whether or not that can be arranged is another story.

As for the punters, rookie Brad Nortman, the first kicker ever drafted by the Panthers (6th round), has looked very good. His kicks are long and with a lot of hang-time. He also has worked very hard in camp at his directional kicking. 12-year veteran Nick Harris, a free-agent signing by the Panthers during the off-season, is also battling Nortman for the position. At this time, it is definitely Nortman’s position, however.

PASS RUSH:

The Panthers need to put more pressure on quarterbacks than they did last season. In a division with Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta), this is a must. If they do not begin pressuring the opposing quarterbacks, their secondary could be very vulnerable. Rivera said they need more production from Charles Johnson (nine sacks in 2011). So far, the interior linemen have not been able to get much pressure on the offense, and the Miami game Friday night will be a good test. They will face a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) possibly making his first start as well as a familiar face in former Panther Matt Moore.

RECEIVERS:

Pro Bowler Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are the top wideouts for the Panthers, but after that…well, there has to be someone the Panthers can count on.

Newcomer Lewis Murphy has dropped several passes in camp. The former Oakland Raider has all the ability, but needs to hold onto the ball. Kealoha Pilares and Seyi Ajirotutu look good running routes in practice, but are not stepping up to claim the third receiver spot yet.

As for the tight ends, Greg Olsen has run good routes, has fairly good hands, and, at 6’5″, 255 pounds, can be a force.

Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith said the offense is grasping more and more of the playbook this year.

Speaking with Smith yesterday at practice, he likes Murphy.”When we came in, he said, ‘I need this.’ And when you hear that from a guy, and then he comes out and does it, that’s the part where you realize we need more guys like that,” Smith said. “There are a lot of guys who come in and say they’re hungry and you get two weeks in and they get comfortable and you forget about them and you don’t even know they’re playing.”

ROOKIES:

First-round pick (No. 9 overall) Luke Kuechly has impressed everyone. He sees the game and reacts very well to the situation. He seems to be in the right place most all of the time (other than lining up on the wrong side on the opening snap Saturday night), and has a nose for the ball. He has intercepted several passes in camp and looks like he will be one of the best draft picks ever for the Panthers.

Drafted in the fifth round, unheralded cornerback Josh Norman is making a great impression. Coming out of a small school (Coastal Carolina), playing in a low Division I league (Big South Conference), Norman has turned heads with his play in camp. He had four picks on Tuesday, including one off Cam Newton.

“He’s definitely been a ball-hawk. I’ve watched Luke make some plays, too. … They’re going to try the rookie. And he’s made them pay,” veteran linebacker Jon Beason said. “And that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re a game-changer or if you’re saying, ’I was a late draft pick, but I can play in this league.’ ”

QUARTERBACK:

No surprise here…Newton is solidifying his role as the team leader and most-beloved player by fans. Newton works hard at every practice and wants to improve his game. Last season, he surprised many people by playing so well. The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year passed for more than 4,000 yards and was responsible for 35 touchdowns (by throwing or running).

“He works on everything. He talks about what he wants to improve. The one thing you really watch – and he’s so hard on himself – is the mental aspect of the game,” Rivera said. “When he’s not making the right decisions he’s missing things, he’s going right to (offensive coordinator Rob) Chud(zinski), right to (quarterbacks coach Mike) Shula and they’re trying to get those things worked out.”

It has been very clear to me (and others, of course) that Jimmy Clausen will not be an NFL quarterback for long. Chosen by the Panthers in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Clausen was thrown to the wolves early and lost all confidence. His passes are very limited – the short ones are fair and he has nowhere near the arm strength to match Newton nor back-up quarterback Derek Anderson. In several practices, he has only thrown short passes and has not looked like someone you want to play quarterback in the regular season.

On the other hand, Anderson looks comfortable in the back-up role. When his turn comes up, he takes command of the offensive unit and is decisive with his throws. He is no Cam Newton, but as far as a back-up, you could do a lot worse in the league.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR FRIDAY NIGHT AGAINST THE MIAMI DOLPHINS:

Coach Rivera wants the team to avoid injuries and be consistent on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. “We can’t have the ups and downs. We have to make plays when we get the opportunity to. I think if I had to say defensively, I want to see us separate from blockers quicker and be better tacklers,” he said. “Obviously I want to see us make the plays we need to in critical situations. On third down, we need to be better on defense.”

MY OVERALL IMPRESSION OF THE PANTHERS:

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and center Ryan Kalil – big words to live up to!

They have a long way to go to get to the elite level in the league. They are facing a tough schedule, but certainly have most of the tools to go far. It seems that every season brings a new team to the playoffs…a team no one really expected to go far – see San Francisco last year. The Panthers could be that team. Injuries will heal, and only time will tell if this team can do the unexpected. Maybe the full-page ad Ryan Kalil placed in the Charlotte Observer will motivate this team to win the Super Bowl. But right now, I don’t think so. Now, they are working on quickening their tempo…not dropping passes…getting healthy (linebackers)…and finding a quality third receiver.

Carolina Panthers break camp; get set for Dolphins

SPARTANBURG, SC – The Carolina Panthers concluded their training camp at Wofford College Wednesday morning with a well-paced practice. Work continued on red zone plays, kickoffs, returns and, in the last hour, the team scrimmaged. While dropped passes continue to be a factor during practices, take nothing away from the defensive play of the Panthers.

There were several interceptions thrown during the scrimmage, but the offense did manage to complete several long pass plays.

Four Carolina Panthers not participating in Wednesday’s practice (LB Jon Beason, TE Nelson Rosario, DE Eric Norwood and CB Brandon Hogan) but did get their cardio work in.

Noticeably absent from the drills were linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. Both players are coming off season-ending injuries in 2011 and both suffered setbacks keeping them out of camp for most practices.

Beason pulled a hamstring – an injury he says resulted from overcompensating for his surgically repaired Achilles.

Davis, coming off three ACL surgeries on his right knee, strained his left calf. He has resumed individual drills, and coach Ron Rivera hopes he can make a full return next week.

Beason is trying to get ready for the August 26 preseason game at the Meadowlands against the New York Jets.

“That was the timetable we set when I first did it. Obviously, if I don’t feel 100 percent, 90 percent’s not going to get me on the field for that (Jets) game,” Beason said.

But Beason said he would definitely be back for the regular season opener at Tampa Bay. “For sure,” he said.

In another health development, Rivera said DT Andre Neblett has an undisclosed medical condition. Neblett, who worked as a starter the first part of camp, is suspended for the first four regular-season games after testing positive for a banned substance.

Players make themselves available to the media and fans after practice. We caught up with wide receiver Steve Smith who said the offense is retaining much more of the playbook this year as compared to last season.

Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith spoke to the media at the end of practice.

Speaking about the differences in training in Charlotte versus training at camp at Wofford College, Smith said, “There are no distractions (here). You get to see how the guy next to you is. You see how deep-rooted he is. At home, there are distractions. Here, you get the opportunity to focus on football with no distractions. The in-laws come in town and it has nothing to do with you. You know, the baby wakes up, you can’t deal with it, you have to be at work, so that’s the good part (of being sequestered in camp).

“Now you go back to that (home) environment. Training camp is where they (the coaches) break you down…during the season they build you back up. And, hopefully in the playoffs, you have that opportunity to put everything you’ve learned in the last four months in there and you’re on full go, so hopefully we’ll have that opportunity. We’ve set that foundation here in training camp and we have the opportunity to get it going during the regular season and then hit on all cylinders in the playoffs and that’s how you make a statement that your teammate (center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer just before camp opened where he promised the fans the Panthers would win the Super Bowl) has made into fruition.

Smith on how the team is dealing with the high expectations for the upcoming season: “Every team lines up in training camp and every team believes they will be the team holding the Lombardi Trophy and…there’s only one winner. The best team is only at the end and if you’re not holding that trophy everything else you did you pretty much fell short.”

Smith on the difference between last year’s camp and this year’s camp: “The offense is retaining information better than in 2011 when the team was force-fed Rob Chudzinski‘s playbook (after the lockout).”

Smith on new receiver Louis Murphy: “I think he did real good. He showed that he has some big play ability and I think he’s going to be good for us. I think he’s also going to push some other guys, you know, and he’s hungry. This is an opportunity for him. He came in and said ‘I need this” and when you hear that from a guy and then he comes out and does it, well, we need more guys like that.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (red jersey) leads the first team offense against the starting defense in a short scrimmage at the end of Wednesday’s practice at Wofford College.

The Panthers will host the Miami Dolphins on Friday night at Bank of America Stadium. It appears they will be facing rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who may be given the start. They are also game-planning a defense to face former Panthers quarterback Matt Moore, who is expected to play at least a quarter. I would believe the Panthers defense is chomping at the bit to welcome Tannehill to the NFL.

The HBO crew filming “Hard Knocks” will be in Charlotte to document the game. If Tannehill does indeed start, you can look forward to a lot of him in next week’s show.

Carolina Panthers coaches, players disappointed by lack of effort in preseason opener

The Carolina Panthers first preseason game of the 2012 season was not pretty. The offense bogged down, the special teams did not help much and the team played with little emotion. Yes, it was the first game, and despite the lack of game-planning by the Panthers, if they are truly committed to being a contender this season, things have to change…and quickly.

Carolina Panthers’ safety Haruki Nakamura (43) assists on a tackle Saturday night against Houston. Photo courtesy Gerry Broome – AP

“Even though it’s preseason, you use the preseason to make a point around the league. Whether it’s your backups (or) your starters, you’re here to prove a point,” free safety Haruki Nakamura said. “That’s to let everyone know we’re going to be a physical football team. We’re going to be a sound football team, a disciplined football team.

“One thing that coach Rivera says (is) when one of our team leaders puts a big statement out there like Ryno did, it’s our job to back him up,” Nakamura added. “It’s not a coach’s job. It’s not the owner’s job. It’s our job as a team and as players to step up and prove that we’re behind him

Nakamura knows something about urgency. As a member of the Baltimore Ravens for the past four seasons, he backed up All-Pro Ed Reed, and Nakamura knows he has a great opportunity this season with the Panthers. He also knows what it takes to get to the postseason, having experienced it with the Ravens.

The Panthers are down to their final three days left in Spartanburg before breaking camp on Wednesday. Add to that a short week – their second exhibition game is set for Friday evening against the Miami Dolphins in Charlotte – and the team has a lot to do.”We definitely were really a vanilla version of our offense out there. I mean, we’ve got a massive playbook and we only ran a little bit of it,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “With that being said, you need to win no matter what we’re running.”

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera watching the action Saturday night in Charlotte. Photo courtesy Bob Leverone – AP

Panthers coach Ron Rivera was not pleased.”I was truly disappointed, to be very honest with you. I expected some other guys to step up and make some plays and some guys didn’t. That is disappointing,” he said. “When you have an opportunity to play this football game, you have to play it with a sense of urgency and we didn’t do that, especially in the second half. To me that was very disappointing and I will work to get that corrected because it falls on me.”

While Cam Newton (2-6-0, 17 yards) led the team to a field goal in his 13 plays, backup Derek Anderson (7-12-1, 99) worked a lot. And third-team quarterback Jimmy Clausen (3-6-0, 24)was sacked five times and fumbled once…not the kind of beginning you want to have.

“I do not accept that as football and I am disappointed in those men that are on our football team,” Rivera said.

“Last year we played them in the regular season and had a good showing in their home stadium. It’s unacceptable for them to come in here and us not really perform the way we want to in our own stadium,” running back Jonathan Stewart said. “That’s the mindset of this year. And I think he wants to get his point across off the bat – that’s not acceptable.”

Houston had 20 first downs and 375 net yards against just 12 and 137 for the Panthers. And the Texans had a huge 37:41 to 22:19 advantage in time of possession.

Carolina Panthers special teams disappoint against Houston

The Carolina Panthers preseason opener was a lackluster affair…a meaningless 26-13 loss to the Houston Texans Saturday night in Charlotte. One of the Panthers’ weak spots last year continues into this season – special teams.

The Panthers tried to fix their special teams over the offseason by hiring an assistant special teams coach, signing several free agents with strong special teams resumes and selecting a punter and a kick-returner with two of their seven draft picks. But, at least in this game, it didn’t seem to matter.

Houston’s Trindon Holliday returned this kickoff 90 yards in the first quarter in the Texans’ 26-13 win against the Carolina Panthers Saturday night in the preseason opener for both teams.

After tying the game at 3 each in the first quarter, the Panthers allowed Houston’s Trindon Holliday to return the subsequent kick 90 yards. Coach Ron Rivera was not happy about that, and neither were the special teams players nor the fans in Bank of America Stadium. Justin Medlock‘s short kick (to the 10 yard line) gave Holliday a running start – something you do not need to do when facing one of the league’s fastest players.

“Any time a kick returner can catch that ball going forward like he did, it doesn’t give your coverage an opportunity to get all the way down in position,” Rivera said. “Then we’ve got to get off blocks.”

That didn’t happen. New Panthers free safety Haruki Nakamura, one of the special teams pickups, said the coverage team was to blame. “We brought in guys specifically to fix those problems and none of us are happy about it. It had nothing to do with the call. It had nothing to do with the kick. The coach makes the call, we kick it and you’re supposed to run down and tackle him. That’s on us as players, and we didn’t do it.”

Medlock, the former CFL player is competing with incumbent placekicking veteran Olindo Mare. While he has looked great in camp, remember he was cut after his first NFL game when he went 1-of-2 in field goals. I hope he gets more chances because he has a tremendous leg. His kickoff to the 10 yard line is not good enough in the NFL, however. In fact, Rivera said that play was the biggest disappointment of the night. Mare sent both of his kickoffs into the end zone, one for a touchback. Mare made a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter and Medlock made a 48-yard field goal in the second quarter with plenty of distance to spare. Rivera said neither kicker gained an advantage.

Brad Nortman, the rookie punter (sixth round pick from Wisconsin) hit a 57-yard field goal from the end zone and it had good hang time, forcing a fair catch.

In the second half, fourth-round pick Joe Adams from Arkansas fielded a punt on the left sideline, reversed field and ran up the right sideline for a 34-yard return. This was great to see, as Adams is not only fast, but he is quick, too. Quick gives you a chance to go fast in the league.

The game was scripted, and Rivera said his starters would play between 12 and 15 plays. Newton was in for 13 plays, and set up Mare’s field goal, before giving way to veteran Derek Anderson.

First round pick Luke Kuechly started at weakside linebacker and made four tackles and forced a fumble in his NFL debut. “Luke came out and showed what he’s capable of doing in terms of football plays,” Rivera stated. “He came off the sideline and said, ‘Man, that was fast.’ Once he got past that first series you saw what he was capable of.”

He was named the starter Friday after the team listed Thomas Davis (strained calf) and linebacker Jon Beason (hamstring) as out for Saturday’s game.

“For me it was fast. That’s the biggest thing I remember,” Kuechly said. “The first play of the game I lined up on the wrong side of the ball. It was a learning experience. The speed of the game is a lot faster, even in practice. Practice moves as a certain pace but even the tempo of the previous play is a lot quicker.”

Rookie linebacker (and first-round draft pick) Luke Kuechly strips Houston’s Arian Foster of the ball after Foster had run for a first down.

Kuechly’s best play came when Houston running back (and former Pro Bowler) Arian Foster had run for a first down, but Kuechly ball stripped out of his hand and cornerback Sherrod Martin recovered it at midfield. Kuechly’s four tackles topped the defensive list.

Jonathan Stewart, who signed a new five-year contract extension just before kickoff, did not get much work, but he did make a 13-yard reception for a first down.

The offense didn’t do much with short field, and Rivera was disappointed in the second- and third-teamers in particular. He witnessed the offensive line giving up sight sacks, including third-team quarterback Jimmy Clausen going down five times and also losing a fumble.

Third-team quarterback Jimmy Clausen was sacked five times and fumbled once in a tough 2012 debut for the Carolina Panthers Saturday night.

At the end of the game, the locker room was quiet…not much to celebrate…a point Rivera made to his players. “It was simple. He wasn’t happy. And it was evident why. The effort out there wasn’t good enough. Every time we come out and play in front of our fans we have a point to prove,” Newton said. “At points in the game, myself included, it was lethargic and we could have put more effort into it. We never like to have those types of (post-game) meetings.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was sacked once, but led the team to a field goal in his 13 plays Saturday night against Houston.

To me, you never know what kind of team you have until you play a game. The Panthers have shown good tempo and effort at camp, other than one time this week when Rivera had to stop practice to get the team’s attention. Going up against a good Houston team shows there is a lot of work to do this week, and over the course of the preseason if the Panthers are going to give New Orleans and Atlanta a run this season.

The first game is just kind of an exercise in getting the cobwebs out. Looks like there is a lot of cleaning left to do.

 

 

Carolina Panthers: Preseason opens Saturday vs. Texans

The Carolina Panthers open the 2012 NFL Preseason at home Saturday night against the Houston Texans. The first exhibition game usually features starters in for a series or two, but mostly, it gives teams a chance to hit someone new (see: New York Jets fights on Monday and Tuesday this week).

Cam Newton, 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year, is poised to lead the Panthers to a better season in 2012.

Looking to build on their strong finish in the 2011 season, Carolina (6-10 in 2011) wants to get Rookie-of-the Year Cam Newton off to a great start. Wide receiver Steve Smith enjoyed one of his most productive years of his career in 2011 and should be Newton’s favorite target again, along with tight end Greg Olson, who is enjoying a very productive camp.

The offense, ranked in the top ten last year in both yardage and scoring, included three 700-yard rushers (Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) for the first time in NFL history…and four of five starters on the offensive line will be returning as well.

Second-year head coach Ron Rivera has a staff that returns virtually intact, and that staff had the entire offseason to work together – something they did not have in 2011 due to the work stoppage in the NFL.

This first game will showcase several of the outstanding rookies drafted by the Panthers including first-round pick Luke Kuechly (Boston College) at linebacker; Midwestern State’s huge offensive guard Amini Silatolu and cornerback Josh Norman each fighting for a starting spot on the team.

Brad Nortman is the first punter ever drafted by the Panthers. He will address a huge need for the special teams!

The kicking game is going to continue to be interesting to watch. At punter, sixth-round pick Brad Nortman(Wisconsin) has been competing with 12-year veteran Nick Harris. Both have looked good in workouts, with Nortman seemingly having the bigger leg. The incumbent placekicker, Olindo Mare is in a battle with former CFL star Justin Medlock. And the return spots are being hotly contested between rookie Joe Adams (Arkansas) and veterans Kealoha Pilares and Armanti Edwards.

“It’s been a good camp and we are excited about playing a game,” said Rivera. “The Texans were in the playoffs last year and are a team people talk about when predicting possible AFC champions so this will be a good test for our football team.”

Several players will be returning from injuries that sidelined them last year, and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is counting on their presence to make a big difference this season. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, along with tackles Ron Edwards, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua can’t wait to get the season underway.

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and a backfield that includes four returning starters in cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn and safeties Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin plus linebacker James Anderson, who set a team single season record last year with 174 stops gives the injured returners and draftees players they can look up to and learn from. The coaching staff is looking to improve the defense and like the fact that players have been competing hard from day one in camp.

“Because of the injuries last year, we were able to get playing time for a lot of different players and we hope that will pay off this season,” Rivera stated. “We have liked the tempo we have seen from our defense in training camp and it will be interesting to see how they respond against a playoff team like Houston.”

PANTHERS NOTES:

    * This will be the first preseason meeting between the two teams. In the regular season, the Texans hold a 2-1 lead in the series, with the Panthers’ lone win coming last season, 28-13, in Houston.

* As of now, the ONLY rookie UNOFFICIALLY on the first team is Silatolu (LG). Kuechly (LB) and Nortman (P) are listed on the second team, along with newcomer Medlock (PK). But that’s just after a few days in camp.