NFC South: Chris Mortensen
At least that’s what Las Vegas odds-makers and lots of media members are saying. The ESPN NFL Expert Picks are out, and Chris Mortensen and Keyshawn Johnson are the only two of the 14 panelists to pick the Falcons.
I generally stay clear of predictions, but I make exceptions for the postseason. In case you missed the Double Coverage segment I did with NFC West Colleague Mike Sando on Tuesday, I made my prediction there.
I picked the Falcons to win, 31-27. I think the home-field advantage means more than a lot of people realize, and I think Matt Ryan will shine in this game. Oh, and KC Joyner has this Insider piece with 10 reasons why the Falcons can win.
So, at least there are a few people out there that are giving the Falcons a chance.
But it turns out that’s the case in only one game. The panel was unanimous in its choice of the Atlanta Falcons over the Arizona Cardinals. That makes plenty of sense because the Falcons are very tough at the Georgia Dome and the Cardinals are crumbling after a fast start.
But there was a little bit of division among the panelists when it came to the other two NFC South games.
Twelve panel members are picking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the Carolina Panthers and I’d make the same prediction. The Bucs suddenly are hot and the Panthers are having a dismal season. But Keyshawn Johnson, who played for both teams, and Adam Schefter picked the Panthers.
Schefter also went against conventional wisdom in picking the Oakland Raiders to defeat the New Orleans Saints. He and Chris Mortensen are the only two panelists picking against the Saints.
The incredibly talented Carolina quarterback has been sulking on the sidelines when things don’t go well, waiting nearly an hour to talk to the media after a game and not saying much when he does. Instead of acting like an NFL quarterback, Newton is acting like a child.
I saw the same thing back in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1970s and '80s. I had a neighbor and friend who was a grade behind me in school. Like Newton, he was a physical specimen. He also had one of those late birthdays, so in his final year of Little League he was playing with kids a grade behind him in school.
You know the type -- at 12, they’re 6 feet and 175 pounds. You see one of them carrying a team to Williamsport every year, and that’s exactly what was expected of my friend. He hit home runs in bunches and struck out almost every batter he faced during his regular Little League season.
Then he got to an All-Star game against a team from a much larger town. Late in the game, he gave up a crucial home run with a couple of guys on base. In anger, he slung his glove toward the dugout and his athletic career essentially flew with it. He was tossed from the game.
By high school, he’d given up baseball and basketball because he no longer took any joy from them. His final athletic stand came when he was the starting quarterback as a junior, and a team with high expectations started 0-3. I remember thinking it was time for my friend to come down with an injury or simply walk away. In the fourth game, he hurt his knee.
It was the kind of injury that coaches thought might cost him only a few games. But my friend never played again. An enormous amount of athletic talent was wasted, not because he never learned to lose, but because he never learned how to deal with adversity and overcome it.
I’m not drawing the parallel to suggest Newton is going to just give up. He’s not, because he’s too much of a competitor. But that’s part of his problem.
There’s no question Newton can play quarterback in the NFL. But, if he wants to truly succeed, he has to start acting like an NFL quarterback and act with some balance.
Watch Drew Brees some time. No one is as competitive as Brees. But out on the field, you never see Brees let his emotions get the best of him. It’s similar with the other two NFC South quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. Winning or losing, you usually can’t tell by their actions or body language.
I think back on quarterbacks through Carolina’s history. Steve Beuerlein and Rodney Peete were as even-keeled as they come. Jake Delhomme had a visible competitive edge about him but never freaked out when things didn’t go well. In fact, Delhomme was at his best when things got tight.
That’s part of being an NFL quarterback. You have to set the tone for your team, and it can’t be too high or too low.
There’s no question Newton is in a pressure cooker. After a record-setting rookie year, the expectations in Carolina went up about six notches. Center Ryan Kalil bought a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer promising a Super Bowl win. Fans just nodded their heads and agreed.
But the Panthers are off to a 1-3 start, and most of the blame is falling on Newton. Some of that’s simply because Newton is the quarterback, so he’s always going to warrant attention.
But sometimes it’s about how you handle attention that determines perception and reality, and Newton is not doing a great job of that. He has set himself up for the fall by doing his Superman pose when things do go well. And he has made the fall even steeper by pouting when things go wrong.
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Newton has been working with a life coach to help deal with the pressure. Newton denied that report. But maybe Newton should be letting his feelings out privately to someone.
He’s not helping anyone by letting his feelings run wild on the field, and he’s not helping anyone by being so adamant about not changing.
“Losing is difficult, period,” said Newton, who won a national championship in college and junior college. “A person that says losing is not difficult, I don’t even want to be around that person. Obviously that person has never won anything relevant in their life. So for a person to say, 'Yeah, we lost and we have to keep going …' yeah, you keep saying that and sooner or later you’re going to look up and be 0-16. You have to take it personal. Do I take it personal? Absolutely right. Do I take it too personal? Who knows? But I’d rather take it too personal than lackadaisical.”
I respect the fact that Newton doesn’t like losing, and that he takes it personally. You want that, to some degree, from every player on your roster.
But Newton, who spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about how he wanted to be a better teammate, isn’t helping himself or his team with his actions.
I realize Newton is only 23. Not many of us were finished products at 23. But, then again, not many of us were NFL quarterbacks at 23, or ever.
When you’re making millions of dollars and are the face of an NFL franchise, the standards are a lot different, and you can’t act like you’re 12.
Newton needs to find a new standard -- one that’s not too high or too low -- that his teammates can follow. It’s time for Newton to grow up, mature or whatever you want to call it.
If he doesn’t, you’re going to see a lot more people pouting on Carolina’s sideline and in the stands.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We’re about to witness what I’m pretty sure is history at Bank of America Stadium.
In a game in which Aaron Kromer will serve as interim interim head coach of the New Orleans Saints, we’ll have a replacement replacement official.
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen just reported that side judge Brian Stropolo has been pulled from Sunday’s officiating crew after the league learned that his Facebook page was filled with Stropolo wearing Saints shirts and other merchandise.
Officials are supposed to be neutral and aren’t supposed to be fans.
No word yet on who will take Stropolo’s place on the field, but each crew brings along an alternate official.
The apparent conflict of interest brought some strong comments.
"I'm going to look at worst-case scenario, and it's not an isolated incident,'' ESPN's Tom Jackson said. "I think all of this puts in question the integrity of the league. Let's get the regular referees back doing the job they should be doing.
ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Mike Ditka echoed that last sentiment.
"Commissioner (Roger) Goodell has his first headache, and this is a big headache,'' Ditka said. "It's time to get the real guys back to work.''
Only one of the seven has an NFC South team making it to the Super Bowl. It’s Polian, who is going with the Atlanta Falcons. Polian says this is the year Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan truly blossoms.
“I really think Ryan is going to grow under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, and I look for him to take a pretty big leap because of the nature of the offense,’’ Polian said. “It will not be the run-heavy offense of the past. It will be more wide open, and Ryan will get a chance to spread his wings.’’
Ironically, Polian has the Falcons playing the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. Ryan is forever linked to Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco because they came out in the same draft class. However, Polian’s pick doesn’t come with a totally happy ending for Atlanta fans. He has the Ravens beating the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
I’d heard some rumblings on this last week and Phillips was the guy I was referring to Friday when I was talking with ESPN Tampa Bay Radio’s “The Fabulous Sports Babe’’ and said there was one potential candidate who could raise some eyebrows.
That’s because Phillips had seemed to be a forgotten man as people talked about candidates for the Tampa Bay job and other openings around the league. Phillips has had some success as a head coach and has done a remarkable job with Houston’s defense this season.
You could make the case that Phillips is the “hottest’’ name we’ve heard so far in Tampa Bay’s search. We know the Bucs have interviewed Mike Sherman and Jerry Gray. Phillips has had more recent NFL experience and success than Sherman and Gray never has been an NFL head coach.
Mortensen also reported that the Bucs have interest in Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer.
But age could work against Phillips, 64, and Schottenheimer, 68. But the Bucs do appear intent on going in a different direction after firing Raheem's Morris, whose age and maturity became issues as the Bucs went on a 10-game losing streak to end the season.
But that’s not the case this week when it comes to the NFC South games. The panel is very divided on the game between Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.
Five panelists have the Buccaneers winning, while four went with the Jaguars. Even the game between Atlanta and Carolina is drawing more disagreement than you would expect.
Seven panelists went with the Falcons, but Eric Allen, Merrill Hoge and Accuscore are calling for a Carolina upset.
The Saints are an overwhelming favorite against the Titans. But Chris Mortensen is going with Tennessee in an upset.
The split is the closest on the game in London between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Six experts picked the Bucs and four chose the Bears.
In a mild surprise, seven experts chose the 1-5 Carolina Panthers to beat the Washington Redskins. I’m guessing the fact John Beck will be the starting quarterback for the Redskins might have something to do with that.
Eight panel members picked the Lions over the Falcons. But I think there’s a chance Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, who picked the Falcons, could end up being right.
The one thing everyone agreed on is the Saints will win against the Colts on Sunday night. Not surprising. Saints coach Sean Payton is injured, but he’ll still be involved. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning is hurt and won’t be playing a homecoming game in the city where he grew up.
Center Ryan Kalil, who had been tagged as the team’s franchise player and signed a tender for $10.116 million, has just agreed to a long-term contract that will make him the highest-paid center in history, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.
The deal is for six years, and although we don’t have full details yet, we know it averages more than the $7.75 million per year that Nick Mangold got last year when he became the highest-paid center in NFL history.
The move comes after the Panthers, who went 2-14 with one of the league’s lowest payrolls last year, went on a spending spree coming out of the lockout. Owner Jerry Richardson, one of the lead negotiators in the new labor deal, pledged that his team would be aggressive once there was labor peace.
He has followed through on that promise. The Panthers have paid out well more than $100 million just in signing bonuses while re-signing some of their players, such as defensive end Charles Johnson, linebackers Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis, and running back DeAngelo Williams. The Panthers also traded for tight end Greg Olsen, and turned around and signed him to a new contract.
Throw in Kalil’s deal, and the Panthers have been one of the most active teams in the league this preseason. Although Kalil’s contract might seem like a massive long-term commitment, it’s going to help the Panthers in the short term.
They had only about $2.5 million remaining in salary-cap space, but that was with Kalil counting for $10.116 million. Again, we don’t know the structure of his deal, but it’s fair to say that no matter what it is, his new cap figure will be at least several million dollars less.
That will give the Panthers flexibility to make even more moves. They would like to add a starting-caliber cornerback and could be in the market for one more experienced wide receiver. Now, they’ve got the cap space to do whatever they want.
He also added a couple qualifiers that said the Panthers at least seem to be trying to convince the NFL world of that fact and maybe they’re hoping to trade down.
A lot of people took this to mean Sorensen was reporting the Panthers are -- almost absolutely -- taking Newton. But a lot of those people were taking things too literally and not getting what Sorensen was really saying.
Sorensen’s a great columnist, capable of crossing lines some columnists, who write off the top of their heads, don't. He’s got some good sources, so he sometimes ends up writing news or columns that contain some strong hints at the news.
I think his Wednesday piece fell into the latter category. Sorensen was analyzing what’s already known. There’s no doubt the Panthers have been doing extensive homework on Newton, and that’s basically what he wrote. Does he have some vibe that the Panthers are leaning in that direction? I don’t know for sure, but Tom’s not the kind of guy to just throw things out without having some insight.
But let’s remember, this wasn’t written as a flat-out news story, and Tom didn’t definitively say whom the Panthers will be drafting No. 1. He just said the signs seem to be pointing in that direction.
The draft doesn’t start until April 28, and a lot of signs can change direction between now and then. Heck, that could even start happening Thursday.
You’re going to see all sorts of stories that Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is having his pro day today and is scheduled to have a private workout with the Panthers this weekend.
Will the signs suddenly switch to the Panthers drafting Gabbert? Maybe so, or maybe it will just appear that way. Don’t read too much into that, because if you really think about it, it’s highly unlikely the Panthers have made any firm decision on either quarterback or even if they’ll take one with the first pick.
That’s largely because they’d be foolish if they didn’t wait until now to take a hard look at Gabbert. Today will be the first time he’s thrown publicly since he concluded his career in the Insight Bowl. He didn’t throw at the combine. Sure, the Panthers probably have watched hours of tape on him from college. But it wouldn’t be wise to make any decision until seeing Gabbert.
The Panthers will get two chances to see him throw extensively the next few days, and it’s likely they’ll at least narrow their thinking on quarterbacks after an up-close look.
Oh, by the way, there’s a little more on the quarterback front this morning. Our Chris Mortensen reports that Gabbert scored a 42 on the Wonderlic. That’s a great score and only one point behind Alabama’s Greg McElroy, who turned in the highest score of all the quarterbacks. Newton’s score was 21. That’s rather mediocre and only one point ahead of Washington’s Jake Locker, who had the lowest score of the high-ranking quarterback prospects.
Is the Wonderlic going to make Carolina’s final decision? Is Gabbert’s workout going to be the one deciding factor?
No, this is a process, and general manager Marty Hurney is a methodical guy. His signs have pointed toward Newton so far, but Hurney and the Panthers aren't going to be done until they read all the signs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
There's a lot of uncertainty right now about the knee injury Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason suffered in Saturday night's preseason game in Miami.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen was at the game and here's what he had to say on his Twitter account:
Just left Dolphins-Panthers. Bad new(s) for Panthers: Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beeson on crutches with "at least" MCL injury...stay tuned on this one.
Coach John Fox gave the same very-guarded answer he gives on just about every injury.
"I'm not a doctor, so the doctors will look at that and we'll know more after he gets evaluated,'' Fox said.
Beason told reporters he'll have an MRI on Sunday, but sounded optimistic. Still, this one has the potential to be scary if Beason has to miss any time. People are just starting to realize Beason is one of the best linebackers in the league. The Panthers have a quality backup in Dan Connor. But Beason is the leader of the defense and a true playmaker.
As Mort said, stay tuned on this one.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
We've had a lot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. Part of that was because this was the week the NFC South tour of training camps came to Tampa and part of it was because there was some major news with the suspension of safety Tanard Jackson and the arrest of cornerback Aqib Talib.
I'm going to try to focus on the other three teams for a bit and will have a column on the New Orleans Saints popping up this afternoon.
But one last item on the Bucs for the moment. Our Chris Mortensen and his bus were out at Bucs' practice on Thursday. You can see Mort's story and video on the Bucs here.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
I'll be seeing Chris Mortensen (and his bus) in just a bit when I get out to One Buccaneer Place.
Mort's nearing the end of his training-camp tour and he'll be visiting the Bucs today. But Mort's been making the rounds and his last stop was Atlanta. He's got a story on Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez and some video about the Falcons.
You can check out both by clicking here.