Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What next for Panthers after correctly parting with DeAngelo, Bell?

Let us not get overly emotional about the release of Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams. It was absolutely the right thing to do.

Williams was no longer an effective NFL running back. He was one for a long time, but by the end of 2014 I thought he was the fourth-best running back on the roster.

As I wrote back in January, this should be one of the easiest decisions the Panthers make the entire offseason. While I thought the Panthers should have kept Steve Smith around one more year instead of release him before the 2014 season, if anything I think they kept Williams around one year too long. Certainly, he needed to be released by now. I am sorry he doesn't feel like the Panthers supported him when his mother died, but let's not let that cloud the on-field issues.

This column I wrote back in January listed seven things I thought the Panthers ought to do in the offseason. They have now accomplished the first two on my list -- release Williams and don't bring back left tackle Byron Bell, who was simply not good enough last year.

Here are the other five in the list and an update as to where the Panthers stand with each:

1. Sign a tackle – and then draft another. I think the Panthers will do both of these things. My biggest problem with what Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t do in the 2014 offseason had to do with him trying to get by cheaply at both tackle spots. That was a mistake.

2. Don't completely ignore the dollar store. Gettleman said in January: “Last year we were shopping in the dollar store. This year we’ll be able to move up in class a little bit.”

That’s fine, but the dollar store is a great place to upgrade the mostly awful special-teams coverage and return units. Hello Ted Ginn Jr.?If he comes at a reasonable price, I would like to see it -- as would Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert.

3. Stay far away from Greg Hardy. I think the Panthers will ultimately do this even though the charges against Hardy were dismissed. To me, the risk doesn't line up with the reward.

4. Make inroads with Cam. The Panthers are doing this, having reopened negotiations on a contract extension with Cam Newton.

5. Keep more continuity. Late in 2014, the Panthers had 16 new players among the 24 key positions on offense and defense (I am counting the third receiver and the nickel cornerback as starters, too). Only eight players were the same from 2013.

That's too much turnover -- way too much -- for a team that won 12 games in 2013.

Williams and Bell? They were properly jettisoned. But this team does not need a major overhaul. Last year's overhaul backfired to some extent, and I think Gettleman knows that. This team needs to have far more continuity. As for DeAngelo, he will leave as the team's leading rusher, and he will be missed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Time for Charlotte Motor Speedway to put SAFER walls everywhere

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the wake of the accident that kept Kyle Busch out of the Daytona 500 Sunday, Charlotte Motor Speedway needs to find a way to quickly place soft walls all around the inside and outside of its 1.5-mile track before its series of big races in May.

Like almost all the tracks in the top three NASCAR series, CMS has the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers in a lot of the spots that drivers hit most often -- like the turns -- but not everywhere.

Texted Scott Cooper, a spokesman for the Charlotte track, in response to my question about where the SAFER walls were at CMS: "I don't know the percentage [of walls covered with SAFER Barriers at CMS]. We have some on inside walls as well as [the] majority of outside."

That's not enough. We saw that Saturday night.

Charlotte should learn from Daytona's big mistake, which I wrote about in this column. The Daytona track has been heavily promoting a $400-million renovation, but what it has not done is cover all its walls with technology that is proven to make drivers safer. That is inexcusable and incomprehensible. Daytona Speedway president Joie Chitwood III said Saturday night that his track would change that for future events and cover every inch of its inside and outside walls with SAFER barriers.

"The Daytona International Speedway did not live up to its responsibility today," Chitwood said. "We should have had a SAFER barrier there today. We did not. We're going to fix that. We're going to fix that right now."

Busch hit an unprotected wall head-first Saturday night in an Xfinity Series race and broke multiple bones due to the impact. He may be out for many weeks.

Where Busch hit the wall was not too far from where Kevin Harvick had banged into the wall in the 2014 Daytona 500 -- also hitting an unprotected wall. Harvick's complaints went mostly unnoticed afterward.

As Harvick said Sunday of Daytona's decision to put SAFER walls everywhere after Busch's wreck: "I think it's a reaction from the track, unfortunately. I hit the same wall a little further up last year at this particular race and kind of voiced my opinion. Unfortunately, I was just a dot on the chart. There was no reaction. Now there is a reaction from the race track. Hopefully, this is a lesson learned."

The barriers are expensive, at a reported cost of $500 per square foot. That means it can cost $2.6 million to install a mile's worth of the SAFER barriers. Tracks throughout NASCAR's top series must install them at least in the corners. But NASCAR does not make tracks line its walls with SAFER barriers on both the inside and outside walls, and only a few of the shorter ones do.

Charlotte Motor Speedway has a chance to get in front of this issue. No matter the cost, the Speedway needs to pony up. Put the SAFER walls everywhere, before someone else gets badly hurt.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

NASCAR does right thing by suspending Busch

NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch indefinitely Friday night after a Delaware official said in a 25-page written opinion that he believed Busch had "manually strangled" his former girlfriend during a confrontation in his motorhome last September.

Busch won't race Sunday in the Daytona 500, and I believe that's a good thing the way things stand now. I am critical of NASCAR pretty frequently -- its championship format still isn't right -- but in the Busch case I thought the organization got it right with this suspension. It waited until there was at least some independent finding of a likely act of domestic violence, and then it acted. You could say that this should have happened sooner, but there was no Ray Rice video in this case. You needed to make sure Patricia Driscoll's story had enough of the ring of truth to act.

Now I hope NASCAR keeps some teeth in this. Busch doesn't need to be back on a racetrack anytime soon, and a quick reversal on appeal would only confuse the process. Busch kept saying he was waiting for answers when myself and some other reporters tried to talk to him in Charlotte, in late January. Now he has gotten some, although not the answers he would want. For now, Kurt Busch is and should be out of the sport. Bravo to NASCAR on this one.

Friday, February 20, 2015

More on Danica, Hamlin and the Hendrick drivers heading into Daytona

4 thoughts from Daytona in the aftermath of the Budweiser Duels Thursday night:

1) If one of the top three drivers for Hendrick Motorsports does not win the Daytona 500, I will be surprised. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sit 1-2-3 on the starting grid, with Gordon winning the pole and Johnson and Earnhardt winning the 150-mile twin Budweiser Duels Thursday night. Hendrick looks like it has figured something out.

2) The most entertaining part about Thursday night was the second incident in two days in which Danica Patrick thought Denny Hamlin wrecked her while Hamlin maintained her car is too loose and that every time he comes close to it, the car loses control. Their heated post-race conversation involved an exasperated Hamlin trying to explain to an angry Patrick that it really wasn't his fault. She wasn't buying it. (I wrote my column today on Patrick and her long winless streak in NASCAR's top two series).

Later, Hamlin said of Patrick: "She deserves her spot here, but you have to be able to run close to somebody on a superspeedway... I'm not going to say, 'It's Danica, so I've got to make sure I just leave some extra room.' If you're out here in the Cup Series, you have to be able to handle those situations."

3) The first line of the pastor's prayer before Thursday night's first race was very appropriate for most of America: "Lord, tonight it is cold." And it was, although most of America was even colder.

It's too bad these races -- which were pretty entertaining, and here's our Jim Utter's quick update about them -- weren't held in the afternoon the way they used to be. Temperatures hovered around freezing all night in Daytona, undoubtedly scaring away many fans but also giving drivers a false sense of security about how well their cars handle. When the race arrives Sunday, with temperatures in the 70s, we will see what those cars are really like.

4) Want a low-profile driver who has a chance to at least make the top 10 Sunday -- and maybe more? Try 21-year-old Ryan Blaney. He finished sixth without even trying too hard in his 150-miler Thursday, and confidently said his car had a lot more left in it than he showed on a night where simply finishing in the top 15 got you into the big race. Blaney's composure also is a major plus.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Panthers raise ticket prices for second straight season -- here are the details

The Carolina Panthers have raised their ticket prices for the second straight season, The Observer has learned.

Ticket prices for the 2015 season will increase again this year throughout the stadium. For about two-thirds of the seats, the increase will be modest -- $2 to $5 per ticket per game. For the remaining one-third, increases will frequently be larger than that. The Panthers' average ticket price will again rank in the lower half of teams in the NFL.

Non premium ticket prices for Panthers games will now range from $43 to $160. Ticket prices for new Silver Club seats will start at $250. Renewal packages for PSL owners -- who control about 62,000 of the stadium's 74,000 seats -- will be mailed very shortly. The team is again offering a six-month, interest-free payment plan for ticket renewal.

The Panthers have made the playoffs the past two seasons in a row, winning back-to-back NFC South championships. A bit of ticket history: the team raised ticket prices before the 2010 season, then held them firm for the next four years before last year's increase and now this year's increase. The average price of a Panther ticket last season was approximately $72, and that will rise by several dollars for the 2015 season.

Panthers president Danny Morrison said in a statement: "As we celebrate 20 years of Panthers football, back-to-back NFC South Division championships and Thomas Davis' NFL Man of the Year award, there is excitement about the foundation that has been established for the future," Panthers president Danny Morrison said in a statement. "The fan support has been paramount to this success and has contributed to the unifying and family-friendly atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium..... We will continue to work to provide you the finest gameday experience possible."

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Dean Smith story you have not heard

I was on WFAE, the local public radio station in Charlotte, for an hour today with John Kilgo, David Chadwick, Mick Mixon and Paul Cameron. Mike Collins, the host, was asking us for various Dean Smith stories. Everyone in that room had a pretty deep knowledge of the Carolina basketball program, but no one had heard one of the stories Kilgo told before.

Kilgo, remember, was the co-author of Dean Smith's official memoir , the longtime host of his TV show and was very close to the legendary coach, who died Saturday at the age of 83. We were talking about the cruel irony that Smith -- who had one of the most amazing memories and minds anyone had ever seen -- had slowly deteriorated mentally for many years because of what his family has described as a neurocognitive disorder.

Kilgo said that one of the stories Smith didn't let him publish in his book was this (and I'm paraphrasing a little): In Smith's final game as the Tar Heel coach, in the NCAA Final Four in 1997, UNC was losing to Arizona late in the game. In a huddle, Smith told point guard Ed Cota to commit a quick foul against a certain Arizona player. Cota did, quickly, and before long there was another timeout.

But then Smith, as he told it later to Kilgo, snapped at Cota in the huddle. "What did you do that for?" the coach asked Cota.

"Because you told me to, Coach," came Cota's reply, according to Kilgo.

Kilgo said Smith would later tell him this was the first time his vaunted mind had failed him, and that he knew then that ultimately he would never coach another basketball game.

Greg Hardy free to play somewhere -- but it should not be Carolina

Now that the domestic violence case against Greg Hardy has been suddenly dismissed, he definitely has an NFL future somewhere.

But I do not believe it should be in Charlotte. I don't think he should ever play for the Carolina Panthers again.

Hardy is a free man, yes, and he will be on the open market March 10th when the NFL's free agency period begins. He is 26, in what should be the prime of his career. And he had 15 sacks in 2013 -- the last time he played a full year in the NFL.

But to me, Hardy is too much of a risk for a big contract, and the emotional baggage he carries is too considerable for the Panthers to lock into any sort of financial agreement with him again as they think about their offseason plan.

Somebody is going to pay him. It shouldn't be the Panthers.

Hardy was supposed to go on trial -- again -- on misdemeanor domestic violence charges Monday. Instead, the case fell apart and was dismissed when the prosecution could not secure the cooperation of Nicole Holder, Hardy's former girlfriend and the woman who originally charged him.

District attorney Andrew Murray said in court that his office believed Holder and Hardy had reached a financial settlement. In a press release, the DA's office also said: "The victim appears to have intentionally made herself unavailable to the State. The DA's Office has also been made aware that the victim has reached a civil settlement with Mr. Hardy."

And, the DA's office said, "Without her testimony, in this particular instance, the State could not proceed." The DA's office had all sorts of trouble finding the elusive Holder, apparently, although it's pretty hard to believe in this day and age she could not be found -- even though she obviously didn't want to be found.

This doesn't mean for sure Hardy won't be suspended by the NFL, but I think it's likely he will not be. Roger Goodell could suspend him for detrimental conduct, I suppose, but legally his record is now clear.

So why not have Hardy apologize to Jerry Richardson and his teammates, fall on whatever type of sword a Kraken carries and then simply come back to Carolina at a reasonable price?

Because I don't think he can be trusted, and ultimately I don't think the price will be that reasonable.

Look at how last year turned out. The Panthers paid Hardy $13.1 million, effectively hijacking their own salary cap, and he played in one game. Not because of an injury he couldn't help, but because of an off-field issue. If this were going to be settled out of court, I am sure every Panther fan is asking why it wasn't settled before the 2014 season rather than after it concluded.

The Panthers' defense did OK without Hardy, finishing No. 10 in total defense last season. As a team, with No.76 on the field, it's undeniable they are better. Carolina could technically use another one-year franchise tag on him, this time at a price of $15.7 million.

But it's not always just about talent. Somebody is going to take a risk on Hardy, because NFL teams are desperate for pass rushers in their prime.

The Panthers, though, already know how that can turn out. After Monday, Hardy is free to go elsewhere. And that is exactly what he should do.

Joe Person on Greg Hardy's future: