Wednesday, July 27, 2011

So, how was YOUR Wednesday?

The sports landscape has a way of ebbing and flowing. Generally, a steady stream of items come across the desk, things which are considered normal.

Normal is far from the reality in the Carolinas these days.

The Carolina Panthers are spending money like Daniel Snyder, and the North Carolina Tar Heels fired Head Coach Butch Davis on Wednesday. While one situation isn't exactly unusual, the other makes me scratch my head. Can you guess which one? Don't worry, here comes the explanation.

The Panthers are the ones that are acting semi-normally. That's right. An organization known for its loyalty to players, continued to show that again on Wednesday. They made good on their conversations (I hesitate to use promises in pro sports), with their own players heading into the off-season, and were able to get Charles Johnson (on Tuesday), DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson and Thomas Davis to agree to new, long-term deals. These were all players tabbed as "priorities," for Carolina, and they wasted no time in getting them done. The next priority will be Jon Beason, but that is down the road.

Now, the loyalty comment takes a bit of a turn here, as the Panthers are expected to release kicker John Kasay on Thursday. For some, that will mark a sad time in Panthers history. The last remaining original Panther, and the franchise's all time leading scorer being shown the door rather unceremoniously. Kasay's contributions to the organization reach far beyond his kicks on the field. He was a steadying force in the locker room, a player that many of his teammates could quickly come to for support and guidance.

For others, Kasay's departure means a fresh start, with no ties to the old regime. It also means the Panthers (with the signing of K Olindo Mare on Wednesday), will carry just one kicker with them into the season, with Jason Baker handling the punting detail. It will free up new Head Coach Ron Rivera to carry another position player into the season on the roster. For Rivera, there is no attachment to the past. When John Fox came in, Kasay was handling all the kicking duties. Towards the end, Rhys Lloyd handled kickoffs, Kasay field goals. The signing of Mare eliminates the need for the KO specialist (unfortunate for Lloyd, who never got a shot at the field goal duties in Carolina). In the end, this decision is about the business of the game.

Carolina hadn't done much of anything in free agency the past few years, and the reason for that was obvious then, and even more so now. The franchise was preparing for the lockout by eliminating big contracts, and stockpiling salary cap room in anticipation of a new collective bargaining agreement. The Panthers HAD spent money in the past, so the fact they are doing it now isn't such a shock.

As for the Tar Heels, this is the head scratcher. This past weekend, Butch Davis was in Pinehurst at the ACC Football Kickoff, and spoke in optimistic tones about the season ahead. He talked about how the program was moving forward from the nasty academic and benefits scandal that scarred the university last year. The fact that just two days after those interviews were given, Davis is now out of a job makes you wonder. Why the delay?

If Davis was on the outs, and the school knew that was coming, why wouldn't they have done it say, back in December after the bowl game? This firing does not change the fact that the NCAA investigation into the program, and the school, was and is an embarrassment to the alumni of the school. The firing also now throws the upcoming season into a tizzy, as the school has eight whole days to name a successor, and begin preparations for the schedule.

This is to say nothing of the upcoming meeting with the NCAA in October, a meeting that Davis was eagerly looking forward to (in his words at Pinehurst), where it was thought the school could move beyond what had happened. Davis' firing is poorly timed, and likely could have saved the school further embarrassment, and potentially harsher punishments from the NCAA. The penalties stand to be severe, regardless of who the next Head Coach is.

Mike Solarte

Monday, July 25, 2011

Post-lockout football

The day is coming (perhaps as early as Monday), and once it begins, what will the Carolina Panthers do?
Of course, everybody has an opinion, so here's mine.
Sign, and then spend.
Sounds reckless, but it's true. The Panthers need to bring back DE Charles Johnson, RB DeAngelo Williams and LB James Anderson first (which is what they will likely be allowed to do). After that, target big ticket free agents that still have value. That;'s the catch. Finding the guys that are actually worth the rate and risk. Carolina has taken a two-year sabbatical on free agency, only bringing in 3rd and maybe 4th level guys in the past couple years (no doubt, looking down the road and seeing the current situation ahead of them back then).
Carolina's 2-14 record from a season ago, was due in large part to unproven, young players taking their lumps. There is talent there, but in order for those young guys to improve quickly, they need veteran leadership. I understand the notion of letting the kids grown up on their own, but you run the risk of continued lopsided losing seasons while waiting for that to happen.
Veterans last year would have helped immensely. Jimmy Clausen had no real mentor, and that's not a slight on Matt Moore. Moore was the elder statesman last season, with all 8 of his career starts at QB. Vet QB's came in when the ship was sinking (Brian St. Pierre, Keith Null), and they did a nice job of bucketing out some of the water, but not enough to turn things around.
Who are the free agents Carolina should target? Pick a position, and find the best guy. Carolina needs help in virtually every area. If the Panthers re-sign their own (the aforementioned players), they could get some help in the secondary (with the expected departure of CB Richard Marshall). They could also use some defensive line support (a veteran guy to show the young DT's the ropes), and perhaps a wide receiver to assist Steve Smith, or take Smith's place should he get traded (also a possibility).
Then there is the QB position. Jimmy Clausen is the incumbent starter, based on his experience last year. Cam Newton is the guy for the future. Who is their tutor? Given what the Panthers are likely going to invest in Newton, he needs a mentor on the roster. To me, the answer is simple.
Jake Delhomme.
Delhomme likely will be released by Cleveland, as the Browns won't be paying him back-up money now that they have settled in on Colt McCoy. Delhomme's best days under center are likely behind him, but is there a better guy out there, that the Panthers could bring in and be the team guy? Billy Volek would come to Charlotte, but he would likely be competing for the starting gig. Delhomme would compete as well, but he would also know that he is the 3rd guy. He would know that his job is to "Krash Davis" himself within the QB's (think Kevin Costner's character in "Bull Durham"). Teach them how to read NFL defenses, how to prepare, how to do all the little things. It's not glamorous, but he gets to keep coming to practice and getting paid to do it.
It's a thought, and to me it makes the most sense out of all the craziness that football fans have had to endure during this labor struggle.
Mike Solarte

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Lockout continues

NFL Owners ratified their own agreement, and then were saying they were confused as to why the players didn't instantly ratify it themselves.


While frustrating to fans (and media that have covered lockout ball, rather than off-season moves and looking ahead to actual games), the players are WELL WITHIN THEIR RIGHTS to carefully review a document that will take, in my estimation, 1200 of the 1900 players in the league through to the end of their careers. That number could actually be higher than 1200, I'm just guessing.

Fans need to remember that this situation happened when the owners locked the players out. The players didn't walk out on their jobs. They were locked out from their jobs.

From the folks I have spoken to, it does not seem likely that this current deal will be ratified by players before the weekend is over (although in this very fluid situation, that could change quickly). Truth be told, very few people outside the talks really KNOW what is going on. The players are holding the CBA right now, looking for the best deal possible, and I do think they will go with it, with some minor changes, but nothing that is a potential deal breaker.

The owners move to place the pressure on the NFLPA was applauded by one guy, Chad Ochocinco, on his twitter account, saying it was "well played," but the truth is, the players are in no rush to return to work. They didn't have the deadline of opening camps on time, getting games played. They'll get to an agreement when they feel comfortable they are being treated fairly. The delay only makes the fans angrier, but it comes to this: would you, John Q. Public, just sign a contract with your company because THEY said it was a good deal, or would you look it over first?

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Countdown to Kickoff? Quick thoughts...

Could it be that the NFL season will, in fact, be saved at the 11th hour? NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash saying Wednesday night that the paperwork should be in order that both sides can begin voting on it.

Let me throw this caution out there: just because it can be voted on, doesn't mean it will be voted on favorably. Of course, I have no reason to think the sides won't agree and get things rolling, but a cold splash of reality never hurt anyone.

It will be interesting to see what the players gave up, and how much the owners gained in all this. Still, both sides stand to make large sums of money from the $9 billion dollar pie, so it will be hard to feel sorry for any of them. At the same time, though, I hope both sides realize that this 4 month run of labor strife has left a stain on the NFL shield, and BOTH sides will have to work on removing it.

People who count on the NFL for their livelihood have endured 4 months of terror. Organizations that base fundraising efforts on the NFL have as well. Will fans be turned off after all of this, or will they come back in the usual numbers?

We'll see just how bullet-proof the NFL really is.

Mike Solarte

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kicked in the gut

Mention the game of soccer to the average American, and the response is generally lukewarm. For the most part, the average Joe has limited interest in the game. Most of the time, their interest stems from the teams on the field, and with Team USA in the Women's World Cup final, interest was higher than usual.

The Americans held 1 goal leads, twice in the game, only to see Japan erase the margins both times, force penalty kicks, and ultimately claim the Cup. It was a stunning defeat for an American side that many felt should win the game, and the tournament. The Japanese side finding a way, winning their first World Cup title, and lifting a wounded nation that has gone through so much.

What I found most interesting, though, were the reactions on Twitter. Some called the loss a "choke job." Others were proud of the effort. I wonder if those fighting for gender equity in sports, were ok with the notion of fans labeling the loss a "choke." More than that, I wonder if the person that called it a "choke," also says they don't care about soccer, or women's soccer for that matter. You can't say you don't care in one breath, and then call it a "choke," in the next. If you didn't care in the first place, then you have no opinion on the outcome.

Basically, there are more closet soccer fans out there than want to admit it. And that is ok by me. Follow my twitter timeline (@MikeSolarte) and you'll see some of the conversations I have. I'm not diehard, but I appreciate the game that my father taught me as a youngster.

Darren Clarke wins the 140th British Open at Royal St. George's, and I ask, could there have been a better winner? OK, sure Phil Mickelson or Dustin Johnson might have been better for American golf, but there were maybe two better stories than Clarke. One would have been English amateur Tom Lewis winning it (he opened with a 65 to tie for the round 1 lead, b ut faded and finished as low amateur at +9), or Tom Watson taking another Claret Jug. In the end, Clarke takes the win, his first major title, and it took him 20 tries at the British alone.

Why is Clarke so likable? He is you. He is me. He is a guy that likes to smile, have a good time, have a pint of Guinness now and again. His life isn't immune from reality. Five years ago, losing his wife to breast cancer. I couldn't imagine losing my best friend at the age of 37. He battled through it, offered counsel to Phil Mickelson when his wife Amy was diagnosed. He has had his highs, and lows in the game. Highs and lows in life. Yet he ambles on, striking the ball in Sandwich with surgeon-like precision. He earned that walk up 18, grin on his face, and even had enough of a cushion to bogey his final two holes, the last one on the 72nd hole giving him a chance to make a remark at someone on the edge of the green.

Clarke's win leads us back to the harsh fact, that no American golfer has won a major in the last seven. In fact, it's Northern Ireland 3, USA 0 in that span, thanks to Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and now Clarke. A promising sign was Mickelson's performance. Traditionally, Mickelson struggles in the British, but his T-2 finish with Johnson gives the USA some hope. Last chance this year to grab a major comes at the PGA Championship in Atlanta. Surely, some good old American grit can win out in what could be steamy conditions in the A-T-L, right?

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Baseball at the Break

Baseball finds itself at the halfway mark, and the biggest story of the year has already taken place. Derek Jeter shot through the 3,000 hit mark with a 5-for-5 performance. Hit number 3,000 coming on a homer. Fitting, of course, considering Jeter is a player that is, in my opinion, universally loved. Well, except by Red Sox fans.

Jeter has been the epitome of a baseball professional. He's been a true Yankee, following in the line of Dimaggio, Mantle, Maris, and so on. Thing is, his displays as a player haven't been confined to his time in the majors.

Once upon a time, Jeter was assigned to the Columbus Clippers (then the International League affiliate of the Yankees), on a rehab stint. Jeter appeared in just one game for the Clippers, before pronouncing himself ready to return to the majors. He played against the Durham Bulls in Durham. That night, Jeter went 2-for3 with a pair of doubles and a sacrifice fly. Not bad, right? It went beyond the box score.

After the game, Jeter stood at the short fence next to the visitors dugout, and signed autographs for nearly 45 minutes. The game ended, he just walked up the steps, Sharpie in hand, and began to write his name on anything placed in front of him. He engaged the kids, the parents, anyone that approached him. He knew his appearance in Durham meant a lot to a lot of people. He knew it was his duty to give something to those that would likely not be able to see him again. And he did it all with a smile.

I'm not a Yankees fan, but I am a Jeter fan, which leads me to this next point: get off of him, or anyone else for skipping the All Star game.

The All Star game isn't what it used to be, and until MLB does away with inter-league play, it won't regain it's status as the Mid-Summer Classic. This once was the showcase game for the league. The best players from each league, dueling it out for nothing more than bragging rights (and a game check). It used to be considered and honor to be picked as an All Star, but now, in my opinion, it's looked at as a nuisance. I understand the players side, too. 162 games is a grind, and then to fly to the All Star game, and keep playing through a time when the rest of your teammates have their feet in the air, it could be a little tough mentally.

Obviously, players picked for the game, but sidelined by injuries shouldn't be getting any grief over missing the game. Jeter isn't playing, due to what is described as exhaustion. I'm willing to give him a pass on this one given his 3,000 chase, and that he has been nursing a nagging injury as well.

For the players that want the time off, they should have that option. Again, until inter-league play goes away, the All Star game will be nothing more than an exhibition that:
1) once ended in a tie.
2) tried to invent importance by granting home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All Star game, and
3) is played at too late of an hour for kids to be able to watch it, even though the game is played in the summer.

The NFL and NBA may be in lockout situations, but sadly, baseball has lost touch with the fans the most. As someone who grew up on the game, it's sad.