For my money, Cris Collinsworth is the best NFL analyst around. Along with play-by-play man Al Michaels, the insightful former NFL wide receiver will be in the booth calling the Philadelphia-Carolina game on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
Collinsworth and the “Sunday Night Football” crew last came to Charlotte in September 2014, where they saw Pittsburgh dismantle the Panthers, 37-19. In our phone conversation this past week, Collinsworth gave me a preview of some of what he will say to millions of viewers during Sunday night’s telecast as I asked him five questions.
Q. Why have the Panthers started the season 5-0?
A. There are some real hidden gems on this team. I think we all know about Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and what they’re doing, but there’s also Josh Norman and Kawann Short and some of the guys people may not know about and the level of play they have.
I’ve always been a big fan of what Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott have been able to put together on the defensive side.
And those two guys in the middle (Kuechly and Davis) are so fast. You kind of find yourself saying, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe how fast they got there.’ You watch Kuechly and he takes a step before anybody else on the defense has moved, in the direction of the ball.
They don’t have Greg Hardy, they don’t have Charles Johnson and maybe their pure pass rush isn’t quite what it used to be, but the way they tie everything together as a defense is really fun. It’s not a fluke that every year they are one of the top defensive teams in the league.
Q. Why did the Panthers finally get over the Seattle hump last week?
A. Because they played it like a playoff game. It was chippy. It was exciting. It was on the road. It was one of those ‘carved in granite’ games.
When you come out of one of those with a win, you feel differently about your team and you feel differently about yourself. You went and beat one of the dominant teams in the NFL in a place where you didn’t think you could.
And I think for me, watching it, I just kept coming back to the offensive line. At one time, it was sort of considered a weak spot in Carolina. And now, they make so many plays. Trai Turner does some things that really turn your head. If Ryan Kalil isn’t the game’s best center, he’s pretty darn close to it.
And Cam Newton is a unique player in this league. He can go on such streaks. At the beginning of the game it was ‘Oh my gosh, is he ever going to complete a pass?’ And at the end of the game, on that final drive, he completed passes to six different guys. That’s what Peyton Manning does. That’s what Tom Brady does.
Q. What will be important for Carolina to cope with following a signature victory like that?
A. The hard part for them is going to be coming back now and getting ready for this one. Now all week long everyone has told you how good you are. How unbelievable it was. It’s ‘Oh, we finally do believe in you. We’re playing for the Super Bowl.’
You want to go to dinner every night because everybody’s buying you dinner and drinks and telling you how great you are. When you lose, you want to have a frozen dinner instead of going out, because you don’t want to hear it.
Q. The Eagles beat Carolina badly a year ago and have won two games in a row. What do you think the key matchup in this game will be?
A. Philadelphia’s defense, especially the linebackers, against Carolina’s running game. When Carolina gets that running game going, and can throw play-action off of that, that seems to be the magical mix.
But Philadelphia’s defense is really good and it played a tremendous game the other night (in a 27-7 win over the New York Giants). The Eagles have got a really good defensive line. Their safeties can play like corners.
And then of course the Eagles’ offense – Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Jordan Matthews – they are all figuring out who they are and how they are going to do it.
I think Bradford doesn’t bring quite the same running element that some of their quarterbacks in the past have brought. But you’ll still get the full mix of Chip Kelly’s offense, and it’s one of the most creative offenses we’ve ever seen in the NFL.
Q. You are a major investor in the analytics website Pro Football Focus and help run the company. What prompted you to do that?
A. I wanted my own scouting department. No matter what anybody says, they cannot keep up with all 32 teams in the NFL, and certainly not 32 NFL teams and 100 college teams. Now I have 140 different guys who grade every single player and every single game – special teams and otherwise.
So I have more information, I believe, than anything any NFL scouting group can put together. I don’t know of anyone who has 140 people in the scouting department. We have relationships with 19 NFL teams and also with a lot of media companies.
My own grades don’t go into that system when I watch film. I don’t run the day-to-day football side of it. But we have three different guys who watch every single play of the game. ... Now we do the top colleges, too. I think for the college draft and for college scouting, we are second to none. I just don’t think anyone’s doing what we are doing right now.