NFC South: Democratic National Convention

Around the NFC South

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
9:50
AM ET
Time for a look at the Saturday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Andrew Brandt writes that an appeals panel’s decision to overturn the suspensions of players in the bounty saga is a blow to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s power, at least in the short term. But this story is far from over. The panel simply said that Goodell did not have the jurisdiction to issue punishments based on non-contract payments. Goodell still can issue discipline on detrimental contact. Maybe it will be fines or shorter suspensions, but I think Goodell still will try to send a strong message about bounty programs.

Along those same lines, Mike Triplett reminds us that the lifting of the suspensions might be only temporary. He also says Goodell and the players involved should use the next few days to hammer out a settlement with reduced punishments. But he’s right when he says that probably won’t happen. Goodell and the players drew their lines in the sand long ago, and it’s hard to see either side swallowing its pride.

It remains to be seen if defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had their suspensions overturned, will play in Sunday’s opener against Washington. Smith didn’t practice this week. But he’s a veteran and he did go through all of training camp and the preseason. I don’t think missing a few days of practice would hold him back all that much. Vilma is another story. He was rehabbing an injured knee before his suspension began. Vilma’s knee still might not be ready. There’s a chance the Saints might have to start the season with Vilma on the physically unable to perform list.

ATLANTA FALCONS

It sounds like cornerback Asante Samuel has a firm grip on what his role with Atlanta is. Samuel might not start, but he’ll get plenty of playing time as the Falcons are expected to use lots of three-corner sets. Samuel’s skills aren’t the only reason the Falcons traded for him. He’s a confident guy, and the Falcons want their defense to have a little more swagger.

Speaking of the intangibles Samuel can bring to the Falcons, we might get a look at another one Sunday. Samuel might be able to give his teammates some inside information on how to defend Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel. Samuel and Cassel were teammates in New England. In those days, Samuel got a lot of practice time against Cassel, who ran the scout team.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano said quarterback Josh Freeman doesn’t need to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. I think that’s something Freeman did way too much of last season when he forced throws and made bad decisions. But the Bucs have gone to extremes to upgrade his supporting cast. Freeman’s performance still is critical, but he should be in a position where he doesn’t feel like he has to carry the team.

Freeman was elected a captain by his teammates. Receiver Vincent Jackson is the other offensive captain. Gerald McCoy and Ronde Barber are the defensive captains. Andrew Economos and Adam Hayward are the captains for special teams.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

After hosting the Democratic National Convention, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said one of the city’s next goals is to host a Super Bowl. I think that might be a little overly ambitious. Charlotte has an outdoor stadium, and its weather in January and February can be less than ideal. The NFL has shown a willingness to give Super Bowls to cold-weather cities that have indoor stadiums. It also has awarded the 2014 Super Bowl to the New York area, and that game will be played outdoors. But that deal came down as a reward for getting a new stadium, plus it’s New York, the nation’s biggest city.

As they have every year for as long as I can remember, Tom Sorensen and Scott Fowler have dueling columns in which they predict how the Panthers will fare. Sorensen has them winning 10 games and making the playoffs. Fowler has them at 8-8. Either one could be right. But let me give you a little insight on my two friends and former co-workers. Fowler is multi-talented. But, when it comes to predictions, Sorensen has a certain gift. It’s almost like he’s clairvoyant. I once remember him predicting a former colleague we’ll refer to as “Stan’’ would have a chicken-salad sandwich for lunch. Amazingly, "Stan'' opened his brown bag a few minutes later and pulled out a chicken-salad sandwich.

Around the NFC South

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
9:54
AM ET
Time for a Thursday morning run through the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan says he believes second-year pro Akeem Dent is ready to take over as the starter at middle linebacker. He better be ready. After parting ways with Lofa Tatupu, the Falcons really don’t have any other options. Veteran Mike Peterson, who also plays the outside, could step into the middle for a few games. But the Falcons need Dent to be a steady force in the middle for this defense to work the way they want.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon gets it. Check out this column by Daniel Cox in which Weatherspoon brings up his chances of having a Pro Bowl season. This isn’t the typical “I want to go to the Pro Bowl’’ statement. It’s Weatherspoon saying that, if he’s in the discussion, it probably will be because the Falcons are having a good season. That’s what you want to hear from the guy that’s expected to be the defensive leader.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Although the Democratic National Convention’s big Thursday night event has been moved out of Bank of America Stadium due to the threat of bad weather, the Panthers said they’re happy they left early for Florida. They say setting up at IMG Academy is like having a few extra days of training camp before they open their season at Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Tom Sorensen has a very nice column on receiver Steve Smith, who is working to raise money to buy shoes for needy children. Smith has done some great things for others during his career. He’s also had some ugly incidents that, at times, have overshadowed the good. Call it maturity or whatever you want, but Smith seems to be approaching a point where the good consistently outweighs the bad.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The last time New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees faced Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was in a football video game before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Brees won that game with a last-second touchdown pass to Lance Moore. File that away and see if history repeats itself Sunday.

This is Griffin’s first NFL game and the Saints don’t know what to expect from him and Washington’s offense. But linebacker Curtis Lofton said the best thing a defense can do with any rookie quarterback is to put the pressure on him.

Temporary New Orleans coach Aaron Kromer said linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith could play Sunday if they’re able to gain a temporary restraining order on their suspensions. I have no doubt Smith, who went through training camp and the preseason, could step right back into the lineup. But Vilma was working on rehabbing his knee before his suspension began and it’s unclear how healthy that knee is.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive back Ronde Barber isn’t crazy about the notion that luck is involved in him making his 200th career start on Sunday. He’s right. In the NFL, you create your own luck. You have to be good and, if you’re able to avoid serious injury for that long, it probably has more to do with taking care of yourself than with luck.

I don’t know if it will change anything, but a Tampa Bay fan drew laughter when asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell why the league doesn’t drop its “archaic’’ television blackout policy during a question-and-answer session Wednesday. We should get word Thursday afternoon if Sunday’s home opener will be aired on local television. Unless the Bucs have sold 9,000 tickets since Friday, that probably isn’t going to happen.

The place where QBs are made

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
1:44
PM ET
I’m making the short drive from NFC South Blog headquarters down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to do some post-practice interviews with the Carolina Panthers.

As most of you know, the Panthers have left their facility at Bank of America Stadium to get out of the way of the Democratic National Convention. It’s a logical move since the Panthers open their regular season Sunday at Tampa Bay.

They pondered several facilities in the Tampa Bay area, but quickly settled on IMG Academy because they have strong ties to the place. Former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke is the director of football operations at IMG Academy.

Weinke is also one of the people that helped prepare Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for his rookie season because the lockout prevented Newton from working with his coaches. Newton and Weinke have remained close and Newton spent some of this offseason working out at IMG Academy.

We all know Newton went out and was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. But Newton isn’t IMG’s only success story and Weinke is gaining a reputation as a quarterback guru.

When I went down to do some pre-combine stories in February, I spent some time with Russell Wilson and Weinke was singing his praises. Ryan Tannehill also was there that day, but was limited because it was his first day back after an injury.

Now that Wilson and Tannehill have been named Week 1 starters, IMG Academy has a claim to fame. One quarter of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks have trained at IMG Academy.

Most of them have been there since Weinke has taken over in recent years. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has worked out there in the past, including during last year’s lockout.

But one other NFC South quarterback worked out there long before the Weinke era. That was New Orleans’ Drew Brees. He did his combine prep there in 2001. Coincidentally, one of the other rookie quarterbacks working out at IMG that year was Weinke, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Panthers.

I'll be back with more on the Panthers after the interviews are finished.

Reports: DNC out of Panthers' stadium

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
10:44
AM ET
Bank of America Stadium won’t be the prime-time featured venue for the Democratic National Convention after all.

Thursday night’s festivities reportedly will be moved indoors to Time Warner Center due to concerns about inclement weather.

The Carolina Panthers vacated their stadium Tuesday and are practicing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as they prepare for Sunday’s regular-season opener at Tampa Bay.

Around the NFC South

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
8:51
AM ET
As we count down to the start of the regular season, let's take a look at the Wednesday morning headlines from around the division.

ATLANTA FALCONS

As he gets ready for Sunday’s return to Arrowhead Stadium, tight end Tony Gonzalez reflected on his 12 years in Kansas City. He talked a lot about 1998, which certainly wasn’t his best season. Gonzalez dropped 17 passes that year. That prompted him to start reading inspirational books, seeking advice from veterans and staying after practice to catch passes. The result was the drops stopped and Gonzalez has caught more passes than all but one player (Jerry Rice) in NFL history.

Speaking of Atlanta tight ends, Tommy Gallarda made the roster and is third on the depth chart behind Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. But I think you’ll see a fair amount of Gallarda. He is Atlanta’s best blocking tight end.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said his expectations for defensive tackle Peria Jerry were “in limbo’’ entering training camp. Jerry had struggled since suffering a knee injury early in his rookie season (2009). But Nolan said Jerry has had an impressive preseason. That should help, because Jerry is expected to start with Corey Peters out for at least the first six games of the regular season.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Special teams were a problem area last season, so the Panthers made a bunch of changes in the offseason. The results weren’t apparent in the preseason, but coach Ron Rivera said he’s confident the special teams will be better in the regular season. They better be. The Panthers made changes at kicker and punter and plan to play several starters extensively on special teams. If the performance isn’t any better, the Panthers won’t have any excuses.

Although the Panthers arrived in Florida on Tuesday night and will practice in Bradenton starting Wednesday, a team of staff members have stayed back at Bank of America Stadium. Team president Danny Morrison said those staffers are helping behind the scenes with the Democratic National Convention and will join the team in Florida on the weekend.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett caught up with suspended New Orleans coach Sean Payton, who is helping coach his team’s youth-league football team. Payton said he’s kept a close eye on the Saints throughout the preseason, but largely has stayed quiet on the league-imposed suspensions. Payton said he, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis are in a different position than the players, because they don’t have a union to challenge the NFL. He said his ultimate goal is to get reinstated at the right time, and he’s received no indications the league would consider reducing his suspension.

The NFL Players Association is making a last-ditch effort to get a temporary restraining order that would stop suspensions for New Orleans defensive end Will Smith and two other former Saints (Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove) before the season opens. A similar motion previously was filed for linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The union is arguing irreparable damage will be done to the players if they’re suspended at the start of the season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

At least according to the latest unofficial depth chart put out by the team, Preston Parker has lost his job as the No. 1 punt and kickoff returner. Sammie Stroughter is listed as the top punt returner and Michael Smith as the top kickoff returner. If the depth chart is accurate, it’s not a huge surprise. Parker has struggled with returns and the Bucs might have been forced to keep Stroughter over receiver Tiquan Underwood because they wanted to make sure they had someone dependable to field punts.

Coach Greg Schiano and co-chairman Bryan Glazer asked fans to help give the Bucs a home-field advantage at Raymond James Stadium. The team has struggled to get good attendance in recent years, and Bucs’ fans are sometimes outnumbered by those of opponents. The Bucs have repeatedly said this offseason that they want to reconnect with their fan base. They’re doing their part so far, but the next step is to win consistently.

Around the NFC South

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
9:51
AM ET
Let's take a run through the Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Although former Atlanta fullback Ovie Mughelli was released by the Rams, general manager Thomas Dimitroff made it sound like the Falcons will stick with Lousaka Polite as the only true fullback on their roster. Running back Jason Snelling also can play fullback.

Atlanta receivers coach Terry Robiskie, like many around the league, believes it takes a young wide receiver three years to fully develop. But there are strong signs that Julio Jones is ahead of the curve. He had a good rookie season, despite injuries and has been outstanding in the preseason. Of all the players I saw in my tour of NFC South training camps, none stood out more than Jones. Also, keep in mind, he had a full offseason program this year. That’s something he lacked as a rookie, due to the lockout.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team will practice one more time at home before turning Bank of America Stadium over to the Democratic National Convention. The Panthers will leave for Florida on Tuesday afternoon and spend the rest of the week working out at IMG Academies in Bradenton before playing the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Rookie cornerback Josh Norman was honored by Coastal Carolina on Saturday. More importantly, Norman shed some light on what his role will be with the Panthers. Norman said he’s been told he’ll play outside on passing situations. That means the team will be able to move Captain Munnerlyn inside on passing situations, which is what the coaching staff has wanted to do all along.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has been out with an injury, said he’ll be ready to play Sunday against Washington. Same for wide receiver Adrian Arrington. Linebacker David Hawthorne, who had surgery to fix a torn meniscus, wasn’t so sure. He said that decision will be up to the trainers. I’m thinking Hawthorne may have to sit an extra week or two. But if the Saints have Lofton on the field for opening day, their linebacker corps will be a lot better than it was in the final weeks of the preseason.

More good news for the Saints on the injury front. Cornerback Jabari Greer, who had surgery to fix a sports hernia in August, said he’ll be ready to go Sunday.

Rookie receiver Nick Toon, who already was placed on injured reserve, is expected to have surgery on his left foot. That’s the same foot Toon had surgery on before his final season at Wisconsin.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye who was released by the Bucs on Friday and signed by the Bears, said he left questioning the character of coach Greg Schiano. Okoye implied he was told his injured knee would be allowed to heal and, when it wasn’t coming along quickly enough, he was pushed to the door.

Newly-acquired running back D.J. Ware thinks Tampa Bay’s Mike Sullivan is ready to be a successful offensive coordinator. The two were together with the New York Giants and won two Super Bowls.

Around the NFC South

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
10:14
AM ET
Let's take a look at the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The cause and nature of the foot injury that is sidelining defensive tackle Corey Peters for the first six games remain mysteries. The Falcons have been very guarded about Peters’ situation. But they’ve had the inside information on it for some time and the fact they haven’t gone out and brought in an alternative must mean they feel good about what they have seen out of Peria Jerry. A first-round draft pick in 2009, Jerry’s career has been limited by injuries. But he’s looked good throughout training camp and the preseason.

Speaking of the Falcons and their tendency to stay quiet on injuries, coach Mike Smith now is admitting defensive end Ray Edwards was dealing with more serious injury issues than the public knew about last season. All indications are that Edwards is healthy now. If that’s the case, that could be a big boost for the Atlanta pass rush. Edwards never really made an impact in that area last season, but the Falcons signed him to complement John Abraham and believe he can fill that role now that he’s healthy.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte and Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers are hitting the road. They’re leaving their stadium and practice facility to the politicians and all the accompanying logistical issues to head to Florida. They open their season Sept. 9 at Tampa Bay. The team will leave next Tuesday and settle into IMG Academies in Bradenton, where they’ll practice for three days. The team is treating this like an extension of training camp or an extended road trip. The Panthers will do all their on-field work and weight lifting at IMG and hold their meetings back at the team hotel. They could have stayed in Charlotte, but I think getting out of town – and avoiding all the potential distractions – is the smart move.

Carolina’s release of kicker Olindo Mare on Monday has some fans rooting for the New Orleans Saints to release John Kasay and the Panthers to bring back their original kicker. I wouldn’t count on that. The team is serious about going with former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock. Kasay is still with the Saints and could end up winning the job over Garrett Hartley. Even if he’s available, it doesn’t make sense for the Panthers to bring back Kasay. The main reason he was let go in the first place was because the Panthers didn’t think he could handle kickoffs and they didn’t want to carry a kickoff specialist. Medlock can handle kickoffs and field goals.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Akiem Hicks might not be the only rookie defensive tackle on New Orleans’ opening-day roster. Mike Triplett points out that Monday’s release of Remi Ayodele means there’s a chance that undrafted rookie Tyrunn Walker could make the regular-season roster. If he does, it probably will mean the Saints will carry five defensive tackles.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Gary Shelton runs through the list of college coaches moving to the NFL and the quarterbacks they went with in their first season. In a lot of cases, the coach and the quarterback didn’t succeed. But Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman might be able to be an exception to this. Freeman obviously had some issues last season, but I think he still is more talented than a lot of quarterbacks and Schiano and his staff have spent their entire time in Tampa Bay trying to set things up to make Freeman’s life easier.

The Bucs say they were aware Amobi Okoye had a history of knee issues when they signed him. But the fact Okoye has missed a big chunk of the preseason is a bit concerning because the Bucs don’t have a lot of other depth at defensive tackle.
Updating our previous item on the Carolina Panthers leaving Charlotte while the Democratic National Convention is in town, the team just made the official announcement that it will practice at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., in the days leading into the Sept. 9 season opener at Tampa Bay.

As we said earlier, it makes total sense for the Panthers to practice somewhere in the Tampa Bay area.

“We researched places on the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast in anticipation of the 2012 schedule release,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “After the opener at Tampa Bay was announced, we scouted a few places in the Tampa area and IMG made the most sense. The facility offers the privacy and infrastructure that we need to prepare for the season opener.”

But there’s even more behind the logic to this one. The Panthers have built some strong ties to IMG. Former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke is the director of football operations at IMG, which has a first-rate facility with multiple fields, a training room and dorms to lodge players and coaches. Don’t underestimate the Weinke connection here.

Weinke and Hurney always have had a good relationship, but it’s gotten even stronger in recent years. Weinke helped get Cam Newton ready for last year’s combine. Newton then returned to IMG and worked with Weinke during the lockout. Newton obviously worked out pretty well for the Panthers.

They then turned around this year and drafted Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who did his combine prep at IMG.

I went down to Bradenton back in February and did stories on Kuechly and some other draft prospects. There’s obviously a trend developing. When I go down to IMG next February, I think I’ll just ask Weinke to point out Carolina’s first-round pick for 2013.

Weinke's career with the Panthers didn't go the way he wanted. He was the starter as a rookie, but fell into a backup role as soon as coach John Fox arrived. Weinke wasn't happy about that, but he handled things like a pro and kept good relationships.

That's still paying off for the Panthers.
The Democratic National Convention is coming to Charlotte in early September and the Carolina Panthers are planning to leave town.

They’re going to head to Tampa and practice there while the convention goes on in Charlotte from Sept. 3-6. That makes plenty of sense because Bank of America Stadium, which includes the team’s practice facility, will be in use as one of the convention venues.

Tampa is host to the Republican National Convention, but that will be over by the time the Panthers arrive in town. The Republican National Convention will be held Aug. 27-30.

Tampa is a logical choice for the Panthers because they will open the regular season there against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 9. The Panthers haven’t said where exactly they’ll be working out in Tampa, but I think you can rule out One Buccaneer Place because the Bucs will be using that. The University of South Florida practice facility could be a possibility. The University of Tampa used to host the Buccaneers during training camp. There also are some nice high school facilities in Tampa. It’s also possible the Panthers could look to use a facility in some of the neighboring communities around Tampa Bay.

Around the NFC South

January, 18, 2012
1/18/12
9:51
AM ET
Time for a look at the Wednesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

Jeff Schultz writes that the Falcons got it right when they hired Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. I agree totally. Steve Spagnuolo was the other big-name coordinator candidate out there and he’ll end up doing a fine job somewhere else (maybe even New Orleans). But I think Nolan is a better fit for the Falcons.

Spagnuolo reportedly will interview with New Orleans today. Just like I think Nolan is the better fit for the Falcons, I think Spagnuolo would be an excellent fit in New Orleans. The Falcons and Saints are two very different organizations. I think Nolan’s personality will allow him to fit in perfectly with the Falcons. Spagnuolo has a different style that could fit nicely with the Saints.

The Carolina Panthers don’t know who they’ll play in the 2012 opener yet, but they know it will be on the road. Team owner Jerry Richardson said the team will open on the road because the Democratic National Convention will be taking place and some of the events will be held at Bank of America Stadium.

Roy Cummings writes that Tampa Bay’s lengthy search for a new head coach isn’t out of the ordinary. He’s right and he points to how it took the Bucs a good bit of time to hire Tony Dungy and trade for Jon Gruden in the past. I can think of a few others that dragged out but seemed to work out fine. Carolina’s hiring of John Fox in 2002 went late into January. Same for last year when the Panthers went through a methodical process before hiring Ron Rivera.

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