Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Carolina Panthers season going like it’s been expected to; mine is, also

Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers teamed up with United Way on Tuesday to help residents of Lumberton, who were affected by Hurricane Florence. Here, Peppers serves meal packages to residents who have been displaced.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers teamed up with United Way on Tuesday to help residents of Lumberton, who were affected by Hurricane Florence. Here, Peppers serves meal packages to residents who have been displaced.

The Carolina Panthers have done what they’re supposed to. Favored to beat the Dallas Cowboys at home, they did. Underdogs at Atlanta, they lost. Favored at home against Cincinnati and against the New York Giants, they won.

So, despite their fourth quarter implosion against the Giants, they are 3-1.

As I write this Wednesday morning, the Panthers are an underdog Sunday against Washington. Washington is favored by 1 or 2 depending where you look. The line might change, and probably will change, by kickoff.

Washington has been wildly inconsistent. It beat Arizona by 18, lost to the Indianapolis Colts by 12, beat the Green Bay Packers by 14 and lost to the New Orleans Saints by about 60.

Technically, the margin Monday was 24. But the Saints were more dominant than that. To be fair, nobody was going to beat New Orleans in New Orleans Monday night, the night on which quarterback Drew Brees moved past Brett Favre and Peyton Manning to throw for more yards than any quarterback in NFL history.

Why was Washington installed as the favorite in the opening line against the Panthers? Some will say that the Panthers get no respect. They’re wrong. Oddsmakers don’t deal in respect. They deal in attempting to entice as many people to bet on one team as the other.

I’m 4-0 picking the Panthers. But since they’ve won when they were expected to and lost when they were expected to, I deserve no credit.

Again, I don’t know if the Panthers will still be getting a point (or two) Sunday at kickoff. I like the Panthers because Washington’s offense is limited and because I think Carolina’s defense busts loose.

Last Week: 7-8

Season: 41-35-2

Lock of the Week: Carolina (-7) over New York Giants. Lost. Panthers failed to cover.

Lock of the Week Season: 2-3

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

Carolina 2 over WASHINGTON

Philadelphia 3 over NEW YORK GIANTS

MINNESOTA 9 over Arizona

Chicago 3 over MIAMI

Indianapolis 1 over NEW YORK JETS

CINCINNATI 3 over Pittsburgh

Seattle 4 over Oakland (in London)

HOUSTON 3 over Buffalo

Los Angeles Chargers 2 over CLEVELAND

ATLANTA 6 over Tampa Bay

LOS ANGLES RAMS 5 over Denver

Baltimore 1 over TENNESSEE

Jacksonville 3 over DALLAS

Kansas City 3 over NEW ENGLAND

GREEN BAY 7 over San Francisco

Pick of the week

Seattle (-3) 6 over Oakland

.500 season for Hornets might be OK

The Charlotte Hornets will be better this season than they were a season ago. But how much better?

Last season, they went 36-46 and finished 10th in the Eastern Conference, seven games out of the playoffs.

They were 9-14 in games determined by five or fewer points or overtime. Reverse that and they finish .500, two games behind the Washington Wizards for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

The Hornets weren’t terrible last season. They simply weren’t good. They had the same record they did in 2016-17. There were times, especially in the fourth quarter, when sending Kemba Walker one on one, one on two, or one on world was all that they had.

So, they start over. They hired a general manager, Mitch Kupchak, from the Los Angeles Lakers, and a coach, James Borrego, from the San Antonio Spurs, who together have more rings than Tiffany’s.

They added rookies Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham and non-rookie Tony Parker.

In terms of new, however, it’s not merely the new players, but the new philosophy. They will run, make quick decisions and shoot threes. They’ll score. Conceivably, somebody could call them the high-scoring Hornets. That phrase has not been uttered since the 1990s.

The Hornets have been mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, too low to make the playoffs but not low enough to merit a high draft pick. Near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings is less a place than a lifestyle. Teams get trapped there.

I can envision an escape. Bridges, their first-round pick out of Michigan State, has been outstanding. He’s a tremendous athlete, with nice moves and, it appears, an outside shot.

I’ve heard fans compare him to former Charlotte star Larry Johnson. Easy, now. But the enthusiasm is welcome.

We’ll also see a different, if not new, Malik Monk. Monk, Charlotte’s first-round pick last season, is considered a guy who is poised to shoot as the team bus pulls up to the arena.

But in three preseason games, Monk has averaged 4.7 assists, second on the team to Nic Batum’s 4.8. Yes, Monk will shoot. He’ll often shoot. He should shoot. And when defenses crowd him, when he’s driving to the basket or racing down court, he’ll make slick passes, too.

Batum, like his team, is coming off a wasted season. But he no longer is a guard; he’s a small forward again. Despite his $120 million contract, he’s never excelled at one facet of basketball. Yet he does almost everything well. What do you need, a basket, a pass or a rebound? When he’s engaged, Batum is like room service. His work will be vital.

At least in the preseason, center Cody Zeller has looked good. He’s always been able to run and jump. But he never made a sustained impact as a player, in part because he’s often hurt. In three exhibitions this season, he has been scoring in the post, hitting from the outside and parlaying his speed into opportunities.

An intriguing player is Zeller’s likely backup, Willy Hernangomez. He’s 6-foot-11 and he plays big. He appears stronger this season and his game is so much more fluid than it was a season ago. The man works.

I advocated a trade before the draft -- trade Walker. Nobody who appreciates basketball wanted Walker to go. But I didn’t see any way for the team to escape the trap that is the walled-in, lower-middle piece of the Eastern Conference standings.

Perhaps the Hornets will escape without a trade. I’ll tell you one difference from last season: Everybody, management and coaches, shares a common philosophy. Kupchak the general manager hired Borrego the coach, and that’s big.

How big?

If I project their record, it’s 41-41 big. With LeBron James playing in the Western Conference, victories will be easier to come by in the East and 41 likely won’t be enough to get a team into the playoffs.

But let’s be honest. In Year 1 of the New Hornets, it’s a start.

Josh Norman meets his old team

Cornerback Josh Norman played poorly Monday night in Washington’s blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints. Washington even benched him for five plays in the second half. How often do you see a player with a five-year $75-million contract benched for anything other than an injury or a rest? All evening, Washington’s defenders took turns making mistakes, Norman among them.

Norman will return Sunday when the Panthers play Washington at FedEx Field. To many fans of the Panthers, Norman is the one who got away. He was one of us.

He grew up in Greenwood, S.C., played at Coastal Carolina and became a star in Carolina. In his fourth season as a Panther, he intercepted four passes. He wanted a blowout contract, but the Panthers didn’t offer one. They did apply the franchise tag and Norman rejected it.

The Panthers suddenly dispatched him and two days later he was in Washington, the highest paid cornerback in the NFL.

Anybody who thinks that former general manager Dave Gettleman decided all by himself to end negotiations with Norman chooses not to understand the way the Panthers did business. It wasn’t as if Carolina’s other decision makers woke up the day after Norman was released and said, “Wow, Josh is gone, I had no idea.”

Norman was never the league’s best cornerback. He has only two interceptions in this, his third season with Washington, but some of that has to do with quarterbacks declining to throw his way.

Norman hasn’t been great in Washington. But he’s good. As a Panther, he was very good. He improvised and he gambled and, man, was he intense. He took completed passes personally.

And he works. At Norman’s final Panthers’ practice of training camp, he was the last player to leave the field. As teammates understandably walked or ran to the locker room, or to their cars, Norman was on his back, in the sun. He asked equipment managers to fire passes at him, and he attempted to catch them, one after another, with one hand. Then he signed autographs until there was nobody left to request one.

I loved talking to the man. Norman was without guile. I don’t know what he’s like in Washington’s locker room. He’ll be 31 before the season ends. But in Charlotte, he talked like a kid and I mean that as a compliment. He didn’t calculate the impact of his words. He was candid the way kids are, and he said what he wanted to say. Norman once told me that the night before a game he’d get in character by watching a gladiator movie. He had an array, and he ranked them. For big games, he’d watch “Gladiator.” For the biggest games, he watched “300.”

I told him I’d never seen “300.” He was genuinely appalled.

So, I saw it. When I Tweeted that I liked it, Norman Tweeted almost immediately. “I told you!”

Norman went to a session at Charlotte Motor Speedway in which he got to drive a race car. Since he wore 24, he drove 24. Students were told the top end of the car was 150 to 160 mph. As Norman sat behind the wheel, waiting for his turn to go onto the track, I asked him what he envisioned.

“I envision 170,” he said.

Norman is volatile on the field, as we’ve seen in his duels with star receivers. When he was a Panther, he was involved in a training camp scuffle with Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. After Washington’s loss Monday, he took a shot at New Orleans’ star receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas came back at Norman on Twitter, and they had a little duel there.

But Norman is much more than volatile. He’s a fifth-round pick from a school in Conway, S.C., who became an essential Panther. He loved Josh Norman and the opportunities being Josh Norman conferred.

On Sunday, he’ll love having an opportunity to show the Panthers the magnitude of the mistake they made when they refused to give him the contract he craved.

If he still watches gladiator movies the night before a game, I know which one it will be.

TD is back

Be interesting to see Thomas Davis’ return to the Carolina Panthers Sunday. Be interesting to hear it.

In training camp, quarterback Cam Newton’s offense goes against the defense of linebacker Thomas Davis. Newton is not shy about announcing what he just did. Davis isn’t shy about telling Newton why he won’t be able to do it again. Dozens of players gather on the field and on the sideline, and it’s Davis and Newton you hear.

Newton is the face of the Panthers, but Davis’ voice is as loud and as respected as any Panther. You have to earn that, and Davis has.

Carolina drafted Davis out of Georgia in 2005 and had no idea what to do with him. Yes, he’s a good athlete, but is he a good athlete at linebacker or a good athlete at safety, or should we make him learn both positions?

Time was required before Davis became the player we now see. When his instincts caught up with his athleticism, when he could play without pausing to think, Davis became a blunt force.

In the locker room one day, running back DeAngelo Williams talked incredulously about getting run down by a linebacker. What linebacker could run him down? Then he realized the linebacker was Davis.

Never mind.

To appreciate how long Davis has been a Panther, his teammates in 2005 included Stephen Davis, Brad Hoover and the Mikes, Minter and Rucker. The quality everybody on that roster but Davis shares is that they no longer are Panthers.

Davis overcame three serious injuries to the same knee. Nobody talks about it anymore because there’s no reason to. He was hurt so he came back –- again, again and again. What else would he do? Davis and his wife, Kelly, started the Defending Dreams Foundation.

For a story, I once called some of the people with which the foundation worked. It was as if the people I called dropped to their knees as they spoke. They were moved not merely by the financial assistance, but by the passion and commitment Thomas and Kelly offered.

Former Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson regularly praised Davis. If I guessed Richardson’s favorite Panthers of all time, they would be Sam Mills and Davis.

I enjoy watching the man play. Next time you’re at Bank of America Stadium, focus your binoculars on Davis for a series. At 35, he can’t move the way he once did. But not many players move the way he once did. He is a ferocious hitter and he loves the game.

Would it be a shock if Davis plays a season after this one?

Unless the Panthers win Super Bowl LIII, it would not.

Short takes: Boxing’s problem, NCAA’s short-sightedness

A friend, and a lifelong boxing fan, asked, “What do you think happens to the sport when people our age are gone?”

The answer: Not much.

The biggest boxing match in 2018 has been Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. Compare the attention it generated with the Khabis Nurmagomedev-Conor McGregor mixed martial arts fight Saturday. The UFC fight dominated. Talk to people in their 20s and 30s, and unless they have a boxing connection, mixed martial arts is their combat sport.

What can boxing do to engage younger fans?

It can better promote its best fighters and big fights. But fans decide. And the younger ones have…

To get a better perspective of Carolina Panthers’ kicker Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal Sunday, I walked off 63 yards on a football field. Some of us need glasses to see that far. What a feat…

Explain again why North Carolina can’t play South Carolina at Spectrum Center to raise money for victims of Hurricane Florence? The NCAA says no. Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, suggested the game. Great idea.

Sometimes the NCAA reminds me of a bad guy in wrestling. It wants to be disliked. So, it took a previously hidden metal folding chair and whacked Williams over the head with it. I don’t understand...

Kudos to the Panthers’ Julius Peppers for driving three hours southeast on his lone day off to Lumberton to assist United Way in its Hurricane Florence relief effort. Peppers started a fund by kicking in $100,000 of his money...

I know that many Americans are disappointed in the U.S. Ryder team that was destroyed in the Ryder Cup. But don’t you miss the fights?...

Fans of the New York Yankees were more likely to pour beer on a fan or a player than their team was to beat the Red Sox.

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