Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Carolina Panthers are your lock of the week

The Oakland Raiders and running back Doug Martin (28) are headed toward another losing season.
The Oakland Raiders and running back Doug Martin (28) are headed toward another losing season. AP

My long awaited NFL picks:

Last week: 8-6

Season: 91-55-2

Lock of the Week (the lone game I pick against the spread): Chicago (-7) over Detroit.

I picked the Bears by 11. They won by 12. Sorry.

Lock for the Season: 8-2. I’ve picked the last seven correctly.

This week, with the home team in CAPS:

SEATTLE 4 over Green Bay

ATLANTA 7 over Dallas

BALTIMORE 1 over Cincinnati

Tennessee 3 over INDIANAPOLIS

NEW YORK GIANTS 2 over Tampa Bay

WASHINGTON 2 over Houston

Pittsburgh 6 over JACKSONVILLE

ARIZONA 6 over Oakland

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS 9 over Denver

NEW ORLEANS 9 over Philadelphia

Minnesota 2 over CHICAGO

LOS ANGELES RAMS 3 OVER Kansas City

Lock of the Week:

The Carolina Panthers’ lopsided loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Thursday wasn’t a statement any more than coming back to beat Philadelphia on the road was a statement. The Panthers got pounded, and their flaws were exposed.

The offensive line, so good this season despite being put together on the fly, was overwhelmed. Hey, you guys on the Steelers, you want to visit our backfield. Dress is football casual, and no reservation required. Come on in.

Carolina’s pass rush, mediocre this season despite standout defensive end Mario Addison, played as if it needed an invitation to step into the Steelers’ backfield. The Panthers didn’t have one.





The cornerbacks took turns being beaten.





But the Pittsburgh game reveals no more than the comeback victory at Philadelphia did. There are no statement games. There are merely games. And the Panthers have won six of the nine they’ve played.

I’ve not had good luck historically when I’ve picked them as a Lock of the Week. Some weeks a betting line that looks like a gift. I don’t see one this in Week 11.

So: The Panthers are pretty good to good. The Detroit Lions are bad, and their offensive line is woeful. Mario Addison, come on down, and bring some friends with you.

Lock of the Week: Carolina (-4) 9 over DETROIT.

A method to Gruden’s madness?

A question: What if Jon Gruden knows what he’s doing, and the idea is to try to win but not at the expense of collecting draft picks and developing young players?

Gruden’s Oakland Raiders this season are 1-8. But the Raiders always are 1-8. They are as consistently bad as owner Mark Davis’ haircut. Yes, the Raiders went 12-4 in 2016. But their last winning season before ’16 was 2002.

You know how long ago 2002 was? The ’02 season was the first for Carolina head coach John Fox and the first for Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

I like the silver and black for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the late Kenny Stabler played for them, and Stabler is one of my all-time favorites. I spent a little time with him when he came to Charlotte, and he was everything I hoped he would be, laid back, courteous and so, so cool.

The Raiders collect seasons in which they go 5-11 and 4-12. I have no idea if Gruden is on the right path. But he’s on a path. In his path Sunday are the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona has won only two games all season but is a 7½-point favorite against the Raiders in the desert.

How do you know your team is not respected? When odds-makers have to establish Arizona as a 7½-point favorite to convince bettors to put as much money on the Raiders as they do the Cardinals.

My fear is that by the time the young Oakland talent manifests itself, the Raiders will play in Las Vegas, where they move the season after next.

Ever been to a game at 52-year-old Oakland Alameda Stadium? It’s dank. It’s old. It’s going to the house of an ancient aunt. The stadium was one of the NFL’s two worst. The inhabitants of the other, the San Diego Chargers, were allowed to move a few miles north to Los Angeles.

Hanging out with fans in Oakland is like visiting the set for the 1981 classic (I think it’s a classic) Road Warrior, which took place in post-apocalyptic Australia. It wasn’t about fashion for Mel Gibson and the other actors. It was about survival.

Many Raiders’ fans wear similar garb. One of the highlights of a game is to get out of the press box and go into the bleachers. When the Carolina Panthers played a game there, running back DeAngelo Williams walked up to the fans, mesmerized and appreciative.

If Gruden is deliberately making his team worse so they’ll receive high draft picks, they’ll be bad again next season.

Their third season, they ought to be good, especially by Raiders’ standards. By then they’ll have a Nevada mailing address. And those crazy, wonderful, Oakland fans won’t get to join them.

A happy Hornets reunion

George Shinn threw a 30th anniversary party in Charlotte Saturday for the Charlotte Hornets.

Before I get into the party, I’ll get into this. I know that many of you resent Shinn, who owned the Hornets, for moving his team to New Orleans. I wrote on Twitter this week that nobody above the age of 12 cared when the team left. Many of you said you were older than 12 and you cared. Maybe I should have said, older than 16.

I understand the anger toward Shinn, who made several major missteps when the team was in Charlotte. There’s a relationship between a town and a team, and Shinn poisoned it.

But I’m surprised at the number of fans who contend that Shinn broke their heart when, in 2002, he took the Hornets to New Orleans. I went to games in 2001-02 to watch a team that won a playoff series and made the Eastern Conference semi-finals (where it lost to New Jersey).

At a regular-season game one night, I had an entire section to myself. Charlotte finished 29th in attendance, and at the time, the NBA had 29 teams. As the team broke your heart, where were you?

After Shinn moved his base to New Orleans, I flew down to do a story on him. Even though he wasn’t talking to me at the time, I gambled that if I showed up, he would. And he did. An acquaintance at the New Orleans Times-Picayune lobbied for me, and his work successfully offset a long time Shinn business associate who lobbied against me.

In New Orleans, Shinn reverted to his old self. He courted fans, shook hands and worked to build a grassroots fan base in a city with as many evening options as it has people.

Also, The George Shinn foundation worked with several organizations. I randomly called a few, and each praised Shinn for his assistance and his generosity.

I know many of you choose to hold grudges, and that’s your prerogative. I choose to live in a second-chance world.

Regardless of what you think about the Hornets’ departure, their 1998 arrival was singular. This was our first major league team, and we were thrilled to have genuine professional major league athletes in our town.

You get to be new once, and the Hornets were the recipients of our first-time devotion. To be at the gathering Saturday was to remember how wonderful those early teams were. When they played, we became a college town.

The party Saturday was in two private rooms at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. Every time somebody new walked in, those of us already there would turn and smile.

Among the 174 guests were Muggsy Bogues and family, Allan Bristow, David Thompson, Dave Twardzik, Felix Sabates, Spencer Stolpen, Dr. Glenn Perry, Bill Diehl, Chris Shinn, Marilynn Bowler, Tom Ward, T.R. Dunn, Hugo and John Kucera.

You remember Kucera. Without prompting from the team, the heavy-set guy came out of the bleachers and, in a dress shirt, did handstands. They might have been flips. I don’t know gymnastics. All I know is that the bigger the guy, the greater the impact of his routine. Nobody told Kucera he could do it. He just did.

That’s the beauty of being new. You don’t know what’s not allowed. Security wasn’t sure what to do. But when team vice president Marilynn Bowler heard the applause she said, “Don’t stop him.” Nobody ever did. If the gathering Saturday hadn’t been so crowded, Kucera might have jumped out of his chair and done a few more.

When Shinn entered I thought, “Wow, that guy looks like George Shinn.”

It was Shinn, who is 77. His hair was longish, and he had a close-cropped beard and big brown glasses. He told me that if he applied for a job with the Shinn of the 1980s and ‘90s, who insisted that employees be clean cut, he wouldn’t have been hired.





Shinn was gracious and grateful, happy to see so many people who were happy to see him.

If you were in Charlotte in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you remember. At the gathering were people from sales, media relations and game operations, among them game clock operator then and now, Richard Ward.

So many conversations began with a simple: Hey, do you remember?

Yes, we do.

Whatever anger was there, and it once was considerable, had dissipated. Pettiness has an expiration date. One woman said, “We look at each other with kind eyes.”

I’ve asked players if they knew what they had, if they knew their group was special in the sense that there were so many good people on and around the roster. Not one has ever said yes.

The one man who know what the team had, and said so at the time, was Bristow, who coached the Hornets from 1991-92 through 1995-96, and in ’94-95 finished with a record of 82-50.

Somebody told me, “We all look the same.”

Bristow, 67, did. Man, he did.

Shinn did not. He looked younger.

NASCAR’s playoffs work for me

NASCAR’s playoff system has been ripped for several reasons, foremost of which is that this is now how Junior Johnson and the fellows did it.

I like the playoffs, which began in 2004. Brian France, who ran the sport at the time, was a fan of other sports, and was moved by the passion with which fans in football, basketball and baseball responded to playoff drama.

France initially encountered detractors. He was like a Republican running for office in Charlotte.

I was an early playoff proponent, and when I was in Daytona Beach, Fla., for the Daytona 500, France agreed to meet with me. What I remember most from the interview: his office was nice, and so was he.

To twist a sport in a manner it had never gone took courage. But France was right to make the move. NASCAR’s dwindling ratings, attendance and impact can’t be attributed to the playoffs.

To what can it be attributed? Since you ask, it’s simple. Old fans felt as if the sport abandoned them and their tracks and the dates of races with which they were familiar. The new fans to which the sport catered were temps. Many loved the clean-cut drivers and the absence of lockouts and work stoppages. But the races didn’t engage them the way other sports did.

But if you like racing, or feel as if you might if you gave it a chance, watch the final race of the season Sunday at 3 p.m. Four drivers will go against each other and NASCAR will against the NFL. Each of the four drivers has a chance to win. NASCAR does not. No U.S. sport can compete with the NFL and prevail.

Yet this is the race I’ll turn to at least on occasion Sunday no matter which football teams are playing. The concept of the final race is ingenious. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. will stage a one-race playoff for the championship.

Think about it. They’ve been running Cup races since the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. No sport has a longer season than NASCAR. It ought to be shortened to offer drivers, teams and even fans a break during the season. But tracks are unlikely to say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, go ahead and eliminate one our races.”

In Daytona in February Logano finished fourth, Truex 18th, Busch 25th and Harvick 31st. Here they are nine months later, the survivors, in the most important, and most tense, race of the season.

The beauty of Homestead-Miami Speedway is that once you leave the freeway to get there, no matter which freeway you take, you go back in time. Last time I went, I took a left at the swamp, a right at the gators, and finally a left at the black lagoon and the creature inside it. If you hit paved road, you know you’ve gone too far.

I salute Brian France for his playoff system, and for the excitement NASCAR will pack into the finale.

All week, race fans have talked about each of the contenders, making bets, taking sides. Within the month, they’ll forget three of them. I love the math. Four drivers, one race, one champion.

Short takes: Defining a troll; Sixers just got better





I called a guy a troll and he got mad and said he wasn’t. I said, let’s review the facts. You spend considerable of time on social media, you’re perpetually put-upon, and you use a fake name. Collect the whole set.

He still denies he’s a troll.

The exchange made me think. How do you define a troll?

If you’re always angry, often spew your anger daily on social media, and use a pretend name because you’re afraid to use your own, you might be a troll. If you read Earnest Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Trolls” you might be a troll. If you eat Troll House Cookies and are a member of a Trolling League, you might be a troll.

If the weather is wonderful, and don’t have to be inside, but stay so you can release your venom onto an uncaring world, you are a troll. Now, get off the computer and go outside and do something. Someday, you’ll thank me…

Virtuoso running back Le’Veon Bell forfeited $14.5 million this season by refusing to report to the Pittsburgh Steelers. I can’t imagine giving up $14.5 million, or even $.5 million. But it’s not my money. It’s Bell’s money, and if he chooses to sit out, that’s his option. Be interesting to see where he ends up. The Steelers will be fine. They suddenly have a lot of cap room, which means money to invest on talent. And if Bell had returned Tuesday, the deadline to report, he wouldn’t be installed as the starter. Locker room would have been interesting…

Like the Philadelphia 76ers-Minnesota Timberwolves trade. Jimmy Butler was a distraction on a Minnesota team for which he didn’t want to play. The 76ers get a big-time player and the Timberwolves get two good players. One of them is Robert Covington, and you might recall his work against the Charlotte Hornets earlier this season. He scored 18 points on only 11 field goal attempts, and added 10 rebounds…

Only three times have the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats had winning records in the same season (1996, 2013 and 2015). Last season, each had a winning record until Nov. 3, when the Hornets began their long, slow fade. The Hornets have worked to stay above .500 this season. And then on Nov. 14, they lost by 32 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland. The Hornets were to Cleveland what the Carolina Panthers were last Thursday to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Hornets are at .500 going into their game in Saturday in Charlotte, where they’ll continue their weekly series against Philadelphia…

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