Columns & Blogs

Tom Talks: Josh McCown, a pro’s pro, retires from NFL

New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown (15) is sacked by the Carolina Panthers’ Julius Peppers in 2017. The Jets and Panther were two of the teams McCown played for during a 17-year career in the NFL.
New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown (15) is sacked by the Carolina Panthers’ Julius Peppers in 2017. The Jets and Panther were two of the teams McCown played for during a 17-year career in the NFL.

Josh McCown is a guy you want on your team whether your team sells insurance, manufactures iron castings or plays in the NFL. He has always been a worker, but rarely a star.

McCown, who announced his retirement Monday, was a quarterback and, he acknowledges with pride, a journeyman. The journey lasted 17 seasons and took him to 10 teams, among them the Carolina Panthers.

He was a sometime starter, and had one great season. In 2013, Jay Cutler, the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears, suffered first a groin injury and then an ankle injury. McCown replaced him.

McCown started five games and passed for 1,829 yards. He threw for 13 touchdowns. He three times threw for more than 300 yards. He threw 224 passes and only one was intercepted. His quarterback rating was 109. That’s a number you stick behind thick glass in the trophy case.

That was his best season. Often, McCown was the backup, the mentor and the guy with the clipboard. Yet he prepared as if he would start, which is one reason he continued to play.

McCown played for Carolina in 2008 and ’09. He attempted six passes and completed one. That was on opening day 2009 in a 38-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The third quarterback to play for Carolina that afternoon, he completed his lone Panthers’ pass, for 2 yards, tight end Jeff King.

But he could play. Teammates knew.

“I think Josh is definitely a professional,” center Ryan Kalil said when I asked about McCown in 2014. “He’s talented. I know a lot of people who have respect for him.”

When he said this, McCown was starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina’s next opponent.

Kalil added: “I don’t think he’s very funny,” which is a funny thing to say.

When I delivered Kalil’s message, McCown said: “Well obviously because Ryan is the funniest person in the world I have to respect his opinion on comedy and yield to him. So, no more jokes from me then.”

Mark Brown, a Charlotte fire fighter, had a serious question for McCown when he met him in 2013 at D-1 Sports Training, a gym in Matthews owned by Steve Smith Sr. and McCown.

Brown was a good athlete, a point guard at USC Aiken. Now he was playing quarterback for the Charlotte Cobras, a team in the tough National Public Safety Football league made up of fire fighters, police officers and a federal agent.

Brown asked McCown for advice. McCown gave him a training camp.

Brown had a fine season; the Cobras never lost a game and won the national championship.

Why did the NFL quarterback take in the point guard?

“For the purity of the game and the love of the game,” McCown says.

If you’d like to remember McCown in a single sentence, that one works.

Another ‘P’ for predictable pick for Hornets

I’ve never been a fan of assessing a letter grade to a draft pick. How do you know what you have until camp, until the exhibitions, until the season is in its second month?

Yet there’s an easy grade for P.J. Washington, a Kentucky forward the Charlotte Hornets chose Thursday with the 12th pick in the NBA draft.

He gets a P. The pick was predictable.

The Hornets have built their drafts around players from major programs that go deep in the NCAA tournament. Last season, they selected Miles Bridges, a 6-foot-7 forward from Michigan State. More accurately, in a pre-arranged deal, they drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from Kentucky, and traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers for the rights to Bridges

If the trade were not prearranged, the Hornets would have been better off with Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-6 point guard who had a terrific rookie season for the Clippers. He averaged 10.8 points, and 3.2 assists, shot 47.6% from the field and 36.7% on 3s.

Bridges started 25 games for Charlotte, which is 45 fewer starts than Gilgeous-Alexander. Bridges averaged 7.5 points, 4 rebounds, and shot 46.4% from the field and 32.5% on 3s.

While Gilgeous-Alexander was the more daring pick, and had the better season, Bridges was solid. He’s an athlete, and a good teammate, and he will improve.

The Hornets do solid. They’ve had only one draft in the last eight years that exceeded solid. That was in 2011, when they took Kemba Walker with the ninth pick and Tobias Harris with the 19th.

Wait: Harris was a Hornet? Briefly, the former Tennessee star was. The Hornets traded him on draft night. The three-team trade netted Charlotte No. 7 pick Bismack Biyombo and veteran Corey Maggette.

Since 2011, drafts range from solid to mediocre to What were they thinking?

Washington will play power forward and small forward. His best quality is that he improved markedly as a sophomore. That’s a testament to work ethic and a bad freshman season.

The Hornets considered moving up in the draft. I don’t know who their target was. Such a move would excite a fan base that has been offered little to get excited about. But draft excitement doesn’t last if the pick isn’t right. If the cost to move up was too high, don’t do it.

The player I wanted was Rui Hachimura, a 6-9 forward from Gonzaga. But the Washington Wizards grabbed him with the ninth pick.

With Hachimura gone, I would’ve chosen Nassir Little of, yes, North Carolina.

I’m not a North Carolina Forever guy, and have the credentials to prove it. Clearly, Little was an uncomfortable fit last season for the Tar Heels. Little was expected to be among the top freshmen in the country.

But he was demoted. At many programs, positions are meaningless. At North Carolina, Little had a clear one. He was an h – a helper.

At 6-6, Little is strong and athletic and he works. He is not a superior shooter. But good players can improve their shot in the NBA, as Walker attests. Little would have been a gamble, but if you’re the Hornets, why wouldn’t you?

Charlotte considered trading up, but we don’t know for whom. So. the Hornets get Washington, who can do a little of everything. The Hornets collect forwards; now they have one more.

They also collect players from Kentucky. On the roster are Malik Monk, the No. 11 pick in 2017, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went No. 2 in 2012. Again, that the Hornets went for a player from a successful program is no surprise.

That the program is Kentucky is even less of a surprise. The first draft choice in Hornets’ history is Rex Chapman, a Kentucky guard. Thirty-one years later, Charlotte hasn’t stopped.

Hornets could have had big man Bol Bol

I love the NBA draft. Even though I had to get up early Friday, I watched the entire second round. The NBA draft supersedes sleep, and I don’t care how old you are.

Waiting was justified when, with the 44th pick in the 2019 NBA draft, the Miami Heat drafted Bol Bol, and shipped him to the Denver Nuggets.

Bol had been waiting in the green room to hear his name called throughout the first round and midway into the second. Other players visited the green room. Bol paid rent. It felt as if he had been there since Thursday morning.

Bol wore the coolest suit, black with a white spider web on the right side. By the time his name was finally called in the middle of the second round, long after many fans at Barclays Center had left and many fans at home had gone to sleep, Bol revealed no frustration. Sure, he’d show the teams that passed on him that they’d made a mistake. But he wasn’t bitter or angry. Fans cheered.

The man is 7-0, 208 pounds, narrow as a No. 2 pencil and only 19 years old. He suffered a foot injury at Oregon last season, and foot injuries and big men are rarely a good match.

But he’s only big in terms of height. He didn’t put a lot of weight on his foot because he doesn’t have a lot of weight. As a pro, he will gain weight (it’s not as if he will lose) and he will block shots and he will hit 3s. He averaged 21.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots last season as a freshman.

Bol was born in Khartoum and raised in Kansas. He is the son of the great Manute Bol, basketball player and humanitarian.

Bol Bol went eight picks after the Hornets took Cody Martin, who was not in the green room. And Bol’s favorite players are Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan. I would like to have seen him in a Hornets uniform.

Bol is a steal. Someday, perhaps, the Hornets will get one of their own.

Tim Tebow’s easy to root for

Tim Tebow came to town this week. The former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback plays leftfield for the Class AAA Syracuse Mets, who began a three-game series Tuesday with the Charlotte Knights.

When Tebow visits a city for the first time, there’s a news conference. About 15 of us surround him late Wednesday afternoon in the visitors’ dugout at BB&T Ballpark.

I grill him.

“Welcome to Charlotte.”

“Thank you,” Tebow says. “How you guys doing?”

Doing well, thanks. Fans come to the ballpark ostensibly to watch the Charlotte Knights. They also watch Tebow who, during a rain delay Tuesday, signed autographs.

I’ve spent time with Tebow before. He is consistently and utterly cheerful. Yet he’ll turn 32 in August, and is struggling after moving this season from Class AA to Class AAA, where the pitchers and their pitches are much more sophisticated. Tebow is batting .146 with one home run, 17 RBIs and 71 strikeouts in 171 at bats.

So why do we -- fans and the media – care so much?

“It’s a tough question to answer,” Tebow says. “I’m always grateful for the support. I really am. Always grateful for a platform; gives me a chance to do what I’m most passionate about, which is trying to encourage people in their toughest time of need.”

Tebow is a big guy, 6-3 and 233 pounds. He was a first-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos in 2010, the year before the Carolina Panthers drafted Cam Newton. (Newton and Tebow were teammates at Florida.) In 2011, Tebow had his NFL moment, throwing for 316 yards and two touchdowns and leading the Broncos to a 29-23 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The next season, Peyton Manning came to Denver and Tebow left for the New York Jets, and then the New England Patriots, and finally, in 2015, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Although he’s well known, he is without pretension. At no point is there the implication that he’s famous and you’re not.

He’s a regular guy who has had an interesting career. How much longer until he walks or the Mets tell him to? At his age, with his numbers, odds of making the roster of the New York Mets, Syracuse’s parent club, or any other Major League team are slim. I believe Tebow is aware of this.

Somebody asks him about the new balls Class AAA teams have used this season, balls less expensive than their Major League counterparts, balls that have been carrying farther.

“I haven’t hit enough over the fence to know,” says Tebow.

I ask if, after a bad game, he’s tempted to give up.

“I think negative thoughts creep in all the time,” says Tebow. “Shoot, I remember I was in low A (the Columbia Fireflies of the South Atlantic League), and traveled all the way to Lexington, Ky., and for the whole series they played all my worst football plays on the Jumbotron, for the whole game, I’m not exaggerating it.”

Imagine that you’re Tebow, playing in Whitaker Bank Ballpark, and there you are, larger than life, getting sacked, throwing an interception, fumbling.

“The first time I batted in that series, I walked,” says Tebow. “In the next nine at bats, I struck out. Maybe I put one in play but it doesn’t matter. I was 0-for-9 for the series. I’m driving back on the bus, and of course there are thoughts that creep in. I could be doing other things, could be doing things where I don’t have to ride on a bus, or (can) make a profit, or go around the world doing mission work.”

He continues: “Just because you’re passionate about things doesn’t mean not it’s not frustrating to you. You have to realize that. True passion doesn’t go away simply because you get knocked down in a game.”

How do you feel when you return to the ballpark the next day?

“That passion doesn’t go away,” Tebow says. “I show up and be ready to go whether I went 4-for-4 or 0-for-4.”

Post football, Tebow served as a broadcaster for ESPN. He has options. Every new football league asks him to play. Steve Spurrier of the Alliance of American Football did.

“You have this choice with life, and your dreams, your aspirations,” Tebow says. “Even in my inner circle, not a lot of people encouraged me to do this. But they also can’t look at my heart and see the joy you get out of it.”

Tebow thanks us for our time and soon will join his teammates, who are stretching on BB&T Ballpark’s perfect outfield grass. Before he does, he stops to talk with Drew Pescaro, one of the shooting victims at UNC Charlotte two months ago.

Pescaro is a huge Tebow fan, and after Tebow learned about this, called Pescaro on Facetime. On Wednesday, they were face to face in the bleachers. Tebow played one season for the New England Patriots, albeit on the practice squad, and autographed a New England jersey for Pescaro.

Says Tebow: “It’s a blessing for me to get to talk to a lot of different people in their time of need…Someone that in the midst of adversity showed so much strength and faith and determination.”

There probably are reasons to pull against Tebow. A lot of people seem to. But I can’t come up with any.

Short takes: NBA draft’s fashion grades

▪ The best jacket at the 2019 NBA draft was Bol Bol’s black jacket with the white spider web. The best suit was Zion Williamson’s. Pure white, no tie. The man is ready for the big time…

Why do NBA teams go into the tank? They go into the tank so that, when they finally climb out, they become the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks worked the phones Thursday night, and made their calls pay. They acquired Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Duke’s Cam Reddish. They already have a good young nucleus. Moving up to take Hunter makes them younger, and better.

About Reddish: He could be outstanding on a week night game and lost in a game the next weekend. He could be good at tipoff and lost four minutes in. But his talent is undeniable.

The tank seasons are tough on fans, who even when a team does not try to win must play full price for a ticket and concessions. There ought to be Tank Tickets. A team acknowledges that it will become worse so that it will become better. Tank Tickets should come at a discount. If they’re full price, they should come with a gift coupon for the team store. Save the coupons, put them together and maybe you get a pair of team shoes, or non-team shoes…

▪ As far as the Walker will he stay or will go debate goes, there’s this. What if he watched Damian Lillard lead the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals, watched Lillard hit outrageous shots, Kemba shots, and watched him lead his team. Walker and Lillard are the same size and have eerily similar statistics.

Money can’t provide the opportunity Lillard had. There’s no indication that the Hornets can, either. I’d love to see the Hornets win. I admit it. I love the NBA. To have a contending team in our town would make the winter and spring so much more interesting, although the spring already is interesting.

You can’t sustain the trajectory of improvement Walker has without doing the work that’s required. Do you work to lead a team to, what, seventh place in the Eastern Conference?

I believe in coach James Borrego. But how do he and general manager Mitch Kupchak lift the Hornets out of the lower middle NBA class in which they reside? If Walker stays, how do they acquire talent to pack around him? If he goes, how do they convince fans to show up?

Lower middle class is a tough place for NBA teams to occupy. They chose not to trade Walker last season. For this, one way or another, they almost certainly will pay…

▪ There were several emotional and interesting responses at the draft. My favorite was when Coby White, the North Carolina guard who was drafted seventh by the Chicago Bulls, learned that teammate Cameron Johnson went 11th to the Phoenix Suns.

The NBA did not invite Johnson to the draft because it didn’t know he would be a high pick. Other than the Suns, nobody else did, either. Johnson is neither powerful or terribly athletic. But he is 6-9. And he can shoot.

Told that Johnson went 11th, White, who was at the draft, said: “Wow. Wow. Wow. Brother, that’s crazy.”

White was pure class, gushing the way a teammate should.

“I’m so happy for him right now,” White said. “Y’all don’t understand how happy I am for Cam. He proved night in and night out that he deserved to be in the conversation for a lottery pick. Man, I’m getting chills up here.”

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