Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: It’s a little early to be worrying about the Panthers

The passing prowess of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) helps make the NFL so exciting.
The passing prowess of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) helps make the NFL so exciting. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

There’s a lot of, Oh, no, what’s wrong with the Carolina Panthers sentiment going around this week. Fortunately, it’s not contagious.

There’s nothing wrong with the Panthers, other than that, at the moment, they are members of the NFL’s vast middle class.

Eleven teams, Carolina among them, have lost two games and 10 teams have lost three. That’s the league’s middle class.

The other 11 teams are outliers. The Los Angeles Rams are the only team without a loss, and only two teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs, have one loss.

Three teams have lost four games and five have lost five.

So, like most teams six weeks into the season, the Panthers are trying to figure out who they are. Do they play their characteristic tough defense? They don’t. The Panthers have 12 sacks this season, which puts them in a four-way tie for 22nd. Six of those sacks came in the opener against the Dallas Cowboys, and they did collect three more against Washington.

The defense has been inconsistent. When the defensive line’s starters go out, the replacements look like the Charlotte Hornets’ second team last season. When the starters play the way we are accustomed to, they free linebackers to roam.

The offense, as presently configured, appears not to be designed to move quickly downfield. Newton hit 67.5% of his passes Sunday. His long pass, a fine leaping reception for a touchdown by Devin Funchess, was 23 yards.

The days when Newton stepped into a throw and you knew it was going deep to Steve Smith Sr. or Ted Ginn Jr. are on hold. To see him use that tremendous arm to throw a deep spiral, you have to show up for warm ups. The Panthers move down the field in small steps, yet they almost came back from a 17-0 deficit against Washington. Their drive ended, however, after three straight incompletions.

If you’re 11-years-old or younger, you can blame the officials for Carolina’s loss. If you’re an adult, you know that the Panthers didn’t deserve to win.

The narrative this week is that the Panthers lost to a mediocre team. I’ve even heard that coach Ron Rivera must go. If you really think that Rivera should be canned, I suspect hallucigens are involved. That narrative would have been even louder if Graham Gano had not saved the Panthers the previous week against the hapless New York Giants with a 63-yard field goal.

Carolina thus far is average. The Panthers are 3-0 in Charlotte and 0-2 everywhere else. They’ve won the three games they were favored to win and lost the two games in which they were underdogs, although that comes with an asterisk. (Carolina opened as a two-point underdog at Washington, but the betting public liked the visitor’s chances and, by game time, the Panthers were favored by a point.)

Sunday, Carolina plays on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that appeared to find itself Thursday against the Giants. The Eagles did what a good team ought to, and handled New York 34-13.

Do the Panthers have to win Sunday? I don’t care how panicky you are. In the seventh week of the season, there’s never been a must win for a team with only two losses.

But if you include the Eagles, five of Carolina’s next eight games are on the road. When the stretch ends, we’ll know who the Panthers are. We’ll also know who they aren’t.

Offense keeps games exciting

Do people still say, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games”? I hope not. I hate clichés.

Also, it’s not true. Defense didn’t win the Monday night game for the Green Bay Packers. The Packers won because quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sensational. He threw 46 passes and completed 25 without an interception. He passed for 425 yards and two touchdowns. He led his team to 10 points in the final 115 seconds.

This is what great quarterbacks do. The Packers beat the San Francisco 49ers 33-30.

Completing passes is what every quarterback does. Through the first six weeks of the NFL season, there have been more touchdown passes and completed passes than in the first six weeks of any season in history. The passer rating is higher through six weeks than it has ever been. There have been more passing yards in the first six weeks than there has ever been, and there have been more points.

To compete successfully, a team has to have a talented quarterback. This is why the NFL has bent the rules to protect passers.

Is the NFL a lesser game because of the ease with which teams score?

Did Green Bay’s 33-30 victory Monday bore you? Did the New England Patriots’ 43-40 victory Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs bore you?

If you were bored, you were looking for a reason to be. Both games were a thrill.

Last Week: 10-5

Season: 51-40-2

Lock of the Week: Seattle (-3) 7 over Oakland. Won it; Seattle beat the Raiders 27-3.

Season: 4-2

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

Denver 2 over ARIZONA

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS 8 over Tennessee

New England 4 over CHICAGO

INDIANAPOLIS 2 over Buffalo

MIAMI 3 over Detroit

Minnesota 4 over NEW YORK JETS

PHILADELPHIA 5 over Carolina

TAMPA BAY 1 over Cleveland

JACKSONVILLE 3 over Houston

BALTIMORE 1 over New Orleans

WASHINGTON 2 over Dallas

Los Angeles Rams 6 over SAN FRANCISCO

ATLANTA 9 over New York Giants

Lock of the Week: KANSAS CITY (-6) 10 over Cincinnati

Short takes: The Eagle vs. Floyd and ... a blip?

Undefeated mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov, the Eagle, has challenged undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather to a fight. If they box, Mayweather obviously will destroy the Eagle.

If they engage in mixed martial arts, Mayweather will land some punches. The Eagle has never fought a man with hands as fast as Floyd’s. But the Eagle is a marvelously skilled technician, and he will take the fight to the ground, and when he does, he’ll win. Thus, the fight will never come off…

It was disappointing to hear Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, a bright, bright man, call what’s so far been revealed in the federal trial in New York City a “blip.” If the FBI investigates a subject, the subject probably is not a blip.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams also said that the world thus far exposed in the federal trial isn’t one with which he’s familiar.

The context of the trial is an FBI investigation into college basketball’s underground, where players are delivered to a school via money provided by major athletic wear companies. Those companies recruit players as hard as universities do. Coaches might not be part of it. But they’re aware of it.

College basketball could use a spokesman, somebody with strength and conviction to stand up and acknowledge the problem…

Christy Martin, who lives in Charlotte and is the former women’s lightweight champion, will promote a 10-bout card Saturday at CenterStage@NODA. A special guest will be Zab Judah, a former champion in two weight classes and, at 40, still fighting. Watch his fight with Mayweather. The ring announcer will be Amy Hayes. If you follow boxing, you know who Hayes is. Ringside tickets are $70, and general admission are $35. For more information, go to Eventbrite.com…

Nick Bosa left Ohio State to treat an injury to a core muscle and prepare for the NFL draft, where he’ll be a top pick. He’s not disloyal to the Buckeyes. He’s pragmatic. He can be treated by his people, on his time, and his departure won’t affect his draft status. Coaches abandon teams. Players can, too.

Picking up where Curry left off

Two NBA games that counted were played Tuesday night. These were the 2018-19 openers, and Steph Curry opened his by taking a step-back, 24-foot, 3-point jump shot.

Did it go in? Yes, it went in. Isn’t this how Curry closed the 2017-18 season for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors?

Curry would finish with 32 points on 20 field goal attempts, nine assists and eight rebounds, and Golden State would beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 108-100. Russell Westbrook did not play for the Thunder; he was out with a knee injury.

The Warriors play unselfishly and with joy. Three players finished with five or more assists. All the Golden State players so capable of scoring repeatedly look for teammates who have a better shot than they do.

It was gratifying to welcome back TNT’s crew -- Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. They are so good.

There are two network sports shows that stand out. The other is Fox NFL Sunday with Curt Menefee, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson. Barkley and the fellows are the other.

Nobody on Fox’s football show or TNT’s basketball show has to fake a laugh for the cameras because there are genuinely funny guys on both. Foremost among them Barkley. If Barkley announced non-Olympic year curling, I’d watch.

The NBA gets criticized for playing too many games. But if you like the product, you want them all.

The league’s best teams this season are, from the top: Golden State, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Oklahoma City, Utah, Toronto and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Carmelo Anthony’s departure from Oklahoma City makes the Thunder better. He might have liked playing there, but it didn’t show. Anthony plays for the Rockets now. Houston lost Trevor Ariza, a very good defensive player who signed with the Phoenix Suns. His departure hurts as much if not more than Anthony’s signing.

In Tuesday’s first opening game, the Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers 105-87. The game was sloppy; all evening players guessed where their teammates would be. But there might have been 10 virtuoso players that made you stand up and yell.

Jayson Tatum made at least a third of them. The 6-foot-8, second-year player from Duke is 20 and fearless. He went third in the 2017 NBA draft. Great pick for Boston.

Joining him on the court Tuesday was Gordon Hayward, who last season, his first with Boston, lasted less than seven minutes. In an injury tough to watch, he fractured the tibia in his left leg and dislocated his left ankle. The leg looked crushed, and he needed a second surgery in March.

On Tuesday, the Celtics played a Hayward video on the scoreboard before the game. Hayward missed his first four shots, his adrenalin moving faster than he did. But he finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four steals. Every time there was contact I winced. He didn’t.

So, yes, the NBA season is underway. The Charlotte Hornets opened at home Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. Last week I picked the Hornets to finish .500. If they do, they’ve had a good season, and put themselves in position to take advantage of whatever comes next.

Queens’ Jack McDowell: ‘I’m talking dudes’

The Queens baseball coach works the field at Waddell Language Academy, a field drenched by rain. The work with the dry vacuums has long been finished. He rakes the dirt around home plate, tamps the dirt down and stomps it down. He rakes again, tamps again, stomps again.

Tall and lean, the coach finally kicks dirt off home plate. It’s like finding a toy when spring comes and the heavy snow melts. You couldn’t see home plate when he started.

It’s a few minutes before 3 p.m. when he finishes home plate, a few minutes before practice starts. The coach has been on the field since 8 a.m.

“Yeah, I’m kind of a field psycho,” Jack McDowell says. “It’s like the art side of me coming out.”

You know that he cleaned up the pitcher’s mound first. McDowell won 127 games in his 12 Major League Baseball seasons; seven with the Chicago White Sox, the team that drafted him out of Stanford with the fifth pick in the first round, one with the New York Yankees, and two with the Cleveland Indians and finally with the Angels.

He was three times an all-star and in 1993 won the Cy Young Award.

McDowell, 52, married a woman, Kerrie, from Wilmington, and moved to Charlotte in 2013. He had heard a rumor about Queens starting a baseball program and emailed athletics director Cherrie Swarthout to express interest. She emailed back – no, we aren’t. A year later, she emailed again – yes, we are. In 2017, they did.

McDowell had coached a rookie league team for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and had coached youth baseball, and had coached his kids, starting with T-ball.

This, an NCAA Division II program, felt right. Also, he lives less than a mile away.

“A lot of people, friends that have known me a long time, told me this was probably the level I would fit the best,” McDowell says in his little office at Queens. “I’d been coaching at every level, and this came up and it was interesting -- starting a program and making it into whatever we wanted to.”

Starting a program would be the dream for many coaches. There were no cleats to fill. There also was no turf on which to put the cleats, no practice field and no ballpark. How did you start?

“Probably making a list of every single thing we needed to buy,” says McDowell. “We didn’t have a single baseball, fungo bats or a rake. Or man, we didn’t have any bat weights. Things pop up all the time you never think about because everything is usually set up and there. Things you take for granted. Ball buckets. Yeah, ball buckets. We didn’t have ball buckets. That’s crazy.”

What about players?

Players, he found. He admits that parents might have heard of him, but high school players have not. They go to Google.

McDowell, who has played in two bands, didn’t grow up with a phone that had answers. So, he was aware of those that came before him, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Even if the players didn’t know him, they believed in him.

“I’m not talking fill-in guys,” says McDowell. “I’m talking dudes.”

The scouting service Perfect Game ranked Queens’ recruiting class seventh in NCAA Division II. This is a team that’s played only one season, and that was a club season. They join the South Atlantic Conference next season.

What do you look for in players?

“Athleticism,” says McDowell. “I want an athlete. I want a guy that competes and battles. I want good kids, man, good kids. Guys that are going to be team players because that’s what baseball is.”

McDowell trusts his instincts. Enjoying the game and developing camaraderie supersedes analytics. McDowell wants his players to have fun. He does.

“I’m loving it,” McDowell says.

Just as his players learn from their Cy Young Award-winning coach, the coach learns about starting a program.

“I added to my resume,” says McDowell. “I learned how to take off the deck off a riding mower and replace the belt that broke. I put it back on.”

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

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