Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Thoughts

Some observations:

I like the Panthers chances against Minnesota this weekend. The Panthers are feeling a little bit of confidence, but they are also that the difference between success and failure is just a play here or there. This is a team that is doing exactly what Ron Rivera has been preaching all season: learning.

They learned how to deal with adversity against Washington and overcame the mistakes (of which there were enough that could have swung the game in the Redskins favor). They made the plays they needed to get the job done. That will go a long way in their development as the season continues.

Interesting to note, that there are many national football folks who believe the Panthers are not out of the playoff picture at this time. Yes, they are 2-5, but a win Sunday heading into their bye week could be huge. A team that has suffered through some tough losses to good teams could easily fold up their tents and call it quits, but this bunch continues to progress. I personally am not convinced the Panthers will make the playoffs, but a win Sunday would get them back in the mix, even if it is on the periphery of the discussion.

The World Series will see its first Game 7 since 2002 on Friday night. I am a lifelong baseball fan, and what I watched into the wee hours on Thursday was epic. Two teams throwing haymakers at one another from the 8th inning on. Big at-bat after big at-bat, both teams finding a way to score runs when the heat was at its height. Just beautiful to watch.

I am bothered, though, by the haters out there ripping Joe Buck for his home run call of Brian Freese in the 11th. His "we will see you tomorrow night," was word for word, the same as his father Jack Buck from 1991, when Kirby Puckett's extra-inning homer to win Game 6 over the Atlanta Braves, forcing a World Series Game 7. It was akin to Buck's call of Kirk Gibson's homer for the Dodgers to beat Oakland in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. It's the stuff that is built into the lore and magic of baseball's post-season.

People are unhappy that the call wasn't original. Really? I have a message to the haters: Get a Life. Seriously. What a great tribute to not only his father, but a legendary broadcaster. Had Joe borrowed something from Vin Scully or Jon Miller, or even the late Ernie Harwell, I would understand people being a little unhappy. Joe Buck kept it in the family, and as the situation was virtually identical (the game was played outdoors, rather than in a dome is about the only difference), it was fitting. Simple, direct, and dramatic.

Given all that Joe has been through healthwise, cut him a break. And then after you've done that, get out of your basement and see the world. Or just your little corner of it.

We'll see you tonight on Sports Night at 10.

Mike Solarte

Monday, October 24, 2011

The first step?

The Carolina Panthers have a record of 2-5, with win number two coming Sunday over Washington. Head Coach Ron Rivera has been preaching for weeks that when his team breaks through and finishes games, it's going to be special.

Without getting too far ahead of things, I would have to say he's right.

The Panthers overcame their worst enemy on Sunday, themselves, and handed the Redskins their worst loss of the season. The Panthers tried to boot his one away in the first half, by committing nine penalties, costing them 70 yards in field position. For the game, Carolina was flagged 13 times for 105 total yards, something that has to be addressed.

Other than that, it was all pretty good. The Panthers may have caught a break when RB Tim Hightower went down with a knee injury. He was on his way to a 100 yard effort on the ground, which is becoming a pattern for opposing running backs (creeping up on 100 yard games), but Carolina was able to weather their own mistakes and get a win.

Next up, Minnesota, a team that looked dead in the water until two weeks ago. They have become competitive in that short span, now that they have turned to rookie QB Christian Ponder. He hasn't cured all of their ills, but he took the Vikings to a six point loss to Green Bay on Sunday. Adrian Peterson ran wild on the Packers for 175 yards on 24 carries. Carolina's main focus on defense is limiting Peterson as best they can.

Yeah, I know. Cam Newton.

Folks, we are running out of adjectives to describe Newton. He played very well, once again, this time racking up a TD run, TD pass, and QB rating of over 127...his best so far. Biggest number found in his statline was "0." As in zero turnovers. A huge boost in helping a team avoid beating itself.

The one thing I truly admire about Newton isn't his running ability, or his arm, or even his poise. It's the FUN he is having between the lines. Even when the Panthers are trailing in a game, he's slinging it, he's running, and in all of it, he's smiling. Watch the way he runs out of the pre-game tunnel. Touchdown celebrations are generally a joyous moment, but with Newton, the eruption is so genuine, it's contagious. Even though the Panthers have just two wins, it is safe to say that Newton is the guy that will help in the team's resurgence over time.

In other sports news, the World Series is tied 2-2 after Texas evened things up with St. Louis on Sunday night. I had to go back to game two, however, for the post-game bashing Albert Pujols was taking for not coming up with a throw from right field in the 9th inning. Just to reset it, the Cards led 1-0 in the top of the 9th, Texas would get a runner on first (who then stole second), and then the next batter rips a single to right. A ball hit too sharply to score the runner from second, the throw into the infield got away from Pujols, allowing the batter to advance to second. A pair of sacrifice flies later, and teh Rangers had the lead, and then the game.

Maybe it was just me thinking this, but it seemed like a lot of folks couldn't wait to get into the batter's box to take their cuts at Pujols for not coming up with the throw in from right. Could he have made a better effort on it? Sure. There is also this. The pitcher could have made a better pitch, and the right fielder could have made a better throw in. The first baseman's job on a throw into home is to act as an aiming point for the outfielder, as well as the cut-off man. If the throw will be late, the catcher directs the cut-off man to intercept the trow and make a play to another base (if a play is there to be made). Pujols didn't come up with the throw, moving the eventual game winning run into scoring position.

Pujols was then unavailable for comment following that game, and got ripped for that, too. If I am Pujols, I am ready to see what teams out there would want my services. It's pretty clear that one of, if not the best players in the game over the past decade has run his course in one of America's best baseball cities. There is no appreciation left for him, even after he belted three (yes, three) homers in game 3 in Texas.

Where he ends up is anybody's guess, but given his on-field resume, and his charitable work off of it, Pujols would be a welcome addition in ANY major league town.

Mike Solarte

Monday, October 10, 2011

An Open Letter to the Panthers

Dear Panthers,

The time has come to turn the corner, guys. It really has.

Through five weeks, you have proven that you can hang with any team on your schedule, some tougher (Green Bay), than others (Jacksonville). There is no shame in the losses. Sure, losing sucks, but this is a far cry from the losses that piled up last year. A year ago, you guys looked great going into the national anthem. It was generally all downhill from there.

That's not what we see now. Now, we see a team that has been invigorated by a breath of fresh air. It no longer "is what it is," it is what promises to be. It's a fan base that holds their breath every time Cam Newton has the ball in his hands. Not because they worry he's going to throw it to the opposite jersey color, but because more often than not, he takes your breath away. The fans want that breath to cheer with.

Still, the reality is that the record is 1-4. In each of the losses, there has been one deficiency to point at as the culprit. One week it's no success in the red zone, another was the inability to stop the run. This week, it was coaching decisions (the timeout before the half, and the call to throw on 3rd and 2 in the 4th qtr, when a first down keeps the ball, and the clock moving). Yet throughout all of that, all four losses have come by a combined total of 22 points, or just over 6 points per game.

Last season, the offense couldn't get out of its own way. Now, the offense is searching for another field to conquer. The defense has been good at times, dreadful at others. This defense, though is missing 3 key players that were counted on at the start of the campaign, and have had other players miss a game here or there, due to injuries, namely concussions. There is blame to be had, and not one of the defenders would shy away from accepting his share. That is a quality group of high character guys.

There is plenty of character on offense as well, don't get me wrong. It's a good collection of young players that continue to grow week in and week out. The fact remains, that being close to wins only carries you so far. The late great "Bum" Phillips, former coach of the Houston Oilers once spoke at post-season rally for his team. A team that came up short of their Super Bowl destination. He summed up his teams' journey for the previous seasons by saying, "two years ago, we found the door, this year, we knocked on the door, and next year, we're gonna kick the son of a b$#^@ in!" This Panthers team is capable of kicking the door in.

Time to find your boots, gentlemen.

Mike Solarte

Monday, October 3, 2011

Frustration is good, if improvements follow

The Carolina Panthers dropped a 34-29 decision to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, sinking their record to 1-3, and leaving a stinging sense of frustration within the team.

To that, I say, good.

No, I am not happy the Panthers are frustrated, in fact I am glad that they are. It shows the guys in the room care about what is going on. It's a different sense of what was going on in that dressing room last year. Instead of frustration, it was more hopelessness. It was a feeling of, "we are trying, but we just don't have what it takes." This year's team clearly has what it takes, it just isn't executing when it matters most.

I am sure fans are getting tired of seeing this week in and week out. Making a lot of plays, just not making enough of them. Here's the rub: the players are tired of it, too.

I like the fact these guys aren't happy about losing. I like the fact that these guys are felling empty inside after dropping close game after close game. The true question is, will it motivate them, to a man, to step their game up a little bit more? Only the Green Bay Packers are making things look easy. Carolina is making giving games away look easy. And by giving games away, I mean, not finishing.

One quarter of the season is in he books. While it hasn't been nearly as ugly as last year (in fact, it's been rather enjoyable to watch), there are no pictures in the box score. What will it take to turn those losses into wins? It falls in this order: tighten up the defense, tighten up the special teams, and keep the offense doing what it's doing.

I'm not laying the blame at the feet of the defense, because they are doing all they can with what they have, and as we've known throughout the season, back into training camp, the defense is thin. that deep linebacking corps is being tested with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis both on the shelf for the season. It's being tested with their rookie defensive tackles. It's being tested with a young secondary. The Panthers have horses on defense, but could use some thoroughbreds. They may have some in the making (thoroughbreds), but right now, they are not up to NFL standard. That will come with experience, but there is one unavoidable truth in all of this.

The Panthers should not be 1-3 at this point of the season. A case could be made for them being 4-0. They lose by 7 to both Arizona and Green Bay, outswim Jacksonville and then come up short against Chicago. The loss to the Bears stings a bit more, because Carolina dominated Chicago on both sides of the ball for about three quarters. The Bears rushing attack owned the fourth for the home team, ultimately leading to the win. Carolina's troubles in stopping the run when it mattered hurt them in the end, but there were missed opportunities once again. A blocked field goal, and missed field goal (came up short from 52 yards, but 6 feet further and it's on the board), and other chances to sustain drives (2-12 on 3rd down conversions), will do that to a team. It is frustrating.

For a fan base that watched their team sink to the bottom of the league over a two year stretch, the losses are better than the ones from last year, however, they won't continue to be so patient. Playing good, and contending for wins is one thing, but ultimately teams are judged by wins and losses. Four games in, the new look Panthers are a frustrated 1-3.

Pretty soon, the honeymoon with all the newness will fade, and the wins will be expected, and they should be.

Mike Solarte