Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Panthers backup QB situation not a concern for Ron Rivera

Kyle Allen (7) hopes he'll win the backup quarterback job with the Carolina Panthers.
Kyle Allen (7) hopes he'll win the backup quarterback job with the Carolina Panthers. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

I thought there was a chance – small, tiny, miniature, microscopic – that the Carolina Panthers would bring quarterback Colin Kaepernick to Charlotte for at least a long look. I’d hoped so. Not because of his politics, but because I suspect that at 31 he can still play.

I also thought there was a good chance the Panthers would add a quarterback after teams reduce their rosters by the 4 p.m. Saturday deadline.

I thought this because neither of the quarterbacks who will back up Cam Newton, and would replace him if he’s hurt, has played well in Carolina’s first three exhibitions. Neither has been able to consistently move the team.

After Tuesday’s practice, Carolina coach Ron Rivera and I stand at the 15-yard-line on the practice field beneath the dome as around us military members from the Carolinas hold a boot camp.

When I bring up Kaepernick, Rivera says: “I think what we need to do is focus” on the quarterbacks the Panthers have.

When I ask if he expects to sign a veteran another team releases, he says, “I doubt it.”

You believe in the backup quarterbacks on your the roster?

“Yes,” Rivera says without hesitation.

What Rivera says could, of course, be subterfuge. The Panthers might anticipate a team dispatching a certain veteran. So they lurk, presumably out of sight, waiting to grab him.

But Rivera does not equivocate when asked about his quarterbacks. He three times praises Kyle Allen, who will begin his second season in the NFL. Allen, 23, is 11 months younger than rookie quarterback Will Grier, whom the Panthers selected with the 100th pick in the 2019 draft.

“The proof’s in the pudding,” Rivera says. “We’ve seen him (Allen) in game situations, we’ve see him have success. So as far as I’m concerned, just knowing that he did those things and can do those things for us – you feel confident.

“Plus, last year was his rookie year. So you figure here’s a guy who as a rookie came in and did some good things.”

Rivera adds: “And that’s why we feel good about him.”

Allen started Carolina’s finale last season against the New Orleans Saints. The Saints already had clinched the top seed in the NFC, and did not play quarterback Drew Brees. But they did play their defensive starters for a half.

Allen calmly completed 16 of 27 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, and accumulated most of those numbers against the starters. The Panthers won 33-14.

Newton has twice had surgery on his right shoulder, and injured his foot last Friday in the exhibition against New England, although Rivera says he has no doubt that Newton will start in the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams.

Like many of his teammates, Allen has been shaky in Carolina’s three exhibitions. But Rivera believes.

If Newton again is injured, we are likely to find out why.

A tough day looms for players on the edge

I’ve always written about players on the edge of the roster, players who sometimes make the depth chart only if the Panthers add a sixth team.

I like every reserve I talked to one-on-one in minicamp in Charlotte, training camp in Spartanburg and in the locker room back at Bank of America Stadium. By the time this column is posted, some or several could be gone, victims of Saturday’s 4 p.m. cut. Some will be released Friday.

Anybody can talk to Newton, at least if it’s on one of the rare days on which Newton consents to talk to the media.

The advantage of talking to players on the edge of the roster is that (A) they never say no and (B) nobody else wants to talk to them.

If I talk to, say, defensive end Mario Addison, other media members will jump in, which they kind of have a right to do. I was going to talk to Addison, whom I like and respect, in Spartanburg. Then, on the right side of the practice field, I saw a player, big guy with dreadlocks dangling from his helmet, go to the ground to make a skidding catch. His uniform was dirty, but the catch was clean.

The player’s number, 46, meant nothing to me. In fact, he shares it with Sione Teuhema, a rookie linebacker out of Southeast Louisiana. The No. 46 with the ball was the offensive 46, Temarrick Hemingway out of S.C. State, a third-year tight end. And, yes, he’s read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The Panthers have no vacancies at tight end. The hope is that cameras catch him doing good work, and other teams see it and call. He’s convinced he can play in the NFL, and I’m pulling for him.

Other players I talked to in alphabetical order: Reggie Bonnafon, Terry Godwin, Taylor Heinicke, Elijah Holyfield, Aldrick Robinson, and Rashad Ross.

Of my guys, Godwin, a rookie receiver from Georgia who can return punts and kicks and has very good hands, has the best chance to make the roster. The Panthers selected him in the seventh round.

I’ve enjoyed watching Holyfield, the son of former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, and Bonnafon. Both are running backs. Both can’t back up starter Christian McCaffrey. Likely ahead of them is Jordan Scarlett, a rookie out of Florida whom the Panthers drafted in round five.

Holyfield might lead the Panthers in referring to people as “sir.” Bonnafon played receiver and quarterback as well as running back at Louisville, and runs receiver-quality routes.

They can play. Of course they can play. You’ve seen it in exhibitions. Holyfield leads the Panthers with two touchdowns in the first three exhibitions. Bonnafon leads the Panthers in receptions and receiving yards.

Every day I was in Spartanburg I saw Holyfield and Bonnafon in the Spartanburg heat, working on their games, individually but on the same field, 15 to 20 minutes after practice ended. Good luck, gentlemen.

The Panthers collect smallish and fast receivers, and it’s tough for them to stand out. Robinson and Ross have had moments in practice and exhibitions, but so has everybody else.

Although Heinicke was the best of the backup quarterbacks in the first three exhibitions, with the best passer rating, the Panthers obviously won’t keep four quarterbacks. Heinicke gets the fewest first-team reps, and enters games only after the other backups finish.

You want to know what he’s like. He’s like this Monday when I ask if he hears the talk about how the Panthers need to add a veteran at his position.

He first says what you’d think he’d say, insisting that the opinions to which he listens come not from the outside but from coaches and teammates. Heinicke, 26, adds that if the Panthers do bring in a veteran, he’ll work with him to help the newcomer catch up. All the quarterbacks will, he says.

That’s class.

A question: How does Carolina decide whom to keep?

I ask Ron Rivera.

“The big thing is development more than it is anything else,” Rivera says. “This is my 33rd year (in the NFL). What I’ve seen in that time is good players not make it because they just didn’t know, and have a lot to learn.

“I’ve seen guys that really didn’t know, but were so talented you had to keep them because if they ever got it they could become players in this league. So there are a lot of reasons why guys make it and don’t make it.”

Tell me one.

“A lot of times it’s just straight-up fit,” says Rivera. “Do they fit what you want to do and how you want to do it?”

I’m pulling for my guys. But the percentage of them sticking is so slim that it probably is good that I didn’t talk to Addison.

Hard choices for Ron Rivera

The last act of players who are cut usually is to turn in their equipment. The last team employee they often see is the equipment manager.

Jackie Miles, the Panthers’ equipment manager from the team’s inception through 2017, talked about how emotional the moment could be. After players passed Miles, stripped of their official Carolina helmets and pads, they walked out of the stadium into whatever came next.

The Panthers play their final exhibition, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thursday. Performance of players competing for the final roster spots will help determine who sticks. Deadline to decide is Saturday at 4 p.m.

“Oh, I dread Friday and Saturday,” says Rivera. “I’ve been through it. I mean I know what if it feels like.”

A linebacker, Rivera had started for the Chicago Bears. That’s what he was, a starting linebacker. When they drafted a linebacker, of course Rivera, as he got older, took it personally. Almost all players do. In 1992, when Rivera was 30, the Bears cut him.

Most of us can identify, although we were cut long before we reached the NFL. Names of the players who made the team often were posted on the gymnasium door. The more confident among us rushed to see it. The rest of us sidled up, as if, hey, as long as we’re in the neighborhood, we might as well look for our name

To fail was devastating for players, and devastating for most coaches. To tell a player he or she hadn’t made the team is tough for any coach with empathy. I’ve talked to several coaches, professional and in high school, about cutting players. It’s the day the coaches most dread.

The Panthers go through camps together, especially training camp. They stay in the same Wofford dormitory, study the same playbook, eat in the same dining hall, and slam into each other and with each other on the same fields and in exhibitions.

Family and friends are optimistic. Their guy is in the NFL. And then, come Saturday, he’s not.

“To do it as a head coach is even harder,” says Rivera. “I just think it’s a tough time, it’s a very tough time. For some of these guys, this is their shot.”

Miles got to know players, and when those close to him were released, the departure was as emotional for him as it was for them.

On cut day, some players use moves inside Bank of America Stadium that are as good as those they used on the field. The idea is not to get tapped on the shoulder, not to be told the coach or general manager wants to see them. But eventually, the people who deliver the bad news will find you. They’ll find you every time.

Colts fans showed no class in booing Andrew Luck

One of the sharpest marketing people I know told me years ago that NFL fans and NASCAR fans had more in common than fans of any other sport.

At this time, NASCAR was still a major sport, grandstands full and infields adventurous and alive. I remember thinking, “NFL crowds are much more sophisticated.”

Man, was I wrong. If you need proof, look at the manner in which fans of the Indianapolis Colts responded to the retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck.

News of Luck’s retirement leaked during Saturday’s exhibition loss to the Chicago Bears, and fans booed him when he walked off Lucas Oil Stadium’s field. Some fans were drunk; we know that without asking them to submit to a Breathalyzer. Many were angry and shocked by the news.

And some fans do what the fans next to them do, so perhaps boos were contagious.

They also were classless. People who defend the fans say there were only a few booing, or they were booing because of the manner in which the news was released. They’re wrong.

Luck is only 29. Like many of his peers, he has collected injuries. Pain, rehab, play, pain, rehab, and play – on two. Last season he fought back through the injuries and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.

But after seven seasons, and four trips to the playoffs, and an ankle that apparently refuses to heal, he decided he didn’t want to come back anymore. The joy of playing football had gone.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski also has retired at 29, the same age as Luck. Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, who had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons, retired at 30. Patrick Willis, a five-time all-pro linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, retired at 30. Calvin Johnson, the great Detroit Lions receiver, retired at 30.

Michael Jordan retired from the NBA at 30, and of course returned. The great Bobby Orr retired from the NHL at 31. Running back Barry Sanders left the NFL at 31. Jim Brown retired from the NFL at 30.

A former Carolina Panther told me at training camp one summer that I wrote about players as if they were people. Some fans forget the human component. They see athletes as well-paid, and even overpaid, entertainers. So, regardless of an athlete’s pain, get out there and entertain us.

Luck is a tremendous talent who is tired of rehabilitation and tired of pain. He gave a lot to the game, and to fans, and the game has given a lot to him.

Luck has always struck me as a good, smart, unpretentious human being who likes life. I hope he continues to.

Short takes: Panthers’ bouncy bubble

Spent time in the Panthers’ practice bubble. It reminded me of a bounce house for adults. The ceiling was high, the lights bright, and the turf so soft that you wanted to be tackled…

I picked the final record Wednesday for every NFL team. That’s a challenge, at least for me. I’ll print it next week. Last season I had the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, with the Saints winning. Come on, that’s pretty good…

Had a woman on Twitter say that she stopped following the Panthers when they signed safety Eric Reid. Then she criticized Reid’s performance last season. If you stopped following the Panthers, how do you know he played poorly? (He played well.) The world might be complex. Twitter isn’t…

Some of us are concerned about Carolina’s reserve quarterbacks. A question: Who is the best backup quarterback the Panthers have ever had? You say Josh McCown? That’s what I say, too…

The Panthers invited members of military in the Carolinas to join them for boot camp Tuesday. Beneath the practice bubble, they engaged in a variety of drills, among them the 40-yard dash. They invited Rivera to participate, but he chose not to.

Rivera could move. He says he was timed twice in the 40 – 4.72 seconds and 4.82.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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