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Tom Talks: Carolina Panthers hopeful looking for the right lane to making team

Aldrick Robinson (left), then with the Atlanta Falcons, catches a touchdown pass against the Carolina Panthers in 2016.
Aldrick Robinson (left), then with the Atlanta Falcons, catches a touchdown pass against the Carolina Panthers in 2016. TNS

Let’s get the football out of the way first.

Two-sport athlete Aldrick Robinson is a receiver for the Carolina Panthers. He signed a one-year contract in May, and is one of the many competing for perhaps one opening at the position.

He’s 30, 5-feet-10, 185 pounds, and he can move. At the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine, he ran a 4.43 40, same as another Carolina veteran receiver, Torrey Smith.

Robinson is a Texan, and played for Southern Methodist. Washington drafted him in the sixth round in ’10. He played three seasons for Washington, and also has played for the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons.

As a Minnesota Viking last season, he caught 17 passes, five of them for touchdowns. On one of every 3.4 passes he caught, he scored.

That’s impressive.


How’d you do it?

“I had limited reps up there in Minnesota,” says Robinson. “So, when I got in, I had to know what I was doing and be ready to make a play.”

If your opportunities are limited, isn’t there pressure to prove yourself every time you get one?

“It’s pressure, but I’ve been around the league a long time now and that’s been my role basically my entire career,” says Robinson. “I come in when necessary, so I’m used to it and I adapt to it well and I’m able to handle situations like that and provide a spark.”

What do you offer the Panthers?

“A spark,” Robinson says.

I tell what else he offers: bowling stardom. His bowling reputation gets to Charlotte before he does.

I hear you’re pretty good.

“Pretty good or exceptional?” Robinson asks.

The man can back it up. He averages 208.

To put the number in perspective, I turn to Jeff Burns, bowling director at 10 Park Lanes.

That’s very good,” Burns says about Robinson’s average. “It’s equivalent to being a scratch golfer.”

“I’m trying to get my average up to 210 before the summer,” says Robinson. “Trying to bowl my first 300. The closest I’ve come is 290.”

I point to Carolina’s practice field Tuesday, a field Robinson just left. The time he spends with a prolate spheroid (a football) cuts into the time he can spend with a heavy round one.

“I have to work and train and I can’t put in the hours those professionals do,” he says.

Robinson began to bowl in Washington with teammates such as receiver Pierre Garcon. Football funds his second passion. He owns nine bowling balls, three bowling bags and two pair of bowling shoes.

Is there a correlation between bowling and football?

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It’s competitive. It’s relying on your teammates. If I’m in a league with other guys, I can’t do everything on my own just like I can’t in football. I can’t throw the ball and I can’t block (the defensive line). All I can do is run the route and get the ball.”

Robinson has asked a few teammates if they bowl, but has found nobody yet.

“But there are bowlers everywhere,” he says. “I heard that coach bowls, coach Ron (Rivera). I heard he’s good. I’ll definitely see how good he is.”

Will you go easy on him?

“Oh, no,” says Robinson

Says Rivera: “I like the confidence.”

Let’s get the football out of the way first.

“He’s doing a nice job as a receiver for us,” says Rivera. “It’s crazy. We’ve got some of the best depth we’ve had (at receiver) in a while. We really do feel good about it.”

Rivera once owned three bowling balls. Having your own ball is to bowling what having your own cue is to pool. Walk into a pool hall with a cue, and people notice.

Where’d you learn the game?

“When you live on an army base in Panama, and it’s 1,000 degrees outside, if you’re not at the pool or the beach or playing basketball, you’re bowling,” Rivera says.

Rivera has one edge on Robinson.

“He’s like me,” Rivera says. “He’s never bowled a 300.”

But Rivera has come close. He can see Robinson’s 290, and raise him.

“I bowled a 297,” Rivera says. “The last one, I short-armed it, and left one pin up.”

Give him two weeks, Rivera says, and he’ll get his average back to 185, and he’ll roll a few games in the 200s.

When the Panthers hold a bowling tournament to raise money for charity, players who don’t bowl become competitive, and they talk, and they try to back it up.

If you play with Robinson, you better not talk too loudly.

Once he gets acclimated to Charlotte, he’ll look for an alley.

“And a league,” Robinson says.

He doesn’t specify whether the league is bowling or the NFL. Hope he finds both.

No asterisk for Raptors’ championship

I picked the Golden State Warriors to beat the Toronto Raptors in Toronto on Monday night. I have a witness. I told Jackie Curry, a friend who is the sister of Dell Curry and the aunt of Golden State’s Stephen Curry. I picked the Warriors because when they have to win a game, they invariably do.

I also picked them to win Thursday. I think they would have if Klay Thompson had not torn his ACL. Thompson went up for a fast-break dunk with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left in the third quarter, and Toronto’s Danny Green went to block it. Thompson landed awkwardly, and one more Golden State player was gone. The play was clean.

So on Thursday I was wrong, and there are no asterisks. The Raptors won the series four games to two, and they are your NBA champions. Had Thompson not been hurt, I think Golden State wins. But you play who is out there, and the Raptors did, and they prevailed.

Thompson will be a free agent, and Kevin Durant will miss all next season with a ruptured Achilles. If Thompson goes, Golden State will not be the same. Watching Thompson and Stephen Curry and Draymond Green all these seasons has been a thrill, the greatest thrill in basketball. Thompson plays such good defense, shoots so well and fits with Curry and Green so superbly. They know where the other will be, and where and how he wants the ball. It is basketball at its most selfless and effective.

If Thompson returns, the dynasty also can. Will the Warriors be the best team in basketball? We love to be the first to crown a team, and even more, we love to be the first to remove the crown. If the Warriors stay intact, they have a chance to seize the crown back, and I think, and hope, they will.

They beat the Raptors on Monday because of stunning back-to-back 3-pointers by Curry (with 82 seconds remaining) and Thompson (with 58 seconds to go), and a last-second block by Green. Toronto guard Kyle Lowry was going to hit from the corner the shot that would make him almost as popular in Canada as teammate Kawhi Leonard.

But Green, who does so many things so well, gambled that he could get to Lowry without fouling him. He did. Green got a finger on the ball, the shot missed, Golden State won 106-105 and, on Thursday at the Oracle in Oakland, there wouldl be another game.

To watch Monday was to appreciate the tension and passion and excitement of NBA playoff basketball.

To watch also was to wince hard when, two minutes into the second quarter, Durant went down with another injury,, this time rupturing his Achilles. He’d suffered a calf injury to the leg two series ago against the Houston Rockets.

Durant won’t be back when the 2019-20 season begins. He might not be back for the season. He might not be the player he has been, and he has been the best scorer in the sport, when he returns.

Jeff Van Gundy, the coach turned commentator, took a shot from courtside at fans who claimed Golden State was better without Durant. I don’t know anybody who believes the Warriors are better without Durant. Some of us find the Warriors more interesting without him. I do. Nothing against Durant; I simply loved the Curry, Thompson, Green triumvirate that led the Warriors to titles.

Toronto fans did not wince when Durant went down. They cheered the injury. One dork sitting at courtside stood and waved goodbye. Fortunately, Toronto players interceded and told fans to shut up. They did.

In football, fans regularly cheer when an opponent goes down. But football fans are removed from the action. Basketball offers access. Sit on or near the court and you’re privy to many of the secrets.

Durant will be a free agent July 1. But he wanted to play Monday and, says Golden State general manager Bob Myers, doctors cleared him after numerous tests and MRIs.

Alas, it’s 2019, and if something bad happens, somebody is responsible. Thus, Myers is getting ripped for allowing Durant to return.

Would he have jeopardized Durant’s career for a victory Monday?

I vote no. Despite the enormous interest and attention Golden State attracts, the Warriors handle themselves with class and even humility. Sometimes bad things happen, and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault.

Durant scored 11 points, hit three of three 3-pointers, grabbed two rebounds and blocked a shot. He gave the Warriors a jolt, and without him the Warriors were lesser.

Behind the veil: Cam’s new throwing motion

Cam Newton threw at minicamp Tuesday. This was another step in his long comeback from the right shoulder injury that prematurely ended his 2018 season. He has twice undergone surgery on the shoulder – in the spring of 2017, and an arthroscopic procedure five months ago.

The Panthers have acquired multiple prizes this off season in free agency and the draft. But to win, their quarterback has to be healthy.

The media watched Newton from a hill on the opposite side of the Carolina Panthers’ practice field. But the team cameras shooting video and pictures were right there with Newton.

You could watch video of Newton’s throws, which were live streamed. You could go to the team’s website and check the 36 pictures of Newton that were posted. You also could watch a 50-second video. On the website you could see Newton pass, take a snap, hug, high five, hand off, put both hands in the air, and smile.

Tuesday was the first time Newton threw in front of the media, and it was a little strange.

Q: What did you do today?

A: Stood on a hill and watched a 30-year-old quarterback throw 20 to 25 passes to stationary targets.

But this wasn’t the first time Newton threw. A fan filmed him through the practice field fence during organized team activities. Rivera, who rarely displays his anger where everybody can see it, was angry at the fan. Rivera said Newton’s throws were private.

For the fan, I guess it was like filming a dress rehearsal instead of waiting until opening night.

But on what grounds do the Panthers demand privacy for their quarterback when the first practice of minicamp becomes a reality show?

I understand the desire to keep news in house. The Panthers can control it. They can’t control what a fan does.

To contend that Newton’s passes are private until a team camera clicks or whirs is disingenuous.

All we learned Tuesday morning is that Newton’s release is smooth, his passes by design are not long and he hasn’t reinvented the manner in which he delivers a football.

I won’t tell anybody, Panthers, if you don’t.

Panthers missing Thomas Davis’ voice

You know whose voice was missing at the Carolina Panthers’ minicamp?

Thomas Davis, the linebacker who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers after being jettisoned by Carolina.

Davis gave the defense a voice – his.

At practice, Davis was to the defense what Newton is to the offense. When the offense does something well, Newton makes sure that everybody knows. He’s loud, he’s funny and he goes after the defense.

When the defense did something well, Davis told the world. Those were Davis’ guys out there, and their work needed to be celebrated loudly enough for Newton to hear.

The back and forth lent practices a nice edge. The defense really wants to shut the quarterback up. And the offense wants to silence Davis. When you’re talking and laughing, practices are less rote and more creative, and offer another reason to work.

I guarantee that Newton had fun Tuesday. Because he was allowed to throw the ball, he got to be himself again. From the other end of the practice field you could hear Newton’s voice, or see him signal another “Carolina Panther FIRST DOWN!”

“I think you guys could hear that he brought a little energy,” says Rivera.

I asked Rivera once if he had a player who before a game became more excited and animated and intense than everybody else.

I figured he’d take time to think, but his answer was immediate.

“Cam,” Rivera said.

Newton is always going to be demonstrative, in practice and in games and at the events The Cam Newton Foundation sponsors.

Smart people won’t try to mute him. This is who he is.

At training camp in Spartanburg, Newton will broadcast offensive good news as if he’s WSOCam, a radio station with an especially strong signal. When he takes off running, everybody on the field will hear about his moves and his speed and his elusiveness.

A defender will then let him know what the defense could have done if Newton wasn’t wearing a hands-off red jersey.

But whom?

Short takes: Gonzaga’s Hachimura worth a shot

The NBA draft is June 20, and, barring a trade, the Charlotte Hornets will draft 12th. A player I very much like is Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura.

He is 6-8, 230 pounds, and powerful. His game is not the draft’s most sophisticated. Growing up in Japan, he was 14 when he began to play organized basketball.

But consider: He averaged 2.6 points as a Gonzaga freshman. As a junior last season, he averaged 19.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, shot 59.1% from the field and 41.7% on 3s.

Hachimura will improve. At the very least, he will be good, and he could be very good.

If he’s available, and in a just world he will be, I’d love to see the Hornets take him.

If he’s not available, maybe gamble on North Carolina’s Nassir Little. Heavily muted last season, we saw only pieces of what he could do. Those pieces are intriguing...

There was a time when the Hornets should have been forbidden from signing former Tar Heels. That time has passed…

The Los Angeles Raiders have a roster that appears to be put together for HBO’s Hard Knocks. Isn’t that Richie Incognito on the offensive line? Isn’t that Vontaze Burfict at linebacker? Who’s that running out for passes? Why, it’s Antonio Brown.

Owner Mark Davis did not want to be featured on the show. But it wasn’t his call. Maybe they reached an agreement, and NFL’s cameras will be banned from showing footage of Davis’ hair.

The Raiders have long featured very cool and interesting outsiders. Now they feature Burfict, Brown and Incognito. I’ll watch, anyway…

The best feature of the NFL’s minicamp is that you’re reminded how much you like the game. You see receivers who run (or ran) a 4.4 40 work against defensive backs who also did. The Panthers this season will deal in speed.

The best play I saw was made by No. 32. He, of course, is – let me check the roster.

He is Cole Luke. If your name is Cole Luke, you probably ought to be flying into the second turn at Darlington. He’s a safety out of Notre Dame. Luke is 23, and has been on the periphery of the Carolina roster since 2017.

The play he made in camp was a skidding attempt at an interception, and he hung onto the ball. Remember that name.

The other player I wanted to see Gerald McCoy, the defensive tackle who was one of the sport’s best with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Still feels odd that he’s a Panther. Feels good, too…

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen