Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Where to begin?

Tuesday was a HUGE day in NASCAR, thanks to a couple of things. First off, a major shake-up at Hendrick Motorsports. Follow along, there will be a quiz later.

Three of their four teams will have new a Crew Chief, moved from within the organization. Lance McGrew leaves the #88 team of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and slides into the same post for Mark Martin and the #5 team. Steve Letarte goes from Jeff Gordon and the #24 to the #88 for Earnhardt, Jr. Alan Gustafson is shifted from the #5 to the #24.

Why all the movement, considering the (untouched) #48 team of Jimmie Johnson just won his 5th straight championship? Basically, because the other 3 didn't come in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively. In fact, only Gordon was a Chase contender when the playoffs began. Martin and Earnhardt, Jr. were on the outside, looking in.

It's not a move of desperation, it's pure Rick Hendrick. It's not being satisfied with success, it going after more of it. It's no secret the Earnhardt, Jr. hasn't produced the results in his time at HMS. This move is a chance for the #88 guys to make a difference. Are there guarantees it will work? Absolutely not. One thing Hendrick can't ever be called is conservative, when it comes to going after titles. This shake-up proves that on many levels.

Richard Petty Motorsports announced they are scaling back from a four-car team down to two. Makes loads of sense given the financial issues RPM dealt with towards the end of the season. Hopefully, the King will find the right money folks to back his efforts, but here's also hoping the King is more hands-on with this company. The arrangement with the Gillett family didn't offer Petty much say in the business side of things, and considering he's been around NASCAR his entire life, he knows how to get things done. NASCAR is better when the Petty name is successful. here's hoping it returns to prominence.

Last NASCAR thought, congrats to Kevin Conway, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and Austin Dillon for earning Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. Great stuff for these three drivers. Continued success in the future to all three.

Turning to the Panthers, they have a chance (again) to pick up win number 2 of the season when they take on the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. Funny as it sounds, the stars may align to have Jake Delhomme start at QB for the Browns to face his former team. You know, the team whose fan base wanted him gone? Hindsight is 20-20, but at the time he was released, I hated the move. I understood, however, it was about saving money, cutting costs, and going younger. Those goals were somewhat achieved, considering the Panthers still owed Delhomme money. Still, the youth got their chance, and the biggest complaint of Head Coach John Fox this season has been the play of the offense, and the QB position. It's a group effort, mind you, but the QB play has been a sore spot all year.

I know Panthers fans are hoping that the "bad" Jake will play for the Browns on Sunday. Throw a bucketful of interceptions, allowing the Panthers the chance to win the game. Not me. If Delhomme does start, I'm hoping he has a good day. No doubt he will be motivated to beat his former team, much the same way he wanted to beat the New Orleans Saints anytime he played them. This, though, is much more personal. The Panthers franchise enjoyed their best years when Delhomme was under center. Disagree? Who were the other QB's to take the Panthers to the Super Bowl? Only one other got them to an NFC Championship game. Delhomme took them to two of those.

Yes, his time in Carolina ended badly. Interceptions, fumbles, bad play, it all added up to him being run out of town like a crooked politician. Lost in all the late mess by many was the stuff that had people snapping up #17 jerseys at the team store, and chanting "Jake" anytime he hit the field. You have to remember the entire body of work, not the closing chapters. Sadly, the last thing folks saw, is how they remember the Louisiana gunslinger.

Will try to hit the blog again before the weekend, but with the holiday it may be tough. There is, however, NO EXCUSE for not watching Sports Night this week! Your chance to win tickets to the ACC Championship game in Charlotte awaits! Make sure you tune in at 10 each night for your chance!

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Panthers, Bobcats, NASCAR...oh my!

Mathematically, they are still alive, but to me, the Panthers playoff hopes are gone. That's fine. I've spent enough time griping about how this team was put together, and the end result. I've accepted that fact. I applaud the efforts of the players, who have gone out week in and week out and done all they could to try and win games.

Seven games to go, starting this Sunday against Baltimore. Another tough assignment for the Panthers offense, considering they are concerned about Jimmy Clausen this week. The Panthers signed Brian St. Pierre off their practice squad on Tuesday. That tells me Clausen is not coming around well after suffering a concussion against Tampa Bay. Say hello to rookie QB Tony Pike as your starter this week, with St. Pierre the backup, and Armanti Edwards as the emergency QB (if Clausen is unable to play). And for all the Edwards fans out there, you have to understand, the Panthers aren't "overlooking" your guy. They have him slotted as a wide receiver, not a QB. They won't just throw him in at QB until he's been looking at the playbook as a QB, not a WR. He hasn't worked out full as a QB in nearly a year, and not at all as a professional.

They could see a running back return from injury, given the release of Andre Brown on Tuesday, but that's something we'll find out at practice on Wednesday morning. Hats off to Mike Goodson for his efforts against the Bucs on Sunday. He ran hard, and got some good up front work to become the team's first 100 yard rusher this season. Took them until game 9 with all that talent back there. Yes, it's been a long year.

Charlotte Bobcats got on the board with a home win on Monday, and now have a few days between games. They head to Miami to face the Heat on Friday. I'm of the opinion the Bobcats have found something, and could be in for a nice stretch. Not saying they are going undefeated or anything silly like that, but I like the way the team played, and there's a good indication that Head Coach Larry Brown liked what he saw too. During the first half, I saw the coach leave his bench seat once. Just once, and that was to calmly work the officials. Generally, when he's not happy, he's up and down, pacing and shouting. A calm Larry usually means a content Larry. Notice I didn't say happy.

Speaking of the officials, the NBA has given them too much power. I understand the league not wanting players to show up their refs, but when Stephen Jackson gets "T'd" up, and even fined for things like he has been nabbed for, it's time to re-evaluate the policy. More than that, sitting courtside on Monday, I heard one ref basically snapping at Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis, and speaking in less than courteous tones. It's a two-way street, Stripes. You can't demand respect from players and coaches, if you aren't willing to show some in their direction as well. Rambis wasn't even hot about a call. He was wanting an explanation about a call that was made, and was trying to point out that the call could have gone another way. The ref shouted (and yeah, I mean shouted), "you asked me what it was, and I told ya..." while turning away from him. Really? Commissioner Stern, please. Step in here, and give the players and coaches a chance to fight for themselves. 99.9% of the time, they won't win their case, but at least allow them to be heard. Give them back their voice.

NASCAR fans, longing for a change tot eh Chase format, may still get their wish, but a 3 -driver battle has taken shape heading into the final race this weekend in Homestead-Miami. Denny Hamlin leads Jimmie Johnson by 15 points, and Kevin Harvick by 46. It will make for an interesting 400 miles in Florida, to be sure. Will one of them try and run another contender into the fence? Will they race each other cleanly? One mistake by the driver, or their pit crew is game over for the season. The margin of error is razor thin. Great drama.

Earlier in the season, NASCAR boss Brian France said the format needed to provide great drama, and signature moments. Looks like it will deliver that this weekend.

Mike Solarte

Monday, November 8, 2010

So THIS is what bottom looks like?

Wow. Just wow.

Carolina Panthers got smoked 34-3 by the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, a game that was not nearly as close as the score might indicate.

The "plan" put in place by the organization before the season began, is coming to fruition. Jettison most of your veteran leadership, sign young players to fill those spots, hope for the best, pray for few injuries, and let the coaching staff coach 'em up. See how we'll finish.

That loud boom you just heard was that plan blowing up in owner Jerry Richardson's face.

I want to state, for the record, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Richardson. He is the first former NFL player to own a franchise in the league. He has always been accommodating to fans of the team, making the rounds to tailgates on gamedays, and his team is always out in the community, giving back.

All that being said, this plan stinks for the fans of this team. It is hard for them to justify paying NFL prices for a product that is turning out to be less than standard. Back on September 29th, in this very space, I wrote this:
"I am curious as to why the Panthers are in this pickle. Why they felt the need
to jettison so much of their experience. I know there were some sizable
contracts attached to that experience, but it's almost like the plot line from
the baseball movie "Major League." The team owner, Rachel Phelps,
instructs her baseball people (scouts, GM, etc), to bring in certain players to
training camp. The intent is for her team, the Cleveland Indians, to be so
horrendous on the field, that attendance figures will fall to the point she can
relocate the team to Florida.

Of course, the Panthers aren't talking about relocating, but they have so many guys on the roster that are young and inexperienced, it makes me wonder if ownership isn't simply playing out the season as they anticipate a very possible lockout next season. Next year, the Panthers will have some decisions to make about personnel, but as it stands now, no collective bargaining agreement exists. Is 2010 just a throw-away?"
I bring that quote back from a little over a month ago, to illustrate this point. There was very little depth on this team to begin with, and now that QB Matt Moore, RB's Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Tyrell Sutton, MLB Dan Connor and rookie DE Greg Hardy are dinged with injuries, the Panthers have been exposed as a team with very little in the cupboard. THIS was the plan?

It's a guarantee, now, not just speculation, that John Fox won't be back next season. This is his final contract year with the club, and his frustration with "the plan," is showing. He kicked aside personnel questions better than an NHL goaltender on Sunday, basically saying, "I didn't buy the groceries, I'm just the cook, and I did my best to make it taste good."

My friend and colleague Bill Voth from the ABC affiliate in Charlotte, used some of his sportscast on Sunday night to call out Richardson, basically telling the owner that an explanation from him is due, in fact long overdue. While I commend Bill for the way he executed it (good execution is the key), those pleas fall on deaf ears. Richardson seems to not care about the opinions of the fans or media in this instance. If he does care, he's not rushing to speak to anyone about it.

I am blessed to be associated with smart people, and I spoke with one of them before the game. In regards to Richardson's "plan," my buddy told me that Richardson sacrificed his own team for the good of the league. Basically, he has shown the rest of the league's owners, he is willing to take the hit at the gate, as well as in the court of popular opinion, in order to help the owners head into what is shaping up to be a nasty labor negotiation. What will his reward be? It might be the first pick in the April draft.

Question is, would the Panthers trade that pick away, too?

Mike Solarte