Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Carolina Panthers’ quarterback ‘controversy’ not a bad thing

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen (7) was at the helm when the Carolina Panthers went 2-14 in 2010.
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen (7) was at the helm when the Carolina Panthers went 2-14 in 2010. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A good left tackle is essential, as is a lock-down corner, as is an outside pass rusher with speed. But rarely is there a left tackle controversy, a lock-down corner controversy or an outside pass rusher with speed controversy.

You can make a case that former Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker is as good at his job as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has ever been at his. But as important as a point guard is, a point guard controversy is as common as a tight end controversy.

Controversies are good because, as long as they’re real, or least could be, they offer something for fans and talk show hosts to talk about and writers to write about.

I like the current Carolina quarterback controversy. Find somebody who doesn’t have an opinion about whether the Panthers should stick with undefeated Kyle Allen or replace him with Cam Newton when Newton regains his health.

We don’t get many quarterback controversies around here. Until this season, the most recent was in 2010, and it was brief and it was stealth. But it still counts because it’s all we have.

The Panthers picked quarterback Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame in the second round of the 2010 draft and Tony Pike of Cincinnati in the sixth round. I didn’t know Pike, but Clausen always struck me as a good guy. He’d play a bad game for a bad Carolina team his rookie season, and in the game’s aftermath he’d stand at his locker and, no matter how critical the questions, talk about his performance.

The only time Clausen refused to talk about a subject was when he took to Twitter to criticize a haircut he received at a barbershop chain. The tweet was uncharacteristic, and as we walked off the practice field I asked Clausen about his criticism. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. So, fine: interceptions, yes; haircut controversies, no comment.

Clausen suffered a concussion against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 14. The Panthers needed a quarterback and they chose Brian St. Pierre.

A nice guy, St. Pierre had been changing his son’s diaper at his Boston-area home when St. Pierre’s agent called. Get to Charlotte.

St. Pierre had hoped for but not expected the call. He’d played pieces of seven seasons, thrown four career passes and completed two for 12 yards. But he was a veteran.

The Panthers needed a quarterback for their Nov. 21 home game against the Baltimore Ravens. People assumed then coach John Fox would start Clausen if he had recovered, and Pike if he had not.

Yet the Panthers, 1-8 at the time, started St. Pierre. The start was the first of his career.

I like underdogs so I thought, why not?

Some in the Carolina organization questioned Fox’s decision. They were what you get when you mix anger and incredulity.

Why had Fox, in what he had long known would be his last season with the Panthers, decided to start the newcomer? Was it a shot at his employer for stripping the team of talent? Was it a statement about starting a rookie?

St. Pierre had one great moment against Baltimore, hitting David Gettis with a pretty starting-quarterback quality pass down the left sideline for 88 yards and a touchdown. Remember, this is the Ravens Carolina was playing, and the Ravens were a good team that played tough, smart defense.

The Panthers were in rebuild mode -- that’s the nice way of putting it -- and it was as if they were outnumbered on every play. That pass was a thrill.

But St. Pierre was hammered by the Baltimore defense, learning the offense as the game went on, and finished 13 of 28 for 173 yards with two interceptions. The Ravens won 37-13.

If I said the Panthers cut St. Pierre, which would offer a tie-in to the Clausen haircut controversy, I’d be lying.

St. Pierre was injured, and although he finished the season with Carolina, he would neither play for the Panthers again nor throw another NFL pass.

Clausen started the remaining six games. The Panthers finished a league-low 2-14, and with the first pick in the 2011 draft, selected a quarterback.

Some advice on Panthers QB situation

Fans are so divided on the Panthers’ quarterback situation that they ought to tailgate on their own turf. Cam Newton loyalists gather here, and Kyle Allen loyalists there. The Allen fans are the ones in the sweatshirts and jeans.

Commentators also are divided. A good way to get attention is to write or say that Newton Will Never Play for Carolina Again. That’s silly. If Newton regains his health, the statement won’t be true. But it might get you noticed.

I understand the loyalty to Allen. He has won each of the five games he’s started, including four straight this season. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London Sunday, he earned a title no other Panther quarterback ever has. Allen, who helped lead the Panthers to an easy 37-13 victory, was the greatest quarterback in England.

Think about that. You’re the greatest quarterback in a country founded in 927 AD. Several quarterbacks compete to be the best quarterback in the U.S. But in England Sunday, the clear winner was Allen.

Carolina’s next game is on the road a week from Sunday against the undefeated San Francisco 49ers, who lead the league in total defense. If Newton is healthy, and the Panthers really believe he is healthy, whom do they start?

That’s easy. They start Allen. A coach can’t bench a player who has won each of his four starts this season, after a less than healthy Newton began the season by losing both of his. Thanks for playing, but sit down.

If Allen, however, struggles against the 49ers, the Panthers should start Newton at home the following week in Charlotte against the Tennessee Titans.

Except for his tendency to fumble, Allen has been more than a game manager and more than a caretaker. He has touch, he has confidence, and he has poise. He’s thrown 122 passes this season, completed 80 and has yet to be intercepted. He’s 23, was not drafted, and bounced around in college. But he demonstrates week after week why the Panthers, notably coach Ron Rivera, believe in him so strongly, and did before the season began.

Yet, if Allen falters against the 49ers, the Panthers have an opportunity to bring back the A team. If Newton appears to again become the running big-armed quarterback who can fling the ball downfield and make the quick reads he did the first half of last season, the offense should be entrusted to him.

And if Newton falters against the Titans, who do the Panthers start the following week on the road against the Green Bay Packers?

They should go with Newton.

Some of you simply don’t like Newton. You don’t like the flamboyance, the theatrics, the style, the joy he brings to the field and the scarf. You emphasize his faults. He throws high. And he does. Yet the options he offers count, too. If he can run, even if the running at this stage of his career is often simply to move until his receivers break free, the quality is invaluable.

Some of you love Newton. You think he’s an elite quarterback, one of the best. I don’t, and except for his MVP season, never have. Even if his health comes all the way back he’s not, say, in the NFL’s top five. So stick him near or at the bottom of the top 10. Allen can’t give you that.

The Panthers don’t need a hero quarterback. They need a quarterback who gives them a chance to beat very good teams. What’s worked for Allen against the Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans (Carolina’s defense handled the Texans), Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay is unlikely to be enough against the 49ers and Packers.

This isn’t about next season, and whether the Panthers retain Newton or free considerable money and go with Allen. It’s about who gives them the best chance to win now. With a defense such as Carolina’s, why wait?

If Allen continues to win, you go with him. If he can beat San Francisco on the road, pulling him the following week would be like pulling a pitcher who has thrown five shutout innings.

But if Allen struggles, give the ball to Newton. This is still his offense, and this is still his team.

Oh, but for those late games

I was cruising last week. I picked Thursday night’s game accurately (daring to go with the New England Patriots at home against the New York Giants) and six of the seven early Sunday games. The only early game I missed was the Houston Texans’ victory on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs, and I forgive myself.

Then he clock hit 4:05 p.m., and the magic expired. I missed three straight and four of the next five. The Los Angeles Rams withered against the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta withered (again) against the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas looked terrible against the inspired New York Jets.

I guess I could have seen the Rams and Falcons coming. But I didn’t.

Last Week: 9-5

Season: 56-35-1

Lock of the Week: Picked the Cowboys (-7½) to cover against the Jets. You know how you look back at something you did or said and feel like an idiot? The slumping Cowboys, who failed to cover and failed to win, were an idiotic pick. I thought this was a get-well game. And it was – for the Jets.

Season Lock of the Week: 3-3

This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:

Thursday

Kansas City 2 over DENVER

BUFFALO 11 over Miami

Jacksonville 6 over CINCINNATI

Minnesota 3 over DETROIT

GREEN BAY 8 over Oakland

ATLANTA 2 over Los Angeles Rams

Houston 4 over INDIANAPOLIS

San Francisco 9 over WASHINGTON

NEW YORK GIANTS 2 over Arizona

TENNESSEE 3 over Los Angeles Chargers

CHICAGO 2 over New Orleans

SEATTLE 4 over Baltimore

Monday

New England 8 over NEW YORK JETS

Lock of the Week: Philadelphia (+3) 4 over DALLAS

Goal for Hornets: Hustle, get better

Last season, I predicted that the Charlotte Hornets would win 40 games. Call me a homer. They won 39.

This season, they will be fresh and new and not very good. We know that going in.

By the end of the season, I’d like to know who they are. At the moment, we have no idea.

They lost Kemba Walker and replaced him with Terry Rozier. Never a starter with the Boston Celtics, the Hornets gave him a shocking three-year $60 million contract. The contract is shocking because Rozier, 25, has played four seasons, and offered only moments, shown us only glimpses of what he can do. Rarely is a four-year veteran offered $20 million a season based on potential.

Rozier has had a strong preseason. Never an effective shooter, not at Louisville or in Boston, he hit 49% from the field, 46.7% from 3-point range and averaged five assists. He will be, obviously, Charlotte’s most important player.

Rozier’s mission is to lead. He’s not going to lead them to the playoffs or to a record that approaches .500. These are the young Hornets, a phrase so frequently used that they could be the Young Hornets.

If you’re a fan of the NBA, and I am, big-time, this is what I want to see from Charlotte.

I want hustle, I want passion and I want to see players evolve. Coach James Borrego’s reputation before he came to Charlotte in his first stint as a full-time head coach, was as a developer of talent. He’ll make you better.

If he does, the season will be a success. If he fails, fans will show up at Spectrum Center to watch stars on other teams.

I respect the movement to feature young players. Other than a team that fails to make the playoffs and perpetually rebuilds, what have the Hornets been?

They Hornets have been like a novel without a central theme, a novel that goes meandering in this direction and then that and then this one over here. It’s as if they reinvented themselves weekly if not nightly.

The franchise has this season committed to a formula. We will start over. We will learn who we are. Our victories rarely will be reflected in the standings, but if you follow us, you’ll us improve and emerge.

Despite Charlotte’s long-time futility, the Hornets’ last top 10 pick was in 2015, when they with the 9th pick in the NBA draft they selected Frank Kaminsky. Their last top-five pick was in 2013, when with the fourth pick they selected Cody Zeller.

Depending on the vagaries of the lottery, they next season could pick one or two or three. You left Duke too early, Zion Williamson.

If Rozier is the player the Hornets anticipate, and teammates such as Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and rookie PJ Washington tangibly improve, this will have been a good season.

I see them going 25-57.

Short takes: Clyde, Pearl backcourt was the best

Saw a picture of Walt Frazier, the former New York Knicks guard, on the Internet, and reacted with an immediate smile. Frazier and Earl Monroe are my favorite NBA backcourt of all-time, Earl the Pearl my favorite player. They were so good, Frazier and the Pearl. I’d rebound for them if they were shooting baskets in an empty gym.

Some of us believe that the game was greatest when we were young. You think the product is good now, you should have seen it in the early ‘70s.

I loved the product in the early ‘70s. I love it now…

Hockey is not my sport. But a Charlotte Checkers’ player has never said, “I’m not talking today” or “No comment.” I need to spend time around the team. Players might never stick with an NHL roster. But they play as if they should…

The NBA season begins Tuesday with two games. The New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williamson play the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors at 8 p.m., and the new look Los Angeles Lakers play the new look Los Angeles Clippers at 10:30. The first game is in Toronto, the latter in Los Angeles. That is a great opening night…

The Buffalo Bills are favored by 17 at home Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. That’s the most the Bills have been favored by in 27 years...

Is there anything more to say about the NBA-China controversy? I don’t see one. The NBA is the league confident enough to allow players, coaches and general managers to express opinions. The league treats employees as if they’re people as well as athletes.

The controversy began when Houston general manager Daryl Morey expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, who are fighting for their freedom and protesting the authoritarian Chinese regime.

Although commissioner Adam Silver initially offered an explanation that was less than clear, awkward and even apologetic, he came back to say that the league will not regulate opinions expressed by its various constituents.

Would have been better if that were Silver’s initial response. But I’ll take it.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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