Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Week 2 NFL picks, a meal with James Borrego, last Panther standing

The Cleveland Browns and running back Nick Chubb (24) tied the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1, but it felt like a win to everyone except Tom Sorensen.
The Cleveland Browns and running back Nick Chubb (24) tied the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1, but it felt like a win to everyone except Tom Sorensen. AP

The NFL began its season last week. I decided to wait until this week. In other words, I am NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson. We’re going to get there. We just have to start.

In Week 1 there were seven NFL upsets, including the tie between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns. Like everybody else who is not connected to the Steelers, I pulled for Cleveland. The Browns came so close to winning. But so did Pittsburgh. Although the game lacked the drama of a Cleveland victory, a Cleveland tie is dramatic.

Last Week: 7-9

Season (duh): 7-9

Lock of the Week: 1-0.

The last game of the week also was my Lock.

The Los Angeles Rams were favored by 5 Tuesday when I made my picks (the line moved to 6 by kickoff). This one always was appealing. I admire the silver and black franchise, but don’t like this silver and black team.

How Jon Gruden, the new Raiders’ coach, can complain about his former linebacker Khalil Mack asking for too much money is absurd. Gruden signed a 10-year, $100-million contract. Gruden’s career win-loss record after Monday’s defeat is 95-82.

Gruden is famous and he’s feisty, and he gave the Raiders’ great fan base a reason to be excited. The absence of Mack, now a Chicago Bear, mitigates the excitement.

Based on Gruden’s early work, this much is true: Monday Night Football misses him.

The Rams, who trailed 13-10 at the half Monday, won 33-13.

This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:

CINCINNATI 1 over Baltimore

ATLANTA 6 over Carolina

WASHINGTON 3 over Indianapolis

Houston 3 over TENNESSEE

Philadelphia 7 over TAMPA BAY

PITTSBURGH 2 OVER Kansas City

NEW YORK JETS 3 over Miami

Los Angeles Chargers 6 over BUFFALO

Minnesota 4 over GREEN BAY

NEW ORLEANS 9 over Cleveland

SAN FRANCISCO 6 over Detroit

LOS ANGELES RAMS 11 over Arizona

New England 2 over JACKSONVILLE

DALLAS 4 over New York Giants

Seattle 2 over CHICAGO

Lock of the Week

DENVER (minus-5½) 9 over Oakland

In their victory over Seattle last week, the Broncos gave up 64 rushing yards (on 16 attempts) and gained 470 overall yards to the Seahawks’ 301. And Seattle is a better team than Oakland.

When the Raiders traded Mack to Chicago, they announced that they were starting over. They might not find traction until 2020, when they move to Las Vegas. If so, one of the league’s great fan bases takes yet another shot.

Linebacker Von Miller was exceptional last week for Denver, and the Raiders’ throw-to-the-backs-and-tight-ends offense limited. Although by Wednesday the line had moved from 4 1/2 points to 5 1/2, I like the Broncos to cover.

17 years later, a return trip to the Garage Mahal

Bill Buchanan was cleaning out his garage, the most famous garage in greater Charlotte, when he found a piece I had written in the olden days about him, his wife, Cindy, and their garage. It’s the only column I’ve ever written about a garage. Bill invited me to the Carolina Panthers-Dallas Cowboys opener Sunday.

The Garage Mahal, which made its debut 17 years ago, is a shrine to all things Panthers. Get there early, because the best time to admire the artifacts – a Kevin Greene shoe, a Steve Smith shoe, Cam Newton shoes, the Jake Delhomme display – is before kickoff.

Once the game begins, studying the Carolina collection would be like going to Bank of America Stadium and studying your phone. Who would do that?

Walk into the Garage Mahal and you stride across carpet that once was in the Panthers’ locker room. The carpet features a 22-foot Panthers logo. Former coach George Seifert didn’t want it in the locker room because he didn’t want to step on the logo. Stepping on the team’s then young tradition was enough.

Bill and Cindy began to clean out their garage as the season approached because they are approaching retirement. They will sell their house, near Lake Wylie, and while maintaining a Charlotte area presence, might move to Florida.

They’ll be missed. They share the Garage Mahal. When they use their seats at Bank of America Stadium, friends and neighbors fill it.

The Garage Mahal is as close as I’ve been to a stadium without going to a stadium. There are five flat screen TVs, three bars and two refrigerators.

There are wings are coated with a dry rub Bill picked up last week in Houston. There are hot dogs and chips. I think there are vegetables. There are lockers and an owner’s box, Panthers’ tables and chairs, and a collection of black Panthers statues.

There are traditions. When the Panthers pick up a first down, Bill leads the chant that builds to the final three words: “And it’s another Carolina first down!” When there’s a penalty against the evil opposition, Cindy tosses the flag.

But you know what the best part of the Garage Mahal is? Led by Cindy and Bill, fans know the sport and care about their team. Even more than the Panther testaments, passion fills the place.

I don’t cheer. After decades in the press box, I forgot how. But I got caught up in it Sunday, and came close. I came very close.

Next time.

What we learned at lunch with Hornets coach James Borrego

The Charlotte Hornets hold an annual preseason lunch with their coach. It’s a good experience because you get to talk to each other as if you’re human. There are no questions about key plays, why did you play this guy and what you were you thinking. It’s mid-September. NBA coaches don’t have to think, at least not in front of anybody.

Also, there’s steak.

James Borrego, 40, will coach the Hornets this season. He’s new at the head coaching business, excited, and purposeful. He believes in the team he has inherited.

I haven’t agreed with all they’ve done this offseason. Imagine. I believed that they should trade their best player, Kemba Walker. Walker is gutsy, talented and humble. Both my head and heart said, “Keep the man.”

But if they do, how do the Hornets compete? They are residents of NBA limbo, neither good nor terrible. Ascending to the league’s upper class is tougher on middle-class teams than the bottom feeders, the Sacramento Kings excepted.

So the Hornets have turned coaching duties to Borrego, long with the San Antonio Spurs. He replaces one of the best coaches Charlotte, regardless of sport, has ever had in Steve Clifford.

But last season, Clifford’s team did not play like a Clifford team. They didn’t collectively hustle the way they had. Sometimes players stop responding to the same message, and it was time for Clifford to go. The Orlando Magic get a good coach.

I suspect the Hornets do, too.

In a 10-second span, Borrego says “synergy” and “replicate.” The man can use words, which implies he’s a communicator, which is a nice start.

Sitting at a table with sportswriters and broadcasters in radio and TV, he asks the kind of questions people new to town do – about sports programs for his children and recommendations for restaurants. Makes him real. I push an old school Charlotte restaurant on 7th Street.

He asks if there are any North Carolina graduates at the table. He says he works with several – um, yes you do – and wants to know if anybody has tips for getting along with Tar Heels.

Don’t talk about football, Observer colleague Rick Bonnell says.

Or, I add, academics.

I’d say you had to be there, but if you’re aware of the academic scandal, that’s not true.

Borrego talks about his new job, about essential components such as putting together a staff and getting to know players. After arriving he immediately met over lunch or dinner with all but one player. So for a lean guy, he eats a lot.

Sitting down for a meal is a powerful dynamic. It implies interest. Players get to know him, too.

Borrego says he has studied film, studied numbers and knows what works.

He isn’t coy about his strategy. He wants to move. Play faster, shoot threes and go to the basket. He says he has three players who can “run downhill” and get to the basket, and potentially more.

I ask Borrego if there are players who’ve surprised him, players who do things he hadn’t anticipated.

The first player he names is Miles Bridges, the rookie wing out of Michigan State. He says Bridges understands that what’s important is not the previous play or the next play but the present play. Not everybody is strong enough to do move on; the temptation is to think about what you just did right, or failed to, and how you’ll get it next time. Borrego says Bridges improves from play to play and game to game.

The Hornets are working with him on his shooting. Can a player improve his shooting once he reaches the NBA? Ask Kemba Walker. Through will and work, Walker has improved enormously.

Borrego also talks about wing Jeremy Lamb, whom he says has an extra gear.

An NBA man I know says Borrego’s best quality is developing talent. But Borrego says as the coach his job is to “go after this thing.” His job is to win.

How does he reconcile winning with his best players and developing players he hopes will join the group?

In practice, in the NBA G League with the Greensboro Swarm and, when there’s the opportunity, in games.

Do the Hornets have enough to win?

I don’t know. It’s their 30th anniversary season, and they’ll host the NBA All-Star Game. This could be a special season for the franchise. Fans would love a special season for their team.

You imagine this city if, in the first year of Borrego and the first year of general manager Mitch Kupchak, the Hornets win?

Love to see fans get the opportunity to find out.

With Cowboys trying to rally, last man standing saved Panthers

With 87 seconds remaining Sunday, and the Dallas Cowboys attempting to move into position to attain overtime, Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison sacked quarterback Dak Prescott. Addison forced a fumble and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn recovered it.

Addison is one of the most underrated Panthers of all time. A former high school quarterback in Birmingham, Ala., he bounced from NFL team to NFL team the way he used to bounce off high school tacklers. What, with speed such as his you expected him to pass?

Munnerlyn, Addison’s cohort on the play, is listed at 5-9. I’m 5-9, and in basketball, I post Munnerlyn up. Unless, you know, he says I’m not allowed to.

If somebody yells, “Prescott fumbled, get that ball,” and every player on the Carolina and Dallas roster is on the field and has a shot at it, Munnerlyn might be my pick to grab the ball.

Munnerlyn is 30 years old. When he retires from the NFL, I can envision him watching a game on a big TV, see Carolina’s opponent fumble and again go for the ball. He might get it, too. Munnerlyn is as intense as he was when the Panthers drafted him in 2009.

Do you remember the ’09 draft?

In the second round, Carolina (which had no first-round pick) chose defensive end Everette Brown out of Florida State and cornerback Sherrod Martin out of Troy, Addison’s school. They’re out of football.

In the third round, the Panthers picked defensive tackle Corvey Irvin out of Georgia. He plays for the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

In the fourth round, the Panthers picked fullback Tony Fiammetta out of Syracuse and running back Mike Goodson out of Texas A&M. They’re out of football.

In the fifth round, the Panthers picked guard Duke Robinson out of Oklahoma. He’s out of football.

In the seventh round, the Cincinnati Bengals invested the 215th pick on fullback Fui Vakapuna out of Brigham Young. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers invested the 217th pick on cornerback E.J. Biggers out of Western Michigan. They’re out of football.

With the 216th pick, Carolina’s final pick of the ’09 draft, the Panthers selected Munnerlyn.

He’s the last man standing – unless the ball is on the ground.

Short takes: Logo gripes, stars not stripes, holy cripes

Fans of the Carolina Panthers have complained for more than a decade about the NFL symbol on the turf at Bank of America Stadium. They wanted it replaced with the logo of the Carolina Panthers. This season, they got it. Yet some complain because the logo isn’t big enough.

A year from now, a Mississippi blues singer named Hazlehurst Slim will hit it big with: “I Got Them Old Little Logo Blues.”

If Slim didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. If some fans didn’t have something to complain about, they’d complain anyway …

Got some Converse high tops this week for my birthday and learned what FOMO means. I’m not saying I’m hip. I’m not. But I’m less unhip than I was seven days ago. …

The NFL has finally found a successful national anthem policy – they don’t have one. Left alone, the take-a-knee movement furor will fade. Two years from now, people will wonder what the misunderstood and often contrived anger was about. Please, NFL, consult with your players, and ignore the loud attention craving owner whose team is 0-1 ...

If you’re North Carolina, you have two football decisions to make. Debating whether to fire football coach Larry Fedora is not one of them.

The first decision is with whom do you replace Fedora. The second is how important is football? Of course, it’s not going to be as important as basketball. The Tar Heels have one of the country’s premier programs. They care, and they prove it annually.

But how badly does North Carolina want to win football games? Schools that want to win do not accept mediocrity, especially when they have the resources North Carolina does. The Heels won’t suddenly become Clemson. But if they get this right, they can become a consistent winner. ...

The Carolina Panthers did not play a great game against Dallas Sunday. But they won. If you win your opener, you did something – as teams such as Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Chargers and Detroit would love to attest. …

Was watching hurricane coverage and saw that a meteorologist carried the NWA Seal of Approval. My first thought was: The National Wrestling Alliance has approved him. Deliver the weather one moment and in the next deliver a metal folding chair to the head of an evil meteorologist. Tell me ratings won’t jump. …

On Saturday in Las Vegas, Gennady Golvkin, 38-0-1 with 35 knockouts, fights Carnelo Alvarez, the most popular fighter in the world, who is 49-1-2 with 34 knockouts. Fought to a draw last September, although I thought GGG won a close decision. Middleweights. This is the rare fight that people other than me care about. A fight is big when peripheral fans get excited, and they’re excited. My cable provider wants $85. He’ll get it.

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

  Comments