Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Confessions of a Panthers Fan: Coping With Success One Day at a Time

There is this something, perhaps its intuitive, about being a fan of a small-market team that produces the unshakable feeling that the odds are stacked against you. Somehow, someway, the playing field is not level, our chances are uneven.  Obviously, we tell ourselves, the mega-markets of New York, Chicago, LA, Miami, and a handful of others, possess an infinitely greater probability of success year after year simply by virtue of their size, resources and mystique.  The media, we surmise, only want to see the teams from these sparkling cities in the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NBA Finals.  Podunk, backwoods, neanderthal Charlotte, North Carolina?  Never!

Particularly as it relates to the NFL, with its hard salary cap, this inherent feeling of institutional injustice is not only unfounded, it is irrational. Nonetheless, I, as an otherwise rational human being (if I must say so myself), am powerless to its firm grip on my soul – indeed, it is wedged deep within my sports psyche.  What’s worse, this way of thinking flies in the face of an abundance of evidence to the contrary, which I conveniently neglect to consider.  Things like facts and evidence are not allowed within shouting distance of the protective sports bubble I’ve so masterfully crafted.  In this way, I am very much like the Republican primary.

If I did consider empirical data, which I don’t, I would not have to look terribly far to find copious examples of small market teams reaching the pinnacle of their respective sports. The reigning “world” champions of Major League Baseball hail from none other than tintsy-wintsy Kansas City, Missouri.  Kansas City is so small that people often mistake it for being in the “great” state of Kansas, which must be quite a blow to one’s ego.  You literally have to show people on a map that Kansas City is in the Show Me State.  Kansas City should be called the Believe Me City.

With a population of roughly 470,000 people, it ranks as the 37th largest city by population in the United States.  Charlotte, by contrast, is the 17th largest city with a population of roughly 810,000 hard-working, good-looking and sweet-talking folks.  Charlotte throttles Kansas City in the population rankings, but lags far behind in World Series rings.  Of course, Charlotte does not have a baseball team, which is not helpful in this fight.  The point, though, is that Kansas City, with all her faults (and she has many), provides a prime example of a really small-market team sitting at the apex of a major sport.

Easily my favorite team not based in the Carolinas is the San Antonio Spurs. With their 5 NBA titles, all since 1999, the Spurs have achieved a level of excellence and consistency that is virtually unparalleled in recent NBA history.  Like Tim Duncan from the elbow, bank it: death, taxes, and the Popovich-led Spurs being in the playoffs.  While San Antonio is larger than Charlotte, it is not exactly a sexy landing spot for free agents.  In fact, it most likely ranks 3rd in its own state, behind Dallas and Houston.  Apparently, the Riverwalk and top notch Tex-Mex are not enough to attract the modern, sophisticated NBA player.  And, most damningly, of course, San Antonio is located in Texas, a hard sell by any standard.  Moreover, San Antonio only has one professional sports team to its credit.  Despite these many obstacles, the Spurs are one of the most successful franchises in American sports history.

And then there are the Green Bay Packers.  That storied NFL franchise that has 4 Lombardi trophies (the damn thing is named after a Packers coach), including the first two, and 9 other league championships in the pre-Super Bowl era.  This is the same Green Bay, Wisconsin that is not only small (just north of 100K cheeseheads), but is cold…really cold.  Lambeau Field did not earn the “frozen tundra” moniker for nothing.  Far worse than these two obvious blights on its record, Green Bay is mind-numbingly dull and boring.  It is about as lively as a Ben Carson rally.  Yet, despite these now three major strikes, Green Bay has far from struck out.  After all, the Packers have been a fixture in recent playoffs history, remarkably having made them the last seven consecutive seasons.

Up until now, my “red-headed stepchild” outlook on the sports world – and with respect to my own teams in particular – has been especially useful. Growing up in Charlotte and being an avid – ok, borderline insane – fan of our teams, I was able to rationalize, and to effectively explain away, the consistent losing as being a function of our small-market status.  The little brother syndrome with which I was imbued provided a convenient mechanism to cope with unending defeat.  Interestingly, it was almost as if the losing became a badge of honor – somehow making me a better, tougher, more resilient person as a result of my being able to roll with the proverbial punches.  I have spoken with friends from Philadelphia who confirm that this is a real thing.

Let me be clear, however: there have been intermittent periods of success by my teams that I not only appreciated but also celebrated (with the best of ‘em). After all, Super Bowl 50 will not be the first rodeo (thanks, Peyton) in which the Carolina Panthers have danced.  No, the Panthers lost the 2004 Super Bowl to New England in dramatic (read: agonizing) fashion after John Kasay shanked a kick-off out of bounds handing the ball to Tom Brady at the 40 yard line, which led to the inevitable game-winning field goal.  But, the truth is, I did not genuinely believe that we had a shot against that juggernaut of a Patriots squad.  The Jake Delhomme-led 2003 Panthers were good, not great, catching fire at the right time to finish 11-5, and then embarking on an incredible run to the Super Bowl.  It was more lightning in a bottle than anything else.

The Charlotte Hornets have, for the most part, been a study in mediocrity. Typically, they just miss the playoffs or just sneak in – either way, providing a quick and clean resolution to their season.  They currently sit in 9th position in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the first team on the outside looking in.  A fairly apt metaphor for their schizophrenic existence in Charlotte (and New Orleans, but that’s a different story for a different day).  As previously mentioned, Charlotte is not yet in the big leagues with the respect to baseball.

So, on the eve of Super Bowl 50, what do I make of the essentially flawless 2015 version of these Carolina Panthers? Being a fan of the Carolina Panthers this year has been the easiest job in the world.  Now I know what it feels like to be Steve Kerr.  The anxiety and “bundle of nerves” approach to game day has been replaced by supreme confidence and, according to my friends, a somewhat obnoxious swagger.  The Panthers are 17-1 and many of the wins were recorded in blowout fashion.  When there has been a close game, the “here we go again” sigh of resignation has been discarded in favor of actual positive thinking; in fact, I am all but certain that these Panthers will make the key play at the right time to secure the win.  All but once, they have.

Setting aside the perfectly imperfect 17-1 record, this year has made being a Panthers fan way cool. Famous, but previously on the down low, Panthers fans such as Steph Curry and John Isner are flying their Panthers flags high and proud – from Twitter to the Australian Open to the shoes of Tripoli.  And new Panthers fans have flocked in droves to a bandwagon that has already exceeded capacity and is now bursting at the seams.  Turn on the TV and one cannot escape the dazzling smile of Cam Newton, who by now must have overtaken Peyton Manning as the king of commercials.  A victory no one could candidly say they saw coming.  We are the cool kids on the playground; we are Marco Rubio following the Iowa Caucuses.  And we are favored to win Super Bowl 50!

I always thought that if one of my teams reached the Promised Land, life would be instantly more gratifying and infinitely easier. I would know exactly how to act; I would have all the answers.  Boy, was I wrong?  To the contrary, I do not know what to do with myself, and have absolutely no answers…none.  I am quickly coming to the realization that I am not comfortable playing the role of Goliath.  I keep looking around for my slingshot.  Absent a slingshot, I need a comfortable couch and a good shrink to help me cope with the sudden and overwhelming success.

Of course, my favored Panthers could be upset by Methuselah Manning and the daunting Denver defense on Sunday night. Ironically, if that were to happen, all might be right in my world again.  But, if we do win, as goes the predictions, I will be left to pick up the pieces, learn to cope with the unexpected success, and take it all one day at a time.

February 6, 2016 Posted by | Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Charlotte, Charlotte Hornets, NBA, NFL, Super Bowl 50, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Education of Ron Rivera: From the Outhouse to the Riverboat (to the Penthouse?)

The NFL’s silly season — kicked off annually by Black Monday and highlighted by the frenzied game of musical chairs that follows — has just come to a close with each of this year’s seven vacancies having been mercifully filled. The most egregious firing offence in this year’s class was undoubtedly perpetrated by Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer who inexplicably canned Lovie Smith after only two seasons, the second of which saw a 4 game improvement over the first. Sometimes, however, it is those men not shown the door who will eventually make for the biggest headlines. In sports, as in life, patience often proves to be a virtue that pays significant dividends to those owners who are willing to practice it. The best contemporary illustration of this principle is Jerry Richardson — the venerable owner of the Carolina Panthers — who embodied the patience of Job in his dealings with Ron Rivera.

That sublime patience has paid off tenfold for the Carolina owner as he has seen his team win three consecutive NFC South Championships, culminating with this year’s unexpected and exhilarating run at perfection. Inevitably, there are many ingredients that must simultaneously converge to facilitate success to this degree. Many of these ingredients are well documented: the emergence of Cam Newton as an elite quarterback; the marked improvement of the offensive line; the production of the receiving corps despite the loss of Kelvin Benjamin; the consistently stout running game; the reluctant star known as Greg Olsen; the formidable defense led by the ever-steady Luke Kuechly; the superhero-infused confidence of lead corner Josh Norman; and the veteran leadership of the understated Thomas Davis. These disparate parts, though, are bound together by a man who is not so well known — Ron Rivera, their unassuming leader, without whom the Panthers would be nowhere near the lofty heights to which they have now ascended.

Ron Rivera is the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Outside of the Carolinas, this simple fact might not be universally known by otherwise well-informed sports fans. Rivera is personable, but quiet. He does not seek attention like Jim Harbaugh or Chip Kelly; to the contrary, he avoids it. He does not possess a big personality like Pete Carroll or Bruce Arians; by contrast, his is rather diminutive. He does not have the jaw of Cowher, the stare of Tomlin, the uncontrollable emotion of Vermeil or the unmistakable hands-on-hips exasperation of Coughlin. Heck, his offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, probably enjoys higher name recognition than does he simply by virtue of surname. Celebrity coach, he is not.

However, there are many things that Ron Rivera is. He is steady — exhibiting the same composed demeanor whether in the eye of the storm or the calm that follows. He can be tough as nails in the face of adversity, but just as gentle when an extended hand is needed. He is strong as a leader of men, but wisely delegates leadership responsibilities to key voices in the locker room. He is principled beyond reproach — never wavering as the losses piled up early in his tenure. And pile up they most certainly did. Of primary importance to this story, though, he is flexible — willing to listen to his players and coaches, learn from past mistakes, and, most notably, adapt his philosophy accordingly, the latter of which would spawn the birth of his alter-ego, Riverboat Ron, who quite possibly saved him from his own Black Monday fame (or infamy).

From the Outhouse to the Riverboat

Just six games into Rivera’s second season as head coach, Jerry Richardson made an abrupt, and somewhat surprising, decision to fire longtime general manager Marty Hurney. While in-season firings are not Richardson’s style, the Panthers were off to an anemic 1–5 start to the season, and the Big Cat, as Richardson is affectionately known, wanted answers. Rivera was called into Big Cat’s office, and was advised in no uncertain terms that the Panthers needed to be “trending up” for the balance of the season, or presumably further changes would be afoot. That now famous phrase was taken fully to heart by Rivera as the Panthers went 6–4 the rest of the way, including 4 straight wins to round out the 2012 campaign. Trending up, things were.

At the time, the players on that squad made clear that Rivera never panicked, never wavered, never flinched, and certainly never buckled under the intense pressure applied by the brutal start and the subsequent scolding from the owner. He remained steadfast and unyieldingly consistent, as is his way. With his job on the line, Rivera treated no one in the building any differently, from the janitor to quarterback Cam Newton. In fact, the only discernable difference was that Rivera threw himself even more deeply into preparation, film study and meetings with his coaches in an effort to correct the team’s various issues.

So often when a team faces extreme headwinds such as these they become disengaged, fray at the seams and ultimately spin out of control — much like the Chip Kelly-led Philadelphia Eagles did this year. It takes a strong, competent, but above all, respected leader to keep a team unified and focused during such trying times. Ron Rivera did just that and more in helping his team finish the 2012 season on an upward trend. Sadly, for Rivera and the Panthers, the newfound prosperity proved fleeting, and that upward ascent did not carry over into the new season. Consequently, Rivera’s job would be in jeopardy anew.

It was September 15, 2013, a typically gray autumn day in Orchard Park, NY, when Ron Rivera’s tenuous reign as head coach of the Carolina Panthers hit rock bottom with a thud so resounding it was not at all certain that he would survive to coach the next game. Indeed, various media reports surfaced intimating that the front office had already begun to perform background checks on potential replacements. See, the Panthers had just suffered yet another stinging defeat in the closing minutes of a game to move Rivera’s record to a dismal 2–14 in games decided by less than a touchdown. Now 0–2 on a new season that was quickly slipping through their fingers, it seemed as though management was summarily drawing the conclusion that it might be time to cut their losses and move on.

Up until this point, Rivera’s tenure in Carolina had been characterized by exceptionally conservative in-game decision making, which generated a well-deserved perception that the coach played “not-to-lose” in an effort to protect leads instead of looking to stretch them. The Buffalo game provided a perfect illustration of this point. Leading 20–17 and facing a 4th and 1 situation with under two minutes to play, Rivera elected to kick the field goal to increase his lead to 6 points. In this particular instance, conventional wisdom might even have been on Rivera’s side. That point notwithstanding, every Panthers fan knew exactly how this story would end. As if on cue, E.J. Manuel engineered a game-winning touchdown drive with 1:38 to play, once again leaving Carolina on the short end of a close game. Had the Panthers successfully converted the 4th down (gained 1 measly yard), Rivera would have effectively ended the game as Buffalo was out of timeouts and could not stop the clock. Risky, yes, but the reward would have been great. Alas, it was not to be.

With the hot seat now aflame, Rivera suddenly and strikingly altered his coaching philosophy in risk versus reward situations. In the very next game, Rivera would eschew a field goal attempt on a 4th and goal from the 2 yard line in favor of a Mike Tolbert run. Tolbert would find the end zone, and the Panthers would never look back in a 38–0 thrashing of the New York Football Giants. Over the next several weeks, Rivera would forgo 4th down field goal attempts a total of 5 times, converting 4, all of which culminated in touchdowns, and Panthers victories. The lone failure was a dropped pass by perpetually butterfingered Brandon LaFell on a perfectly placed ball from Cam Newton which would have surely resulted in yet another touchdown. And just like that, Riverboat Ron was born. Though Rivera did not readily embrace this moniker (at least initially), he stayed true to the philosophy resulting in Carolina’s first playoff birth since 2008, and his winning the 2013 AP NFL Coach of the Year award.

Carolina fans had all sorts of fun at the expense of their suddenly gamble-happy head coach. However, I would contend that “Riverboat Ron” goes far beyond being a mere persona or strategy. Fundamentally, it is the head coach sending a very simple, yet vital, message to his team — saying, in effect, I have confidence in you. Cam, I trust that you will do what it takes to get that yard or two on 4th down to move the chains. Admittedly, that must be a decision which is made somewhat easier by the fact that your quarterback is 6’5’’ and 250 pounds. Nevertheless, this metamorphosis in attitude seemed to instill a confidence, trust and camaraderie in the players that literally transformed this football team, the relationship between head coach and quarterback in particular. Furthermore, it would lay the much needed foundation for overcoming several difficult situations which would arise during the 2014 season, on and off the field.

Consummate Leadership Through Adversity

On the field, the 2014 season would start as a model of inconsistency. One game the offense would be the catalyst for defeat; the next game the defense would provide the letdown. Interestingly, special teams was the one consistent unit; unfortunately, they were consistently bad. They might have been “special,” but not in the complimentary sense. These Panthers fumbled, bumbled, were humbled, and generally could not get out of their own way. They sported a seven game winless streak and a gaunt record of 3–8–1 (spoiler: the tie would come in handy later) before finally winning again at New Orleans in Week 14. While things on the field up to this point were ugly enough, things were about to take a dark turn off the field as well — indeed, a dark turn off the road.

Looking to build on the previous week’s win, Cam Newton was driving the same familiar route he had driven countless times before to the team’s complex to prepare for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Suddenly, the Bucs, and the game, became infinitely less important as Newton lay on the cold Charlotte pavement looking up at his crumpled truck, which had just swerved to miss another car and landed on its side with its roof totally flattened. Eerily, Newton later said of himself, “Somebody is supposed to be dead.” Of course, Newton was far from dead, but he was shaken, as were his rattled teammates. Obviously, these were far from ideal conditions from which to make a run at the playoffs. On this year, though, Ron Rivera had little use for ideal conditions.

With the Panthers playoff hopes hanging by a thread, along with the team’s psyche following Cam’s accident, Coach Rivera exemplified leadership at its finest. In addition to being a head coach who needed to quickly figure out how to get the Panthers’ train back on the tracks, Rivera was also very much a father figure to what was undoubtedly a fragile group of men. Navigating this fine line with remarkable deftness, Rivera guided the Panthers to 4 straight wins and their second consecutive NFC South Championship. Both incredibly and inexplicably, the Panthers were playoff bound once again — the first time in their nearly 20 year history they would make back-to-back playoff appearances.

Not satisfied with simply making the playoffs, the Panthers clipped the wings of the Arizona Cardinals in the first round with an impressive, if incomplete, 27–16 victory in Charlotte. Now the winners of 5 straight, these Panthers were on fire. However, in the wee hours of the morning of Monday, January 5th, Ron Rivera was about to experience a fire of a different sort.

With preparations for the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC Divisional playoff game well underway, Ron Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, were suddenly awakened by their house and smoke alarms. The Riveras were able to get themselves — as well as Ron’s two brothers and their wives — out of the house unscathed. The house, however, was not so lucky as $500,000 worth of damage was incurred. In the middle of playoff preparations for Seattle, the Panthers’ nemesis no less, the Riveras packed their belongings and went to live with friends. Speaking about this latest obstacle in what was a season of them, Rivera said, “This could’ve been worse, like Cam’s situation could’ve been worse. But it wasn’t, so we’re very fortunate. [This year] has been different. You can’t make this stuff up. But you learn how to deal with these things and cope with these things. If you can keep your focus, you have a chance.”

Despite the personal turmoil, Ron Rivera led the Panthers to a valiant effort against the defending Super Bowl champions in the Emerald City. The Panthers stayed close until late, undone by 3 turnovers all of which resulted in Seattle points, before falling 31 -17. Moral victories do not have a home in the NFL, but if they did, they would reside at Ron Rivera’s home, if he had one, following the 2014 season. Under the circumstances, the Carolina Panthers had no business winning a division title, making the playoffs and winning their first round playoff game. But Ron Rivera made it his business to do just that. Consummate leadership through undue adversity.

The Pursuit of Perfection

As Ron Rivera and his staff prepared for the upcoming 2015 season, and the players gathered in sultry Spartanburg, South Carolina for training camp, Rivera received the phone call he had long been dreading. His oldest brother, Mickey, had passed away after an inspiring two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Just months before, an emotional Ron Rivera presented Mickey with the game ball after the Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. Following Mickey’s death, Ron tweeted that Mickey was his “1st & best teammate” with the hashtag #Riverabrothers4ever. In the face of yet another personal defeat, Rivera continued to exemplify a dignity and humanity that the Panthers, and our world, are lucky to have.

After returning to training camp following his brother’s funeral in Nevada, Rivera would soon be met by yet more devastating news. The Panthers were practicing with the Miami Dolphins in anticipation of their upcoming pre-season game when Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL, effectively ending his season before it began. The freakish injury occurred during one-on-one drills in which Kelvin ran about 10 yards against Miami safety Reshad Jones before planting in an attempt to cut right. Sadly, there would be no cut. And things certainly were far from right. Without any contact between the two players, Benjamin would immediately crumple to the ground, let out a shriek and cradle his left knee in agony. A knee that was no longer stable. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the mental state of the entire team, and its snake-bitten fan base.

With his huge frame, massive catch radius and soft hands, Benjamin is quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite target. Who can blame him? At 6’5,” 245 pounds and possessing an astonishing 83 inch wing span, Benjamin, who was entering his sophomore campaign, is already on the verge of becoming an elite wide receiver in the league. Frankly, one would have been hard pressed to overstate his loss. Despite this, Ron Rivera never allowed his team to feel sorry for itself. He impressed upon his team that injuries are a part of the game which every team encounters, and are simply obstacles which can and must be overcome.

But Rivera took things one step further; yes, the Benjamin injury created an obstacle, but it also presented an opportunity. Rivera calmly explained that losing a key component of the football team to a season-ending injury does not provide the death knell for the entire season. Indeed, to the contrary, what seems at the time to be a devastating blow can bring about unintended, yet positive, consequences. Often, a team will use a devastating event to “rally around” one another, and, on occasion, such an event can propel a team to higher heights than might have originally been possible. In sports, like life (funny how often they mirror one another), the prospects of playing for something bigger than oneself can provide the foundation by which something special can be built. What’s more, and perhaps most surprising, Rivera expressed supreme confidence in the remaining members of the receiving corps. A position group which, without Benjamin, was much maligned as being pedestrian at best, and tragically inadequate at worst.

Despite the Benjamin injury, the Panthers won their opening week game convincingly at Jacksonville. Then, they won again and again and again to finish the first quarter of the season at 4–0. Given the perceived weakness of their schedule, an undefeated Carolina team remained the butt of many a joke. It was not a laughing matter to Ron Rivera, however. He took the snickering media head on, proclaiming that his team deserved to be treated better. He also brilliantly utilized the perceived slights as bulletin board material for an upcoming stretch which would be critical to the Panthers post-season hopes.

The next four games featured Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay, all of whom were billed as upper echelon teams as the season began. The Panthers won in the Pacific Northwest in dramatic comeback fashion, beat the Eagles and held serve at home against the Colts and Packers on Monday night and Sunday night games respectively.

As the wins accumulated and the national spotlight brightened its focus on Carolina, Rivera straddled a fine line between keeping his team focused while allowing his players to enjoy their unprecedented successes. Even as Cam Newton dabbed and Josh Norman jabbed, Rivera afforded his players the freedom to express themselves; but more than that, he exhorted his players to stay true to who they are, never change for anyone and to, above all, enjoy the moment.

Once upon a time, this likely would not have been Rivera’s inclination, and perhaps would even have been anathema to him. During his playing days with the Chicago Bears, Rivera was a tough linebacker who played for hard-nosed, no nonsense Mike Ditka, and generally shunned the spotlight. But, by going to bat for his guys and defending them against the media, the haters, the naysayers, the Tennessee moms and the Seattle dads, Rivera was solidifying his stature among the players as the respected head coach for whom they would run through a brick wall into battle. The perfection with which he navigated this delicate balance is a story unto itself, and is a chief component of this year’s Panthers’ success.

Buoyed by a reservoir of confidence as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Panthers continued to pick up victories until they found themselves at 14–0. At this point, it was only natural to introduce the “P” word into the conversation. The media were writing stories hand over fist about the possibility of perfection, members of the 1972 Dolphins were being hounded mercilessly for comments, and even the Panthers players themselves had begun to address the elephant in the locker room.

Once again, Ron Rivera handled the situation, dare I say, perfectly. He did not mince words or hide behind nuance in making clear that he wanted to make history, completing a perfect season. More importantly, he did not want his players to shrink from the challenge. Of course, in the end, the Panthers did not go undefeated after being tripped up in Week 16 by Atlanta. Susceptible to a post-Dirty Bird letdown, Rivera and his staff did a remarkable job re-focusing his troops and getting them ready for the season finale against Tampa Bay, to the tune of a 38–10 rout of the Buccaneers. As Cam Newton circled Bank of America Stadium high-fiving all the fans who had stuck around, it was clearly evident that these Panthers had shaken off the sting of the Atlanta defeat, were at peace with their regular season achievements and were poised for the bigger fish that swam ahead.

Super Bowl or Bust?

Last week, as the Panthers embarked on their playoff journey, they were met with considerable pressure relative to the other teams. Although they boasted the best regular season record, many national pundits have held a healthy distrust of the Panthers’ greatness. As the weeks rolled on, and fewer and fewer teams were left undefeated, Carolina was often, rather comically, labeled, “the worst undefeated team left.” It was often said that Carolina was the benefactor of a weak schedule, even though they beat the Packers, Colts, Texans and Seattle, the last two of which were on the road.

Speaking of Seattle, that latte-infused team miraculously escaped the frozen tundra of Minnesota with a first round win in the playoffs to set up, as if cut from a Hollywood script, a rematch with the Panthers in the NFC Divisional round. Predictably, the Seahawks instantly became the sexy pick among the media and fans alike to take out the overrated Panthers. In what was a wild and wacky game that Hollywood might have titled “The Tale of Two Halves,” the Panthers stuck their collective fingers in the eyes of their detractors by toughing out a 31–24 victory. However, it was not enough to silence their increasingly desperate, and somewhat sad, critics. The lousy second half, they say, proves once again that the Panthers are not Super Bowl worthy.

All of this adds to the pressure the Panthers must feel to validate their 15–1 regular season record, and the playoff victory over Seattle. Ron Rivera has masterfully used the Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” card to motivate his team all season. Miraculously, he has been able to effectively convince a team that had not yet lost that they weren’t any good in the eyes of most. On a side note, rumor has it that Ron has some real estate in Siberia for sell if you’re looking for a quick getaway. I can only imagine the number he is doing on his team in the lead up to the NFC Championship game this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. A Cardinals team who, you guessed it, is the new, new sexy pick to end the Panthers glorious season one step short of glory.

Ron Rivera is the product of a proud military family, and he is no doubt imbued with that very distinctive ethos. He is honorable, loyal, resolute, tough, humble and hardworking. But he is also empathetic, flexible and open to change. Put simply, Ron Rivera is a good human being. But in addition to these most admirable of traits, Ron Rivera is a darn good football coach. So is Riverboat Ron. Together, they have a chance to win Super Bowl 50; but, win or lose, this will not be their last rodeo in Carolina. Ron Rivera has built the foundation for a program that will endure, just as Big Cat envisioned.

January 24, 2016 Posted by | Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, NFC Championship Game, NFL, Ron Rivera, Seattle Seahawks, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Those Things for Which I Am Thankful: The Sports Edition

For me, like most others, Thanksgiving is a time of reflection on the many things for which I am grateful.  Typically, my list does not include any sports-related items.  I guess it struck me as trivial, even superficial, to include them.  This Thanksgiving, however, I was struck, like a ton of bricks, by a competing revelation.  In addition to time spent with family and friends, the gluttonous indulgence of grandma’s classics and, of course, Black Friday, I realized just how far sports have come in forming an important pillar in the foundation of the modern Thanksgiving holiday.

NFL games have long been a staple of the Thanksgiving Day diet, providing a much needed reprieve from the uncomfortable political ramblings emanating from your slightly over-served uncle.  Now, joining the NFL, college football’s “rivalry week” provides some of the best games of the year boasting huge playoff/bowl implications.  Not to be outdone, college basketball kicks off its season in grand fashion with holiday tournaments stretching from Maui to New York City.   The NBA and NHL march on.

Even during holidays, for better or worse, right or wrong, sports play an outsized role in our society.  Sports provide levity to an otherwise heavy world; they are an escape from the chaos with which we are surrounded.  This reality is not trivial.  Indeed, it is profound.  Mired in an election cycle that has seen political correctness thrown out the window, I, too, will throw caution to the wind.  With this as the backdrop, and the afterglow of Thanksgiving still intact, I began to think of those things in sports for which I am thankful.  What follows is but a few.

Underdogs.  Like all unexpected gifts in life, they are the best ones.  Upsets are the lynchpin of sports.  The bigger the better.  Without them, why play the games?

Golf.  After playing on my high school golf team and throughout college, I see the links far too infrequently these days.  But when I do, I am still mesmerized by the oneness with nature.  If you listen closely, the gentle gurgling of a brook, a blue jay’s vibrant song or the whistling wind through the tall Carolina pines all have a story to tell.  Serenity at its finest.  This feeling is only surpassed by that felt as a 15 foot putt loses steam just in time to fall unhurriedly over the lip of the cup.  No better feeling in sports.

The Masters.  That annual reminder that spring has sprung, evidenced by the sprawling dogwoods and the brilliance of the bright pink and purple azaleas.  The physical beauty is only matched by the greatness of those men, past and present, who stroll the fairways.  It is that magnificent tournament where the past whispers in your ear while, at the same time, new history is being made around every corner.  Amen, that is.

Basketball.  There is nothing quite like the jarring sound of a basketball echoing loudly in an otherwise empty gym each time it smashes against the unforgiving hardwood.  It is that sound, and the memory it produces, that is most reachable from my childhood, leaving an indelible imprint on my very soul, and is, for me, as reassuring as mom’s Sunday dinner.  Growing up in North Carolina, ACC Country, the crescendo of fall meant the genesis of yet another season of college basketball.  This time of year, the anticipation and hope is palpable along Tobacco Road, begging the all-encompassing question: what will the cold winter nights ahead have in store for our beloved schools along this route?  Like a cherished blanket, we can always count on ACC hoops to warm the way.

Dean Smith.  This year, especially, I am grateful for Dean Smith, and for having had the chance to see so many of his teams up close.  Watching Coach Smith lead his team in a game was like watching a great conductor direct his orchestra.  Precision.  Composure.  Incredible power, yet supreme control.  Coach Smith’s teams seemed to be just that – a team – moving together as if on a string, of which Smith was the master puppeteer.  But above all this, there was a grace, humility and poignancy to his leadership that seemed to command the utmost respect from his players.  Gentleman, through and through.  Rest in peace, coach.

Charlotte Hornets.  I grew up going to Hornets games when the main attractions ranged from Muggsy, Grandmama (Larry Johnson) and Zo to Baron, Glen Rice and Vlade.  Hopping in the truck and heading to The Hive, stopping at Wendy’s for burgers along the way, were always special nights for dad and me.  Little known secret: when I was young, I used to lock myself in my room and pretend to coach during Hornets games.  I guess I was at different times Gene Littles, Allen Bristow or Dave Cowens.  Glad I grew out of that phase.  After a brief, and awkward, stint as the Bobcats, Charlotte is the Hornets again, as it should be.  Thank you, New Orleans.  This version provides excitement of its own – Kemba’s slick handles, Big Al’s throwback post moves, Nic Batum’s versatility (I call him the rich man’s Boris Diaw), Jeremy Lin’s hair, to name a few.  Head coach Steve Clifford is a true gem, if a largely unknown one.  I am thankful that Michael Jordan dusted off his wallet to keep Cliff off the free agent market this summer.  Good move.

Steph Curry.  I remember Steph as a wee little lad running around the sidelines at Hornets games when his dad, Dell, was our lethal sharpshooter.  Of course, Steph has taken that term to a different level – ok, a new stratosphere.  Watching Steph grow up in Charlotte and star at Davidson, I never dreamt he would climb to the astronomical heights to which he has already ascended.  For us East Coasters, he makes staying up late to catch Warriors games worth the lost shut eye.  He is on lease to Golden State for now, but he will always be ours.

Serena.  Like Bono, Shaq and Oprah, one name suffices.  Even though she was unable to turn the Serena Slam into a Grand One, she remains the most intriguing tennis player of our time, man or woman.  Sorry, Novak.

Tennis.  The one sport I have left.  If we’re talking doubles, I play it as well as I ever have.  On the tennis court, I am Benjamin Button – getting younger with age.  I intend to enjoy it until someone rudely wakes me from this improbable dream.

College Football.  The pageantry, pomp and circumstance which capture our collective imaginations on crisp Saturday afternoons.  The dueling bands, flying cheerleaders, and a stadium filled with people who have come to see something wonderful – standing, waiting, yearning for kickoff.  Tailgating with friends, a football and your favorite brew must be proof that God exists.

NFL.  The NFL is as good as its ratings suggest; Sunday afternoons without it seem somehow lacking.

Carolina Panthers.  I have been thankful every year, since 1996, good times and bad, that the Carolinas have a team for whom to root.  I imagine I can count on one hand the games I have missed in these 20 years.  This year, of course, is different – not only due to their being a perfect 12-0, but because they play the right way.  Not surprisingly, they are led by good men, a group highlighted by Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen.  Hard to go wrong.

Cam Newton.  No, I am not forgetting our dancing leader.  His good work this year merits its own bullet point.  He is that colorful personality that you love if he is on your team, but despise if he is not.  I am thankful he is on my team.  Putting aside his obvious talent, I most admire the child-like enthusiasm with which he plays, his ritual of giving touchdown balls to Carolina-clad kids, and the ease with which he plays the game.  As he would say, simple and plain.

Little League.  I am not a huge baseball fan, but Little League represents the game at its purest.  What’s best, each one of the bright-eyed kids with a mouth full of braces fervently believes that he (or she) will be the next Bryce Harper.  The fun part is they might be right.

4Pack.  Over a decade removed from college, three of my closest college buddies and myself have a group text (or channel, as we call it) which we label the “4Pack.”  When one of us sends a text on that thread, those words are prominently displayed on our iPhone screens.  I would surmise that 95% of the chatter on this channel is sports-related, and approximately 50% is related particularly to the North Carolina State Wolfpack, our alma mater.  To me, this represents the power of sports.  At its best, it can be the glue that holds together four friends – who live in four different states and lead completely different lives – over ten years after graduation.  In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter whether we win a particular game.  What matters is the camaraderie, that we experienced it together.  For this, I am truly thankful.

With Thanksgiving safely in the rear view mirror, and now standing at the advent of yet another holiday season, enjoy this wonderful time of year, and give thanks for the blessing of sports which make it even better.  Peace.

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, Dean Smith, Golf, NBA, NFL, Serena, Sports, The Masters, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beautiful Game

Football is a sport that ought to be played exclusively outdoors with and among the elements, not in a dome conveniently sheltered from them.  Just as the players, coaches and referees have a role to play in each game, Mother Nature, too, should be allowed to play hers.  This week’s Monday Night Football game delivered yet another sterling example of this self-evident truth.  Normally fair-weathered and balmy, Charlotte, North Carolina – the town in which I was born and raised – played host to the bright lights of MNF and the Indianapolis Colts.  These folks had long been on the guest list.  An unexpected visitor, however, also showed up at the party – a monsoon.  What transpired over the next 4 hours in the sopping wet Queen City was nothing if not a thing of beauty.

Admittedly, the beauty of which I speak stands in stark contrast to the spectacular offensive display produced by the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants just one day earlier.  Set comfortably within the temperature-controlled confines of the Superdome, Drew Brees and Eli Manning combined to throw 13 touchdown passes between them, setting a single game record.  It was as if the two were playing a game of H.O.R.S.E., with each shot becoming decidedly more difficult.  It was clear that the winner would be whomever shot last.  It was quite a spectacle to witness; and, I would surmise, it typified what most contemporary fans have come to consider a beautiful game in today’s pass-happy NFL.

Conversely, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck were a combined 2 for 13 passing at one point in the 2nd quarter.  It was a small victory – and huge relief for fans – each time the center to quarterback exchange was executed properly.  Throughout much of the night, the Panthers secondary seemed to be Luck’s favorite target.  Newton was only marginally less generous to his opponent.  He alternated between throwing high and wide of open receivers, and skidding the ball off the soggy turf.  And when Newton did throw a gem of a pass, the Panthers’ receivers seemed to be playing a game of “hot potato.”  Even the sure-handed Greg Olsen dropped a perfectly placed ball, with the closest defender somewhere near Rock Hill.  The uninvited guest – Mother Nature in all her splendor – was seemingly crashing this Monday Night soiree.  Moreover, at this point, I am guessing the broad majority of viewers would have gladly banished Mother Nature from the party in exchange for some semblance of precision play.

Adding to an already bizarre night, the MNF audience was treated to a fairly amazing – and somewhat scary – security breach as two protesters rappelled from the upper deck of Bank of America Stadium to unfurl a sign complaining about, well, Bank of America.  Though shocking, with the way the game was unfolding on the field below, I was stunned to see that the protesters were not lodging a complaint against the shoddy play of the two quarterbacks.  The stats, after all, were downright comical.  As for the daredevils in the monsoon, their lives also would have been made easier had they turned this trick in a dome as the inclement weather seemed to hamper their rappelling efforts.

While head coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox often proclaimed – in his best Donald Trump impersonation – that “stats are for losers.”  Unlike his penchant for the 3rd down and long draw play, Foxy got this one right.  Particularly on a night like Monday, the two quarterbacks needed to forget about their stats, or any pretense of normalcy for that matter.  The game more closely resembled a Monster Truck event than a Taylor Swift concert.  The chunks of turf strewn about the field borne the proof.  Newton and Luck needed to fight, claw, motivate, inspire, coax, push and prod – anything, everything to lead their respective teams to victory.

In the second half, that anything and everything happened.  Cam employed dazzling footwork to elude tacklers and avoid sure sacks, nifty runs – particularly on third down – to move the chains while simultaneously demoralizing the defense, and gravity-defying passes to stretch the Carolina lead to 17 points with just over 10:00 minutes left in the game.  These Colts, it seemed, had been tamed; any buck long since gone.

It was just at this moment that Mother Nature took a timeout; her torrential rains softening to a whimper, as did the Panthers pass rush.  Luck would waste no time taking advantage of his newfound luck.  Having completed just 5 passes for 40 yards up to that point, Luck began to find his footing – and, ironically, his feet as a way to buy precious time and gain critical yards.  Stealing this page from the Super-Cam playbook, Luck seemed to reinvigorate his entire team, as if this stormy night had delivered a lightning bolt of energy to the hobbling Colts.  The result was a barrage of 20 unanswered points that left Carolina – and their drenched fans – staggered and in disbelief.  Hold on to your umbrellas; the party was just getting started.

After falling behind by a field goal in overtime, the collective mood in Bank of America Stadium was as bleak as the weather.  Displaying a resolve and resilience typical of an elite quarterback, Cam picked his team up off the rain-drenched mat and showed them that there was still light at the end of this foggy tunnel.  Undeterred by a gut-wrenching drop by blazer Ted Ginn, Jr. that would have yielded the game winning touchdown, Newton calmly moved his team into field goal range to tie the game.  After the Panthers defense secured another interception from Luck, Graham Gano knocked home a 52-yard field goal to finally – and mercifully for all those fans having to work on Tuesday – put an exclamation point on this Monday night bash.  “It wasn’t pretty,” Newton candidly offered in describing the melodrama that had just culminated in another Carolina victory.  I beg to differ, Super-Cam; it was beautiful.

Interestingly, when you hear folks talk nostalgically about great football games past, Mother Nature quite often played a part.  The infamous “Tuck Rule Game” between the Raiders and Patriots in the 2001 AFC playoffs is also known as the “Snow Bowl” for obvious reasons.  In addition to being part of Tom Brady’s Wall of Fame, Adam Vinatieri leapt to fame for having drilled two field goals in the driving snowstorm, the first of which sent the game into overtime and the second providing the game winner.  (Coincidentally, Vinatieri, who is 42, is still kicking 14 years later, and was incredible in Monday night’s game for the Colts.)  Would this game be etched so deeply into our collective football psyche sans the wicked weather?

The 1967 “Ice Bowl” is widely considered one of the greatest games in football history.  It is immortalized as such due to the game-time temperature at Lambeau Field being -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average wind chill of -48 Fahrenheit.  In the end, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers would defeat Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League Championship game; however, the winner and loser are far less memorable than the harrowing weather conditions in which they played.  The surreal video footage in which each exhale of breath is marked by a thick white cloud; the band’s halftime performance being canceled as a result of the woodwind instruments being frozen and rendered soundless; and the referees’ metal whistles sticking to their bloody lips are all mementos from this game preserved neatly for posterity.

What’s more, the great scenes replicated across the country on Sunday afternoons in the Fall and Winter take place primarily in open air stadiums.  From the drizzle in Seattle, the fog in San Francisco, the heat and sudden thunderstorms in Miami and Tampa, to the often cold, blustery and snowy stadiums of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and New England, the elements have a story to tell, and they should not be silenced.  Tellingly, I am guessing one would be hard pressed to find the following on a bucket list: gotta get to Atlanta to see the Falcons play in that soulless, character-deprived dome of theirs…or Indianapolis….or Detroit….or St. Louis.

Soccer lays claim to being the beautiful game, with which I have no problem.  But as a football fan (American, that is), there is nothing more beautiful than watching two teams overcome the elements, and each other, to figure out a way to win in extreme conditions.  Far from crashing the Monday Night party, Mother Nature turned out to be the featured guest.  She provided the entertainment, charm and character; indeed, like any good partygoer, she ensured that all attendees had a memorable evening.  Perhaps if the game would have been played in a dome – say in Indianapolis – it would have been less messy, more artful, fluid and aesthetically pleasing.  Perhaps, more records would have been broken.  But, from my perspective at least, it could not have been more beautiful.

November 18, 2015 Posted by | Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, ESPN, Indianapolis Colts, MNF, Monday Night Footbal, National Football League, NFL, Quarterback, Ron Rivera, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elite Quarterback Club: The Newest Member

The Carolina Panthers will go as far as Cam Newton can carry them on his broad shoulders, rifle-like right arm and nimble wheels. Admittedly, this is not a small, feeble limb on which I have climbed. Quarterback being the most important position in football, the same statement might be made about other, if not most, teams in the League. But the 2015 version of the Carolina Panthers is different. Following the season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin, the receiving corps lacks a dominant threat, let alone a true #1 wideout. Indeed, it is a patchwork of oddly mixed players masquerading as a receivers group. Just listen to most, if not all, pundits and you are quick to learn the consensus that the Carolina Panthers – while still undefeated – will ultimately be undone by their offensive mediocrity.

Of course, teams of glory past have ridden uninspiring offenses to the highest of heights. The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl in 2000 relying on the limited ability of quarterback Trent Dilfer and a don’t-mess-things-up offensive philosophy. Like those Ravens, the Panthers boast a stout defense led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly – their very own version of Ray Lewis. On offense, though, these Panthers lack the type of weapons that one would typically associate with a Super Bowl contender. Running back Jonathan Stewart is running hard and tough, but is averaging a somewhat pedestrian 3.77 yards per carry. In his (and the offensive line’s) defense, it is tough sledding against primarily 8 man boxes. Cam Newton’s security blanket, and clearly his most trusted target, is tight end Greg Olsen, who is undoubtedly among the League’s best. Besides Newton, Olsen represents the only legitimate threat on offense.

Cameron Newton is currently immersed in his fifth season as the Carolina Panthers quarterback after being selected first overall in the 2011 NFL draft. The results to this point can best be characterized as uneven. Panthers’ fans have been treated to spectacular play in the previous four years, interspersed with stretches marked by inaccuracy, poor decisions and, according to many detractors, immaturity. Nevertheless, for the first time in franchise history, Newton has led the Panthers to back-to-back NFC South championships and a corresponding spot in the NFL Playoffs. But in neither year were the Panthers able to get past the second round. All this is to say, at least in my view, that Newton has been a good – sometimes very good – quarterback over his first four years, but not an elite one.

So far, through five games of Year 5, Cam Newton has climbed into the realm of the elite – that stratosphere of quarterback nobility where only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady currently reside. Cam became a card-carrying member of this group as a result of his heroics in Sunday’s road win in Seattle. Every championship team, and every transformational player, has a defining moment – a particular play, set of plays, or entire game in which adversity is at a fever pitch, yet is met with a calm resolve and is valiantly and heroically overcome. For Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, this moment came last Sunday in the Pacific Northwest.

Great players, and great teams, inevitably have a nemesis – a villain that ultimately must be vanquished if you are to reach the pinnacle. Though not a division rival, the Seattle Seahawks play this role for these Panthers. Prior to Sunday, the Seahawks and Panthers had faced off 4 times the past 3 years, with three of the four being in Charlotte. The 3 regular season games were decided by a combined, and miniscule, 13 points; despite this, the Panthers tasted victory in none. In the 4th game of this set, the Seahawks ended Carolina’s playoff run last year with a workmanlike 31-17 victory in which Carolina, and Cam Newton, came unraveled under the intensity of the 4th quarter pressure. For Panthers fans, Seattle is where many a nightmare begin and end. So much so that I have given up Starbucks, and refuse to order my books from Amazon.

Setting aside the historical record, Seattle is a tough place to play for any team, but especially for an East Coast team. There is the lengthy flight across the continental U.S.; the 3 hour time difference; and in this case, a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call as a result of someone’s having pulled the fire alarm – coincidentally, I’m sure – on only the Panthers’ floors of the team hotel. Sleepless in Seattle, Part Two. Once at the stadium, Seattle’s vaunted 12th Man is notorious for making the opposition’s ears bleed with noise which regularly registers on the Richter scale. Rising above all this, however, is the simple fact that Seattle is a darn good team. Until Sunday, quarterback Russell Wilson enjoyed a career record of 24-2 within the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. Oh, and there is the minor detail that the Seahawks have participated in the last two Super Bowls.

It was against this ominous backdrop that Cam Newton led his undefeated Carolina Panthers to Kings County, Washington to face a familiar foe. Through three quarters, the game played out as a sequel to the others, as if the script had been plagiarized. Carolina played well for much of the game, but Seattle was even better – playing opportunistic defense, moving the ball methodically on offense, and mixing in big plays throughout. This movie, it seemed, would have the same ending.

With a nod to Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. Particularly impressive against Seattle’s formidable defense, the Panthers used four 80 yard touchdown drives to ultimately best the Seahawks on this day. The Panthers offense is like my mom’s Camry – it gets nowhere fast, but get there it will. Cam saved the final two beauties to erase a 9 point deficit with just over 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter. After pulling within 3 points with 3:55 to play, Ron Rivera kicked the ball away thereby entrusting his reliable defense to get the ball back a final time. The defense contained the ever-elusive Wilson, and the Seattle offense, rewarding Coach Rivera’s trust. With two minutes and 20 seconds with which to work, Cam brought the offense back on the field secure in the knowledge that a field goal would be good enough to send the game into overtime. Eschewing such mundane thoughts, Cam, unbelievably, completed passes to six different Panthers, culminating with his 26 yard strike to Greg Olsen for the winning score.

During the two 4th quarter 80 yard touchdown drives, Cam was 11 for 13 passing. Notably, however, the two incompletions were a drop by Devin Funchess on a perfectly placed ball on a dig route, and a spike into the ground to stop the clock. In other words, Newton was perfect. Consider: all this without his best receiver, with the weight of history on his shoulders, the intensity and glare of the moment, and the Seattle crowd in a state of euphoria. Perfection despite the elements.

Following the winning touchdown to Olsen, Cam’s frantic celebration with his teammates, Carolina fans in the crowd, and the suddenly stunned Seattle fans, underscored just how big a moment this clearly was.   The unthinkable had just happened. The nightmare that was the Seattle Seahawks had just ended. In an instant, Goliath was lying helplessly on the ground, in his own forum no less. For Carolina fans, it was hard to know exactly what to do with themselves. As for me, I celebrated the victory by visiting two old friends: I ordered an iced caramel macchiato (one shot of Joe) from Starbucks, and my newest book – Napoleon: A Life – from Amazon.

While Sunday’s win will only count once in the standings, all victories are not created equal. What we witnessed at CenturyLink Field might well have been the Carolina Panthers casting aside old demons, gleaning an infusion of new confidence, and getting over the proverbial hump. The remaining 11 regular season games together with any playoff games will shed light on this hunch. But what I am sure we undoubtedly witnessed in Seattle last Sunday was the emergence of a star. A star who now happens to be the newest member of the Elite Quarterback Club, rendering this year’s Club a Triumvirate. Will Cam keep his seat beside Brady and Rodgers at this ultra-exclusive club? Of course, only time will tell. If Sunday was any indication, he will be a longstanding member.

October 25, 2015 Posted by | Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, CenturyLink Field, Greg Olsen, NFL, Quarterback, Seattle, Seattle Seahawks, Tom Brady | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment