Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: The Cam-Kemba Era in Charlotte comes to an end

An era may be closing with the Carolina Panthers’ decision to end injured quarterback Cam Newton’s season.
An era may be closing with the Carolina Panthers’ decision to end injured quarterback Cam Newton’s season. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Cam Newton and Kemba Walker came to Charlotte the same year, 2011. Cam was the best player on the national champion Auburn football team, Kemba the best player on the national champion Connecticut basketball team. Cam became entrenched as the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback, and Kemba became entrenched as the Charlotte Hornets’ quarterback.

Both were born in May (1989 for Cam and ’90 for Kemba). Cam was the first pick in the NFL draft; Kemba, the ninth pick in the NBA draft. So they’re linked. We, Charlotte, and the Carolinas, are linked to them.

And if a year ago I had written that Cam and Kemba would be out of Charlotte in 2020, the AARP would have come after me with a net.

But Kemba is gone, now the point guard for the Boston Celtics, who come to Charlotte to play Hornets on Thursday. Cam is gone from active duty. He’ll log no more time during the regular season than we will. The Panthers stuck him on injured reserve Tuesday, meaning that he’s not eligible to return until the playoffs. And if the Panthers make the playoffs, it will be quarterback Kyle Allen who led them there, and no way will Carolina replace him with Cam.

Cam could stick around; he has one season remaining on his contract. Many have declared him gone, and he probably will be. He’ll make $21 million next season. That’s a lot of money to invest in one player.

But if he again becomes the old Cam, he merits that salary. The old Cam was a pass-flinging, defender-dodging, sprinting-and-throwing force. After all the injuries he’s collected, it’s tough to imagine him being that Cam again. If he can’t run, he’s average.

Because of the injuries, it would be interesting to see what Carolina could get for him in a trade. If the Panthers merely release him, they save $19 million. With so many young and talented players in line for, and entitled to, a payday, I suspect that Cam will go. If he somehow becomes Cam again, the flinging, moving, emotional offensive leader, it likely will be far away.

I refer to Cam and Kemba by their first names because we know them. We’ve watched Cam become a trusted teammate, and I’ve attended several of the functions his foundation promotes, where he is as kid-like as the middle school kids he rewards, challenges and entertains.

We’ve seen him evolve from rookie of the year to MVP. We’ve seen the celebrations and the football giveaways, seen him show the world, and coaches and general managers, that quarterbacks can run and survive and thrive. We’ve seen him play hurt, and seen him overwhelmed by defenders. We’ve never seen or heard him complain about his offensive line.

Cam is damaged now. Last season it was the shoulder, this season the foot. A man I know suffered from the same injury Cam did, a Lisfranc. He showed me an X-ray. If my kids were younger, and they refused to go to bed, I’d show them that X-ray and say, “That foot is on its way here.”

Some of you criticize Cam’s flamboyance, and his running. Why can’t he just drop back in the pocket, hand the ball to an official after scoring, and play on a black-and-white TV?

Yet his influence is such that he had non-dancing Southern Baptists doing the dab.

I didn’t understand the import of Cam’s post-touchdown Superman celebration until I watched a Panthers’ Challenger League flag football game. The Challenger League is for kids and adults with challenges, or disabilities.

After scoring a touchdown, a kid probably in his late teens celebrated by performing Newton’s Superman. Every player on the kid’s team clapped and screamed. Every player on the opposing team clapped and screamed. Every parent, sibling and fan watching on the sidelines clapped and cheered, and some screamed, and some cried. The moment was fantastic, and without Cam, it doesn’t happen.

I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera a few years ago if one player became more excited before a game than all the others. He hesitated not even a second and said, “Cam.”

Cam was the first Panther to do a series of big-time national endorsements. He had his own line of clothing. Everybody knew him, a national star who played right here.

And, I tell you, his presence, in our town, was pretty cool.

Kemba was as good at his job as Cam was at his, albeit quieter. When you needed a quote, you went to Kemba. When the Hornets needed an emissary in the community, they went to Kemba. When the Hornets needed a basket, they called a play: Kemba against the World. Remarkable how often it worked.

Kemba didn’t come to town with the glitz that Cam did, and the Hornets were not immediately his. But they became his. Kemba fixed his New York City playground jump shot, which initially appeared as if it was attempting to account for wind. Through will and work, Kemba turned his shot from erratic to consistent and consistent to true. Not a loud man, he became a leader, and as he went, so did his team.

Talent knows talent. I ran into Stephen Curry outside the John Boy & Billy Big Show studio after the Hornets drafted Kemba, and Curry said, “Kemba is going to be good.”

Last year, Kemba became a salary-cap casualty. He had signed a team-friendly contract, but the more he evolved, the more he became underpaid. Forever trapped in the NBA’s lower-middle class, the Hornets let Kemba go to a team that would pay him a salary commensurate with his talent,.

Would have been nice if Kemba could have finished his career in Charlotte. Would be nice if Cam could, too.

But the Hornets needed to start over. And, at least in terms of their quarterback, the Panthers should, too.

Gentlemen, you had a great run.

Thanks for coming.

The Kyle Allen era begins

You know the legend of Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen. He was great in high school, couldn’t hold a full-time quarterback job in college, and went undrafted. The Panthers picked him up last season and he started only one game, the season-ender against the New Orleans Saints when the two quarterbacks in front of him on the depth chart were hurt.

Coming into this season, most of us viewed him as a potentially good backup.

How different would the perception be if Allen had been a first-round pick? Odes would be written to the guy. He’d endorse local restaurants. We’d praise general manager Marty Hurney for finding him. We probably would consider him a franchise quarterback.

We might have to.

Allen has gone 5-1 since replacing the injured Cam Newton as starter Sept. 22.

He was overwhelmed by the defense of the San Francisco 49ers, but there’s a lot of that going around. He doesn’t have Newton’s arm or Newton’s legs, but few do.

Allen is steady. But he’s more than a caretaker. You saw the 10-play, 90-yard drive he led last week against the Tennessee Titans. You’ve seen him hit receivers with deep passes.

Is he a franchise quarterback? No. Will he become one? There’s no way no know. When little else is working, a franchise quarterback has to lift his team. Can Allen do that?

Will his ascendance flatten? Will become Case Keenum or Ryan Fitzpatrick? Is he as good as Mitchell Trubisky? Is he already better?

We don’t know, and neither do his coaches. Allen is 23, and has road games remaining this season today at Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis, and home games against Seattle and New Orleans.

We’ll know more when the season ends. But so far? If you can find something to complain about, go ahead. The truth: He’s better than we thought.

Those unreliable Browns

Explain to me not why the Cleveland Browns are perpetually overmatched, but why I continue to pick them to win? And while you’re at it, explain, please, how the Miami Dolphins, a team that sold its talent and was built to be bad, beat the New York Jets?

Thanks.

But if the NFL weren’t full of mid-season surprises, it wouldn’t be the NFL.

Last Week: 10-4

Season: 88-46-1

Lock of the Week: The Lock was an absolute gift. The Houston Texans went to London to play the Jacksonville Jaguars, and were favored by a mere 1½ points. Why, because the Jaguars play almost as often in England as they do Florida? The Texans won 26-3. So, yes, I got this one right.

Lock of the Week Season: 5-4

My week 10 picks, with the home team in CAPS:

Thursday

OAKLAND 4 over Los Angeles Chargers

Sunday

Baltimore 10 over CINCINNATI

Buffalo 1 over CLEVELAND

CHICAGO 2 over Detroit

New York Giants 4 over NEW YORK JETS

Kansas City 2 over TENNESSEE

TAMPA BAY 5 over Arizona

NEW ORLEANS 13 over Atlanta

INDIANAPOLIS 8 over Miami

Los Angeles Rams 4 over PITTSBURGH

DALLAS 2 over Minnesota

SAN FRANCISCO 7 over Seattle

Lock of the Week: GREEN BAY (-5) 9 over Carolina

Hornets’ impressive start

Charlotte Hornets’ coach James Borrego talked before the season about featuring his young players. I didn’t know if he would. When games become tight, coaches often do, too.

But youth, and Borrego’s confidence in it, served him Tuesday in Charlotte’s 122-120 overtime victory against the Indianapolis Pacers.

Four Hornets played 33 or more minutes: Terry Rozier, 25, played 43 minutes; Miles Bridges, 21, played 43 minutes; Devonte’ Graham, 24, played 42 minutes; Cody Martin, 24, played 33 minutes.

Martin, a rookie out of Nevada (and before that N.C. State) whom Charlotte drafted in the second round, appears to have been born without a jump shot. He took two shots against the Pacers, and missed both. That’s one field goal attempt every 16½ minutes.

But Martin, a lean 6-6, grabbed 11 rebounds, five more than any of his teammates, and added three assists. He hustles. And often, when there’s a right place to be, there he is.

We began the season talking about Charlotte tanking. But the Hornets have won three straight, have a record of 4-3 and have played four of their seven games on the road.

Graham, a second-round pick a season ago, scored 35 points against the Pacers, and kicked in six assists, both highs for Charlotte. At some point after last season, Graham realized he could do this, could play in the NBA and shoot from the outside and run an offense.

The Hornets, who trailed by 15 after one quarter Tuesday, have been fun to watch and better than expected. Attendance Tuesday was listed as 13,341 and, no, 13,341 fans were not at Spectrum Center. But the fans who were were passionate and loud.

Look, the Hornets are rebuilding. And they shouldn’t be good. But they have been. For NBA fans, this feels like a bonus.

It will be so much fun Thursday night to watch Rozier, the former Boston Celtic, go against Kemba Walker, the former Charlotte Hornet, and to watch Graham go against Walker. Fans will remind Walker how much he means to them, to the team, and to the city.

Thursday is a special occasion. But even when a game is not, the show so far has been pretty good.

Saluting Green Bay

I don’t know how many of you are flying to Green Bay (or to Milwaukee and renting a car and driving straight north) to watch the Carolina Panthers play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

But I salute you.

Yes, the weather will be inconvenient. Winter arrives in that part of the country in late August. The high Sunday is projected to be 32 degrees, the low 15.

As long as you don’t have to live in it, the cold is part of the charm.

Green Bay’s population is less than half of Greensboro’s, less than Columbia’s, and not much bigger than Greenville, N.C. Green Bay has more people than Rock Hill, but after the Panthers shift operations down there, Rock Hill might catch it.

Because of Green Bay’s size, games offer a collegiate feel. Walk into a crowded sports bar, and customers on a long bench will squeeze together to accommodate you. Feels like a ma-and-pa town.

I was there for a playoff game, and we stayed at the non-Marriott, non-chain, family-run hotel to which the NFL sent us. Although one colleague complained about the wine list, we had a great time.

Don’t know if it’s still this way, but the people who lived in the working-class neighborhood on our way to the stadium held up signs, inviting fans to park on their lawn for $20. It probably isn’t $20 any more.

Green Bay is the NFL the way the NFL used to be. Walk into Lambeau Field and you expect to see the Canton Bulldogs. In some stadiums, and ballparks and arenas, you want to call somebody and say, “Oh, man, you should see this place.” Lambeau Field is one of them.

It’s as if time is frozen. And, on Sunday, you will be, too.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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