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January 31, 2014

Cam Newton still bothered by goal-line play vs. 49ers

After the playoff loss to San Francisco, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took the blame for one of the team's goal-line failures, saying he told coaches during the break between the first and second quarters he could pick up a yard on fourth-and-goal at the 1.

Newton expounded on the play this week during an appearance on ESPN Radio, explaining that he checked into a quarterback sneak at the line of scrimmage. Newton told hosts Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo that once he made the check, there was no turning back.

"I saw (linebacker NaVorro) Bowman, I saw Patrick Willis, I saw all those guys. And I'm like, 'Oh my God, I can't check it,'" Newton said. "It was a bad check on my part, and sometimes you do get the short end of the stick."

Linebacker Ahmad Brooks stopped Newton for no gain on the sneak.

After the Panthers forced the 49ers into a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, Newton hit Steve Smith on a 31-yard touchdown pass on the next play. But the Panthers failed to get in the end zone on another goal-to-go situation later in the second quarter, settling for a Graham Gano field goal.

Newton said the loss left a "salty" taste in his mouth, repeating the expression he used during an interview with the Observer before last week's Pro Bowl.

During the ESPN Radio interview, Newton said the Panthers made strides in 2013 they need to build on next season.

"It will be shame on us if we don't make the most of our situations leading up to next season," Newton said.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 31, 2014 at 05:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

DeAngelo Williams gets new role

Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy made his way through radio row at the Super Bowl media center Thursday, doing interviews with several national and regional sports talk shows.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton competed in the Madden Bowl in New York on Thursday night.

But the Panthers player with the coolest Super Bowl gig this week has to be running back DeAngelo Williams, who will make his Broadway debut Friday night in a cameo appearance in the five-time, Tony Award-nominated musical "Rock of Ages."

Williams is the third of four current or former NFL players scheduled to show off their acting chops in "Rock of Ages."

Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb and Detroit running back Joique Bell appeared earlier this week, while former Packers running back Ahman Green will go on stage Saturday night.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 31, 2014 at 12:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

January 29, 2014

Rivera, McDermott win Sporting News' awards

The Panthers swept the Sporting News' coaching awards Tuesday, with Ron Rivera taking the publication's Coach of the Year honors and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott named the Coordinator of the Year.

It's the third such honor in recent weeks for Rivera, who guided the Panthers to a 12-win season, along with the NFC South title and the team's first playoff berth since 2008.

Rivera signed a 3-year contract extension Tuesday, worth between $4 million and $5 million a year, that could keep him in Charlotte through 2017.

McDermott, the former Philadelphia coordinator, oversaw the league's second-ranked defense in both total defense (301.3 yards a game) and scoring defense (15.1 points a game). The Panthers finished second behind Super Bowl entrant Seattle in both categories.

McDermott, 39, won the Sporting News' coordinator honor in a poll of coaches and executives. He finished ahead of two assistants who have since been hired as head coaches: Ken Whisenhunt, the San Diego offensive coordinator now in Tennessee, and former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Minnesota's new coach.

McDermott interviewed this month for the Washington's head-coaching vacancy before the Redskins hired Jay Gruden.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 29, 2014 at 02:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

January 28, 2014

Panthers, Rivera agree on 3-year extension through 2017

Ron Rivera has signed a contract extension that will keep him the head coach of the Carolina Panthers through the 2017 season, the team announced Tuesday afternoon.

This season, Rivera completed the third year of his initial four-year deal, and the Observer reported earlier this week the two sides would soon begin contract extension talks.

The Panthers, who went 6-10 and 7-9 in Rivera's first two seasons, went 12-4 in 2013 and won the NFC South championship. They lost in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs to San Francisco, 23-10. 

“The improvement of our team has been reflected in the progress of the record over the last three seasons under Ron and we look forward to building upon that foundation,” Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson said in a statement released by the team.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said he had the "ultimate confidence" in Rivera in two separate interviews after the season ended when asked about Rivera's status moving forward.

“I have been very clear about how much I have enjoyed living in Charlotte and working for this organization,” Rivera said in a statement. “I very much appreciate the support and confidence Mr. Richardson and Dave Gettleman have shown in me and our staff. Any success we have enjoyed is the result of a team effort by players, coaches, scouts and the entire organization, and our ultimate goal remains winning the Super Bowl.”

Monetary details of the contract were not immediately available. Rivera's first contract was worth $11.2 million.

Rivera is one of the top candidates for the NFL Coach of the Year award, which will be announced Saturday night.

The reason for getting Rivera's contract extension settled before any players on the current team is two-fold. First, the money the Panthers pay Rivera does not count against the salary cap, so it's one problem that can be taken care before having to finesse the cap.

Secondly, Gettleman will spend the next two weeks or so meeting with players and arranging what the Panthers will look like in 2014. With a coach that has job security through the next presidential election rather than one entering a lame duck season, free agents could potentially find Carolina as a better option because of its head coaching stability.

Only 11 coaches have been with their current team longer than Rivera has been with the Panthers.

--Jonathan Jones

Posted by Observer Sports on January 28, 2014 at 03:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (18)

January 25, 2014

Newton gets more votes, but Luck gets Pro Bowl start

HONOLULU

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is playing for Colts coach Chuck Pagano in the Pro Bowl and was the first quarterback taken by "alumni captain" Deion Sanders in Wednesday's draft.

So it's not surprising Pagano said Luck would start Sunday's game -- except that Pagano and Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who is working with Jerry Rice's squad, had agreed they would set up their depth charts based on the final voting results, according to Rivera.

Among the three quarterbacks on the Pagano/Sanders team, the Panthers' Cam Newton finished with the most combined votes in the balloting by fans, players and coaches. Luck was second, and Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles was third.

"We talked about it prior to this," Rivera said Saturday. "He asked and I asked and we both said, 'Hey, why don't we just start them according to votes so there's no hurt feelings?'"

This is the first year the Pro Bowl has used an unconferenced format. In the former AFC-versus-NFC setup, starters were determined based on voting, NFL spokesman Jon Zimmer said.

League officials in Hawaii expected Newton to start based on their initial conversations with coaches: As of Saturday evening, Newton was listed as the starter on the Pro Bowl "flip card" to be distributed in the Aloha Stadium press box.

Although Luck will start, Pagano said Newton and Foles would share the workload.

"We just want to make sure everybody gets enough snaps and enough touches and enjoys the experience, enjoys the game," Pagano said. "We've got three quarterbacks. We'll split it up evenly with reps.”

Newton said early in the week he didn't care if he started, while Luck hinted at a possible trick play by saying maybe he and Newton would be on the field at the same time.

Rivera said Saints quarterback Drew Brees would start for Rice's team. Brees was the second-highest offensive vote-getter in the fan balloting behind Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who is playing in next weekend's Super Bowl.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 25, 2014 at 07:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (29)

January 24, 2014

Kuechly gets defensive signal-calling duties at Pro Bowl

HONOLULU, Hawaii

The first practice for Deion Sanders' team was a pretty laid-back affair Thursday.

And then there was Luke Kuechly.

It's not like the Panthers' middle linebacker was running over ball-carriers or blitzing into the face of Cam Newton, his Team Sanders and real-life teammate.

This was after all a Pro Bowl practice, conducted in shorts, cleats and ball caps/floppy hats.

But it was the focus that Kuechly brought to the defensive huddle that was telling. In his first practice at his first Pro Bowl, Kuechly was calling the defensive signals and shouting instructions to veterans such as Terrell Suggs.

Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, part of Chuck Pagano's staff that is working with Sanders' team, said that Kuechly's attention to detail is one of the reasons he entrusted him with the signal calling.

Manusky also noticed how Kuechly jumped "right into it" Thursday during the one-hour session at Hickam Air Force Base near Pearl Harbor.

It felt like first of many more Pro Bowl practices to come for one of the league's best defensive players.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 24, 2014 at 01:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

January 22, 2014

Will Pro Bowl be Jordan Gross' final game?

KAPOLEI, Hawaii - Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross was about to book a vacation when he received an offer for another one.

Whether Gross will be going on permanent vacation from the NFL remains to be determined.

Gross, the 11-year veteran, said he was about to buy a flight for his family to Fort Myers, Fla., this week when Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman called.

"Do you want to go to Hawaii?" Gettleman asked him, according to Gross.

With San Francisco tackle Joe Staley pulling out of the Pro Bowl, Gross was the next man up. (Incidentally, all eight 49ers players selected have now withdrawn from the game due to injury or because they want time off.)

And with that, Gross was buying round-trip tickets to Honolulu for his wife and their two children.

It's the third Pro Bowl appearance for Gross, who becomes a free agent Feb. 7 when his contract voids.

Gross, 33, has said he will only play for the Panthers -- and if he's not playing for them he wants to remain with the organization in some capacity. Gross was among several players scheduled to have dinner with Panthers coach Ron Rivera last week.

I didn't get a chance to ask Gross about that dinner or his future (again) on Tuesday because he was checking into the players' hotel with his family.

And the situation likely won't be resolved immediately.

It's very possible that Gross, who agreed to restructure his contract last offseason to help the team's salary cap position, signs a 1- or 2-year deal to serve as a bridge to the left tackle of the future (who could be the next "Hog Mollie" drafted by Gettleman).

Until then, Gross and his family have a week to enjoy Hawaii.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 22, 2014 at 12:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

January 21, 2014

Three Panthers selected in first night of draft for revamped Pro Bowl

KAPOLEI, Hawaii

The first night of the NFL's new Pro Bowl draft has come and gone.

Don't feel bad if you missed it. So did a lot of the players and coaches here for the game.

The NFL had to do something to try to stir up renewed interest in a game that has been dying an ugly death in the prettiest of locales.

But the unconferenced, fantasy football-style draft won't make players play any harder Sunday at Aloha Stadium. That will be up to them, and there's nothing "team captains" Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice can do to minimize the risk of injury when the NFL's best players put on pads for a game.

Peyton Manning tried to rally the troops last year with a pep talk, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees is hoping a couple of the changes will light a fire under those gathered here.

But Brees, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles kept talking about "pride" being the best way to save the game.

It will be interesting to see.

For the record, two of the Panthers' players -- fullback Mike Tolbert and center Ryan Kalil -- ended up on Ron Rivera's team (with Rice) on Tuesday. Long snapper J.J. Jansen will play for Sanders' team, coached by the Colts' Chuck Pagano.

The Panthers' other four players -- quarterback Cam Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy -- will come off the board Wednesday during the second night of the draft.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 21, 2014 at 10:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

January 17, 2014

Panthers owner takes out full-page ad to thank fans, team

Panthers center Ryan Kalil created a stir before the 2012 season when took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting the Panthers would win the Super Bowl.

Kalil's ad was a well-written letter that he signed and paid for himself.

But it wasn't in cursive.

Today's editions of the Observer include a full-page ad of a hand-written note by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, thanking fans, players, coaches and the entire organization for a memorable season.

Richardsonad

Richardson wrote the Panthers fell short of their "ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl," but believes progress was made and there's an opportunity to build on it.

"A 12-win season, NFC South championship, and a playoff berth have laid the foundation," Richardson wrote. "None of this would have been possible without a complete team effort."

You have to admire Richardson's gesture and penmanship -- as well as the Panthers' continuing efforts to keep the newspaper industry afloat.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 17, 2014 at 09:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (36)

January 16, 2014

Rivera is PFWA's Coach of the Year

Riverboat Ron is rolling in the postseason awards.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who led Carolina to the playoffs for the first time in five years, was named the Pro Football Writers of America's Coach of the Year on Thursday.

Rivera was the NFC Coach of the Year in the NFL 101 Awards announced earlier this week.

Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey was named the PFWA's Executive of the Year. Former San Diego Ken Whisenhunt, hired as Tennessee's coach this week, was the Assistant Coach of the Year.

The Panthers went 12-4 in 2013 after two losing seasons under Rivera, who was thought to be in danger of losing his job after the Panthers got off to an 0-2 start this season.

But Rivera's decision to break from his conservative tendencies and become more aggressive on fourth downs earned him his nickname and helped instill confidence in his team. After falling to 1-3 after a road loss to Arizona, the Panthers rattled off 11 wins in 12 games to claim the NFC South title for the first time since 2008.

Rivera, a longtime NFL defensive coach before former general manager Marty Hurney hired him before the 2011 season, is entering the final year of his four-year deal.

Current general manager Dave Gettleman declined to discuss Rivera's contract this week, but said he had the "ultimate faith in Ron moving forward."

Rivera is a candidate for the Associated Press' Coach of the Year Award, which will be announced during the NFL Honors awards ceremony in New York on Feb. 1.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 16, 2014 at 12:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

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