As the Panthers prepare to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today, this piece will be in homage to a venerable Tampa sportswriter, Tom McEwen, read often during the years while gaining my own muscles as a writer there in the early ‘80s. Mr. McEwen always began his columns discussing his breakfast fare, so:
With a second cup of post-church java in hand, sitting down to an awesome 3-egg omelet– filled with half a thigh of leftover grilled chicken, chopped up with a decent amount of firm Ruskin tomato for color, handful of baby spinach, plentiful shredded Parmesan, and laced with tabasco (as usual) on a less-rainy-than-predicted Sunday– feels righteous. Two pieces of buttered rye toast with honey and a perfectly ripened, juicy but not drippy, organic pear and the sports page, all is well with the immediate world around me.
Well, all is well now that a new $112 battery has been installed in Ol’ Blue, the PT Cruiser that required a jump this morning to get out of the driveway. As long as memories are running rampant in advance of Panthers-Bucs game—and very aware of that upcoming 40th reunion next weekend—one quick thought about hitches (like dead battery) and church. On the first day of a newbie 10 year old altar boys first 7:30am Mass long ago, Fr. O’Hara announced post-Gospel reading that he was too sick to continue. Walking through a swirling February snow to the rectory to get another priest is a memory that has obviously lasted longer than this mornings inconvenience will.
About the game: Well, the Panthers are now 4-0, tied with the Atlanta Falcons atop the NFC South. That they won the division with a 7-8-1 record last year shows just what hope every new season brings to fans. Unfortunately, even having #1 overall selection in the 2015 draft– Jameis Winston, ex- of Florida State, a Heisman Trophy and national championship winner like the Panthers Cam Newton– on their side doesn’t figure to raise the now 1-3 Bucs from the depths that having the opportunity to make such a selection indicates. It’s impossible not to think about interviewing a young, strong-armed black QB during those early Tampa sports writing days; Doug Williams was frequently running for his health behind a line not much better than Tampa’s current one.
On what turned out to be a brilliant, sun-shiny day in the second half, Winston threw four interceptions, balanced somewhat by a two TD, 26-of-43 for 287 yard effort that is his best overall game production early in a rookie year. His first INT became Panther cornerback Josh Norman’s second pick-six of the year, and Norman grabbed his fourth INT of the year a bit later. Winston might have had a worse day, but the Bucs fumbling a handoff was attributed to a running back. At least Jameis figures to still have a job on Monday—kicker Kyle Brindza missed three more FG attempts and an extra point– and coach Lovey Smith can’t protect that type of production much longer. On the other hand, Norman, Defensive Player of the Month for September, continues to make a strong case for a major cha-ching! improvement in his contract next year.
Cam Newton was average on the stat sheet, 11-22 for 124 yards, but with a pair of TD passes to Ted Ginn, Jr., the first such game of Ginn’s career. Cam’s 51 rushing yards– much like in his outstanding first year, and definitely a hoped for asset after a $103 million commitment by the team this off-season–kept the sticks moving, and have the Panthers back to ‘highly respectable’ if not feared status early. Freak plays like tight end Ed Dickson’s grabbing a Jon Stewart pop-up fumble and turning it into a 57-yard touchdown rumble seem to come through when teams are playing well overall.
While Panthers fans will continue to worry about the concussion protocols that have kept star linebacker, Luke Kuechly, out of three games since the opener against Jacksonville, they now have an off week before facing Seattle. Jared Allen, an $823,529 bargain added during the week, brings major experience (12 years, 134 sacks, 4 Pro Bowls) to a front four that lost sack-master Charles Johnson for eight weeks last week. Linebacker Thomas Davis’ final pick of Winston, and AJ Klein’s steady play replacing Kuechly, bode well for the defense, but even more than two December games vs. arch-rival Atlanta, the Panthers need to overcome a play-them-tough-but-lose history against the Seahawks. With a whiff of playoff fever already in the air, you can’t get back to any Super Bowls without expecting to see them along the way.