NFL Nation: Graham Gano


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton missed the season opener with broken ribs. Then defensive end Greg Hardy was deactivated for the second game.

For most of the first two weeks of the NFL season, the focus on the Carolina Panthers has been off the field.

They're 2-0 on it, in case anybody hasn't noticed.

The Panthers have shown in consecutive weeks that they are bigger than one player. When Newton was out, backup Derek Anderson had a top-five quarterback rating in a victory at Tampa Bay. In Hardy's absence, backup Mario Addison stepped up with 2.5 sacks in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit.

The Panthers faced a week of scrutiny for not disciplining Hardy, who is appealing a July 15 guilty verdict on domestic violence charges. The criticism coincided with the Baltimore Ravens' release of Ray Rice, who was shown on video punching his then-fiancée, and the Minnesota Vikings' decision to deactivate Adrian Peterson, who is charged with negligent injury to a child.

"For us, the biggest thing is not to get caught up in all the sensationalism and really let the facts play out before we start passing judgment and having opinions about it publicly," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said, describing how he and his teammates are approaching the Hardy situation.

"That's what we've decided as a team, and that's what we're doing. And the biggest thing, at the end of the day we still have a job to do."

So far, they've done it well. Ron Rivera's team is focused so much on winning that, as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery noted, some players weren't really aware of Hardy being deactivated until they got on the field.

"It starts with the head man," Cotchery said. "Every day, Coach Rivera focuses us in on the game plan."

The defense has proven to be every bit as good as the one that finished second in the league a season ago. It might be one of the deepest, too, as the Panthers didn't miss a beat without Hardy.

"We're a complete team," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's not about one man around here. It's all about us coming together and playing as a team, offensively, defensively and special teams.

"When we're able to do that, we can be a special bunch."

Sunday's win indeed was a team victory. Seven different players caught passes from Newton, who compiled a rating of 100.2 after a slow start.

Even placekicker Graham Gano had a fumble recovery.

And did I mention leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (thigh) didn't play, either?

"We're just trying to win a championship," Cotchery said.

That has been the focus since San Francisco spoiled last season's storybook run by defeating Carolina 23-10 in the playoffs.

"No disrespect, it's not about what you guys say, it's not about what anybody says outside this organization," Newton said to reporters. "At the end of the day, if the 53 guys that are ready to go come day are on the same page, there's no telling what our team can do.

"That's what we're showing, guys that believe in each other, believing in ourselves and not playing for ourselves, playing for the persons that are next to us. With that attitude we'll go a long way."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "Smoo" or "Schmoo" or whatever Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin after Friday night's amazing catch, it's a keeper.

Think about it. Every time Benjamin makes a big catch the crowd can shout "Smoooooooooo" or "Schmooooooo." It will sound like a boo just like it does when the crowd screams "Luuuuuuuuuu-ke'' when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly makes a big play.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Mike McCarnKelvin Benjamin showed the ability to make key catches on Friday.
And if Friday night and training camp are good indicators, Benjamin will make plenty of big catches.

If you missed the one in the 20-18 preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills, the former Florida State standout stepped on the heel of cornerback Stephon Gilmore as he approached the goal line, stumbled to the ground, gathered himself and sprawled his 6-foot-5, 240-pound body out as he went to the ground for the catch.

"Smooooooooooo!!!"

"Schmooooooooo!!!"

We may never know what "Smoo" or "Schmoo" means. Benjamin has no idea and Newton says "the world may never know."

When pressed if perhaps it could be short for "Smooooooth," Newton replied to the reporter, "Mr. Newton, you are too impatient."

No arguments here.

Regardless, "Smoo" or "Schmoo" is a keeper.

Here are a few other leftover thoughts from Carolina's preseason opener:

  • Third-string quarterback Joe Webb did about everything the Panthers imagined when they signed him to imitate starter Cam Newton. He completed 16 of 28 pass attempts for 180 yards and a touchdown. He led the team in rushing with 30 yards on four carries. Unfortunately, when all is said and done I just don't see the Panthers keeping three quarterbacks even though coach Ron Rivera says it's a possibility.
  • With Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant locks at wide receiver, the other two or three spots remain up for grabs. Tavarres King helped his stock with four catches for 50 yards. He had another long reception negated by a holding call. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown caught three passes for 23 yards. Marcus Lucas had a costly drop. Brenton Bersin, who has impressed in camp, was targeted four times but caught only one pass for 19 yards. Stay tuned.
  • Tight end Brandon Williams deserves a spot on the final roster. The former college basketball player has been impressive in camp, and he backed that up with three catches for 50 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman continues to be a training camp phenom. The former Coastal Carolina star, who had four interceptions during one practice in 2012 and led the Panthers in picks during the 2013 preseason, had another in the end zone against Buffalo to draw praise from Rivera.
  • How valuable is kicker Graham Gano, who did not play with a sore lower back? His replacement, Jordan Gay, missed the first extra point from 33 yards. That forced Carolina to go for two after its next two touchdowns. Had Gano played and made the first, Carolina kicks the last two and wins 21-20.
  • Newton didn't get the "official" word he was being held out until he was getting treatment before kickoff even though Rivera and company never had serious plans to play him. As I said on Friday, it was the right call. No need to rush him back until he's turned fully loose to run in practice, which should be soon. "It's not how I felt, it's about my progression," Newton said. "It's a plan that's in place for me to be back there. Do I want to be out there? Absolutely I do. But have to be smart. Have to be coachable, too."
  • Sunday's 6:10 p.m. ET practice at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., has been moved to 3:10 p.m. The 3:10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday practices will be moved to 9:25 a.m. as the Panthers wrap up camp.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A goal-line stand by the first-team defense. An amazing touchdown catch by first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. No sacks given up by left tackle candidate Byron Bell. A recovered onside kick.

Short of quarterback Cam Newton suiting up and a victory, the Carolina Panthers got about all they could out of Friday night's 20-18 loss to the Buffalo Bills

Here are some other thoughts on the Panthers' first preseason game of the year:
  • Carolina made the right decision sitting Newton, who is still not 100 percent from offseason left ankle surgery. While he was cleared to practice when training camp began, Newton hasn't been cleared to scramble or run the read option. Coach Ron Rivera said that will come in a matter of days. Meanwhile, it wasn't worth risking a setback with a new offensive line against a Buffalo defense that sacked Newton six times last season in Week 2.
  • Much was made during the offseason of the Panthers releasing the franchise's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith. If Benjamin (6-5, 240) keeps making plays like his 29-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter he will silence the critics fast. The 28th pick of the draft has impressed throughout camp with his ability to make the high, acrobatic catch. On this play he stumbled at the goal line, gathered himself as he was going to the ground and made a diving catch for the score. Guess he can go high and low.
  • Bell started and allowed no sacks, but it would be premature to say he won the job to replace the retired Jordan Gross. He was pushed into the quarterback a couple of times and didn't exactly open up running room. Nate Chandler, also in the mix for the job, allowed a sack that turned into a fumble in the second quarter playing right tackle. It wouldn't surprise if he got the start on the left side next weekend against Kansas City. The biggest concern on the line is depth. The backups were so pitiful in the second quarter that the starters -- minus Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil -- returned.
  • In his first game after moving from safety to nickel corner, Charles Godfrey was beaten early for a 32-yard catch. He wasn't in the same time zone. But for the most part this unit, playing without starting free safety Roman Harper (toe), looked adequate as the Panthers attempt to replace three of four starters. Backup cornerback Josh Norman, the king of Carolina's preseasons when it comes to picks, had an interception in the end zone. This is a make-or-break year for him.
  • With placekicker Graham Gano (lower back) out, backup punter Jordan Gay missed the 33-yard PAT after Benjamin's touchdown.
  • At one point in the third quarter, Tavarres King made three straight catches, albeit one was called back for holding. His stock is rising.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers placekicker Graham Gano majored in criminology at Florida State, which means he has a pretty good understanding of criminal behavior.

On Monday, he put that to good use, sneaking into the Carolina locker room before most players arrived, hanging an FSU sweatshirt on quarterback Cam Newton's locker and then tweeting a picture of it with this message:



Newton led the Auburn Tigers, which plays Florida State for the BCS National Championship on Monday night, to the 2011 championship with an undefeated season.

He wasn't available to defend himself, and he's not on Twitter, but Newton made his allegiance pretty clear with an Auburn-colored orange shirt under his jersey during practice.

Remember, this is the same person who has opened several news conferences recently with "War Eagles."

But the moment showed just how loose the locker room atmosphere was as the Panthers (12-4) began preparation for Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Gano was pretty excited that the picture was retweeted by ESPN's SportsCenter, telling wide receiver Steve Smith: "I sent a tweet of my Florida State hoody on Cam's locker and it was all over SportsCenter."

As a group of reporters gathered, Gano pointed to the hoody now crumpled up in his locker and said, "Here it is. Come and question me everyone."

Then he put his criminology background to work.

"Who put the jersey in there?" a reporter asked.

Gano: "I think that's Cam's. I don't know how it got in my locker. No idea."

"How early did you have to get here to take the picture," a reporter asked.

Gano: "I don't know what you're talking about."

Then it was suggested that Gano's Twitter account was hacked and somebody else took the picture to frame Newton.

Gano: "Exactly. Then they took [the hoody] down and threw it in my locker."

For the record, Gano showed the picture to Newton and Newton allegedly laughed.

The two allegedly didn't bet on the game, though.

"No, we can't bet," Gano said with a smile. "You know that."

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
11:30
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NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

What it means: That the winning streak ends at eight. That the Panthers (9-4) got a taste of what New Orleans got from the Seahawks six days ago on "Monday Night Football." Nobody should be surprised. The Saints (10-3) have been doing this to almost every team in the Superdome this season. The key for Carolina will be to bounce back next week the way New Orleans did after its 34-7 loss to Seattle. The Panthers likely need to win at least two of their three final games to get into the playoffs as a wild card. Arizona is lurking at 8-5, and the Cardinals own the tiebreaker based on a 22-6 victory over the Panthers on Oct. 6. Winning the NFC South is almost out of the question now. It would take New Orleans losing two of its final three -- including in Charlotte on Dec. 22 -- and Carolina winning out.

Stock watch: The defense that was ranked No. 2 in the league, No. 1 in scoring with 13.1 points allowed per game, was made to look very average by Saints quarterback Drew Brees & Co. The Saints had 21 points at halftime -- more than any other team scored against Carolina during the eight-game winning streak. Wide receiver Marques Colston looked uncovered much of the game, particularly over the middle, where he caught a couple of touchdowns. The front four got little pressure on Brees, who completed 30 of 42 pass attempts for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Panthers hadn't given up but three touchdowns period in the past four games and hadn't given up more than two in a game all season. They were allowing only 289.8 yards total per game.

Stock watch II: Cam Newton really wasn't a factor, which is something you haven't read for eight straight games. The Saints kept him bottled up, sacking him five times and holding him completely in check until a late-game touchdown pass. He got back into his habit of holding the ball way too long, which led to a few of the sacks.

Missed opportunities: The Panthers had two opportunities in the red zone in the first quarter and got only two field goals out of it. On the second they had first-and-goal from the 10 with a 3-0 lead and a chance to make a statement. When they didn't, New Orleans did.

No good: The Panthers were so out of sync that place-kicker Graham Gano, who had missed only two field goals all season, missed a 49-yarder in the third quarter that he normally makes with his eyes closed in ideal conditions like this.

What's next? The Panthers return home to face the New York Jets. It will be the first time the teams have met since 2009, when the Jets won 17-6 at home. The Jets lead the series 3-2.
MIAMI -- A look at the first half between the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins:

Miami looked like the team on a six-game winning streak and Carolina the team facing a week's worth of distractions as it went into halftime with a 16-6 lead.

The Panthers were sluggish on offense and the secondary looked more like the one that began the season with a lot of questions marks instead of the one ranked fifth against the pass.

Here's how it unfolded:

Bad omen I: First the Panthers failed to turn an interception into a touchdown on the game's first series. Then Graham Gano had a 50-yard field goal attempt blocked, the first this season and first for the Panthers since last season against Washington.

Bad omen II: Quarterback Cam Newton was hit hard on Carolina's first play and was slow getting up, appearing to spit out blood. He was hit hard more times than the Panthers probably care to have in the first quarter.

Bad omen II: Carolina's secondary, that has played exceptionally well the past two months, was beaten for a 21-yard completion and 53-yard touchdown pass during a three-play stretch midway through the first quarter. Cornerback Melvin White, who struggled against the Patriots, was beaten on the first. Corner Captain Munnerlyn was beaten badly by Mike Wallace on the second.

Bad omen III: Newton was given a yard and first down on the last play of the first quarter. Miami challenged and it was ruled Newton's knee was down short of the first down.

Bad omen IV: The Panthers challenged a 57-yard reception by Wallace, again against Munnerlyn, and lost. The Dolphins turned that into a 32-yard field goal and a 10-3 lead.

Bad omen V: Newton threw an interception with just over two minutes left in the first half, setting up Miami for another field goal and a 16-3 lead.

Good omen I: Newton dropped the snap on the next-to-last play of the first half, picked it up and found Brandon LaFell for a 29-yard gain that set up Gano's 46-yard field goal to end the first half.

Upon Further Review: Panthers Week 10

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
8:00
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SAN FRANCISCO -- An examination of five hot issues from the Carolina Panthers' 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers:

Just how big was the win? This was the first time the Panthers (6-3), winners of five straight and six of their past seven, have beaten a team with a .500-or-better record this season. It was the first time they have won a game decided by three or fewer points since Week 7 of the 2010 season, which happened to be a 23-20 victory over San Francisco in Charlotte. Cam Newton had been 0-5 in games decided by a field goal or less, which according to ESPN Stats & Information was the worst record for any quarterback in the NFL since he entered the league in 2011. Josh Freeman was second at 1-5, followed by Matt Moore at 1-4 and Philip Rivers at 3-6.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezLuke Kuechly led the way in shutting down Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco offense.
Just how well did the defense play? The 151 yards allowed was the fewest San Francisco has gained since Week 9 of 2006, when the Vikings held the 49ers to 133 yards. The 49ers had scored 30-plus points in five straight games and in all six of their wins. It was absolute domination. And here's an early vote for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for NFL Defensive Player of the Week. The second-year player had a team-best 11 tackles, a sack and two tackles for losses.

Safety valve: Newton's numbers were dreadful in the first half as he completed 5 of 14 pass attempts for 54 yards, an interception and a passer rating of 18.2. His top target on the season, Steve Smith, was shut out. Newton adjusted in the second half and completed 6 of 8 attempts to Smith for 63 yards, including 4-of-5 on third down. None was bigger than his 9-yard completion on third-and-8 with 2:18 to play and the Panthers trying to run out the clock. Newton, who had the NFL's top third-down passer rating coming into the game, was 1-for-4 with an interception on third down in the first half.

Ginn's return: Nobody wanted to impress the 49ers more than Ted Ginn Jr., who had only two catches for his former team in 2012. Ginn only caught two passes for 19 yards after being targeted four times on Sunday, but he made a huge contribution with his punt returns. After averaging fewer than 11 yards a return in the first eight games, he averaged 21.7 yards on three returns Sunday, almost breaking a couple. He was so excited that he developed cramps and had to go into the locker room for an IV at one point.

It was a fumble: I asked coach Ron Rivera why the officials didn't overturn the incomplete pass call on a play to San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis in the second quarter to a catch and fumble. It appeared to the Panthers and almost everyone at Candlestick Park that Davis had possession, was stripped of the ball and Carolina's Thomas Davis recovered. Rivera's explanation from the officials: "Well, apparently, there are three phases as to what has to happen on a catch and he hit two out of three." He didn't sound convinced. None of the Panthers did, either. "He took three steps. He took three steps. Ball out,'" safety Mike Mitchell said.

Bonus observation: Rivera was asked whether he had any hesitation on sending kicker Graham Gano out for the game-winning 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Really? Gano's missed 48-yarder in the third quarter was his first after going 12-for-12. He is now 5-for-5 on field goals of 50 or more yards, the most in the league from that range. Rivera, by the way, had no hesitation.
KaepernickAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezColin Kaepernick could not spark the 49ers on offense and was sacked a season-high six times.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The NFL can be fickle both in perception and in reality.

The San Francisco 49ers could have easily extended their win streak to six games and gone into New Orleans next Sunday with a hard-earned victory on their resume.

Instead, the 49ers -- who lost 10-9 to the visiting Carolina Panthers in a game that had a January feel -- will enter Week 11 facing questions about whether they can beat a good team and have fallen too far behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West hunt. Both are legitimate questions.

But it was so close to not being the case.

The Panthers twice recovered fumbles in their own territory in the final two minutes. Carolina’s only points came on a 27-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late in the first half and a 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter by Graham Gano.

Defensively, the 49ers continued to play winning football. However, the San Francisco offense -- which scored at least 31 points in the five-game winning streak leading into this game -- missed tight end Vernon Davis in the second half as he sat out because of a concussion. The 49ers, whose offense mustered three Phil Dawson field goals in the first half, showed no life in the second half with just 45 yards.

The result of the close call, puts the 49ers in a tough spot moving forward.

The loss to the Panthers, who have now won five consecutive games, drops the 49ers to 6-3. San Francisco, fell to 3-2 at home and with just its the second loss at home under Jim Harbaugh after Nov. 1, and is now 2.5 games behind Seattle. The Seahawks improved to 9-1 with a victory at Atlanta on Sunday. The Seahawks, one of the best home teams in the NFL, have four of their final seven games at home.

Thus, winning the NFC West may be difficult for San Francisco.

If the 49ers, who are 2-3 against teams with winning records, do not win the NFC West, the highest playoff seed it could attain is No. 5. And the only possible home game would be as host to the No. 6 seed in the NFC title game. Thus, there is a good chance the final game at Candlestick Park will be in the regular-season finale Dec. 23 against Atlanta.

So Sunday’s loss could have long-lasting effects on the defending NFC champions.

Still, Harbaugh vowed the team will straighten itself out quickly.

“We’ll do what we do, we’ll bounce back,” Harbaugh said. “Regroup.”

The 49ers must do so quickly. They have a big game next Sunday at New Orleans that, like the Carolina game, has major playoff implications.

The 49ers must learn they can’t win if they are not at their best. The past five games were no contest for the 49ers. They ripped every opponent. Their closest margin of victory was 12 points.

In their past two games, at Tennessee and in London against Jacksonville, the 49ers jumped out to 24-0 and 28-0 leads. Sunday's game against Carolina was close throughout even though the 49ers did lead 9-0 late in the second quarter.

That’s the difference between the Seahawks and the 49ers this season. The Seahawks have had several games in which they didn’t play well. But they found ways to win. The 49ers couldn’t do that Sunday.

Most of the 49ers’ woes were on offense, especially after Davis left. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was under duress all game and had few answers. He was sacked a season-high six times.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick was 0-for-6 on throws deeper than 10 yards downfield Sunday. It was the first time in 19 NFL starts that he failed to complete a deep pass. Kaepernick threw for just 91 yards.

The return of wideout Mario Manningham -- he played for the first time this season after suffering a knee injury in December -- did not spark the offense. Manning had three catches for 30 yards, but with Davis out most of the game, the 49ers' offense was out of sync. Mannigham is a complimentary receiver. But Michael Crabtree, who is expected back in early December, is an impact player.

Until then, the 49ers have to find some answers.

“It’s unacceptable,” receiver Anquan Boldin said of the team’s offensive performance Sunday. “Obviously, we didn’t get it done.”

And that’s the current reality for a team that lost to one of the NFL’s hottest teams by one point.
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Upon Further Review: Panthers Week 9

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
8:00
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An examination of five hot issues from the Carolina Panthers' 34-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:

[+] EnlargeBrandon LaFell
David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty ImagesBrandon LaFell and the Panthers found the ball bouncing their way in Sunday's victory.
Lucky bounce: When wide receiver Brandon LaFell fumbled inside the Atlanta 10-yard line with a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Carolina coach Ron Rivera had a flashback to the season opener against Seattle. The play was eerily similar to the fourth-quarter fumble running back DeAngelo Williams had inside the 10 against the Seahawks with the Panthers driving for the potential winning touchdown. The difference? Seattle recovered, ending Carolina's upset bid. On Sunday, LaFell recovered when an Atlanta player knocked the ball back into his arms. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scored on an 8-yard run on the next play to extend the lead to 14 points. The ball often bounces your way when things are going good, and things are going good for a Carolina team that has won four straight.

Fourth-and-1: The Panthers are so effective on fourth-and-1 now that they have defenses totally guessing. For the second time in four games they scored a touchdown on a fourth-and-1 pass. This one was a 14-yard toss to wide-open tight end Greg Olsen on a rollout by Newton to make it 14-3 in the second quarter. Last month at Minnesota, Carolina scored on a 2-yard pass to Steve Smith. The Panthers now have been successful on five of six fourth-and-1 calls. No other team had converted more than five coming into Sunday. Carolina's opponents are 1-for-7 on fourth down.

Lockdown on Gonzalez: Carolina intercepted the first pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez because Matt Ryan threw into triple coverage. For the rest of the first half it appeared the Panthers forgot to cover the future Hall of Famer as he caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. On most he was wide open. But the Panthers got more physical with Gonzalez coming off the line in the second half and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott made some coverage adjustments to hold Ryan's favorite target to one catch for 4 yards over the last two quarters.

Fresh legs: Without Jonathan Stewart the Panthers were averaging 3.99 yards per carry and 130 yards through seven games. With the team's No. 2 all-time leading rusher on Sunday, they averaged 4.0 yards per carry for a total of 131 yards. They averaged 32.57 rushes a game without Stewart and 33 with him. In other words, the Panthers didn't alter their approach just because they added another piece to the puzzle. But they did keep fresh legs in the game, which over the course of a 16-game schedule should help.

How far is too far? That's what Rivera is trying to determine when it comes to kicker Graham Gano. The coach didn't hesitate to attempt a 55-yard field goal early in the third quarter, and Gano rewarded him with a successful line-drive kick. "He said he over-swung and hit it right in the middle of the ball, which is kind of scary,'' Rivera said. What's scary is Gano is 12-for-12 on field goals, including 4-for-4 from 50 yards or longer. He also is perfect on all 24 extra-point kicks.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
4:13
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 30-15 victory against the St. Louis Rams:

What it means: Carolina (3-3) has a chance Thursday night at Tampa Bay to get above .500 for the first time under third-year coach Ron Rivera and the first time since 2008. The Panthers, who started 1-5 each of the past two seasons, didn't win a close one, which has plagued them. But they did win an ugly one in which the Rams constantly shot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers in an oh-so-familiar way. Knowing it can play a subpar game and still get away with the victory at least has to be encouraging for a Carolina team trying to build an identity.

Stock watch: Running back Mike Tolbert scored on a 1-yard run in the first half to give him three touchdowns in the past two games. He has become the go-to guy in short-yardage situations, although he was stopped on two plays from the St. Louis 1 in the third quarter and then drew a personal foul. It will be interesting to see how his carries change when Jonathan Stewart, the team's second all-time leading rusher, returns from the physically unable to perform list. Rivera indicated that could be this week.

Inconsistent O-line: The Panthers did a poor job run and pass blocking, particularly in the first half when quarterback Cam Newton was sacked twice and Carolina ran for only 28 yards against the league's 30th-ranked run defense. Sixteen of that came on runs by Newton. DeAngelo Williams, the team's leading rusher, had seven yards on five carries in the first half. The Panthers couldn't move the Rams out of the way on two carries from the St. Louis 1-yard line in the third quarter.

Weakness in secondary: Left cornerback Josh Thomas was beaten for a 73-yard catch in the third quarter and a 63-yarder in the first half that was called back for a tripping penalty on the Rams. He is solid against the run but way too soft against the pass. Don't be surprised to see Melvin White or Drayton Florence get more time there.

Early team MVP: There are a lot of candidates on defense, but you can't overlook kicker Graham Gano. He is 9-for-9 on field goals after going 3-for-3 on Sunday -- including a 50-yarder that made him 3-for-3 from that range.

What's next? The Panthers travel to Tampa, Fla., for a Thursday night game. This will be the NFC South opener for Carolina, which lost both games to the currently winless Bucs a year ago.

Wrap-up: Redskins 24, Buccaneers 22

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
8:19
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A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' white-knuckle 24-22 victory over the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Sunday.

What it means: There's a pretty good reason the Redskins are OK with not having another first-round draft pick until 2015. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III continues to impress as he helps lift the Redskins to 2-2. For the game, he completed 26-of-35 passes for 323 yards and no interceptions. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He got the ball back on his own 20-yard line, down by a point with 1:42 left in the game and he marched the Redskins 56 yards into field-goal range, whence Billy Cundiff hit the game-winning 41-yarder. What you want from your quarterback is for him to give you the confidence he can bring you back and win a game late, and Griffin has the first fourth-quarter comeback victory of his young career.

Bentley rolls on: The Redskins' other star rookie on offense, sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, rolled up 113 yards on 21 carries, including a 39-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that built the Washington lead to 21-3. Morris has a lock on the starting running back job in Washington, as newly signed Ryan Grant wasn't even active and is clearly on the roster only for depth. Morris would have to get injured or see his play drop off dramatically for him to lose the job.

On defense: Ryan Kerrigan is a complete animal, and he led the high-pressure first-half assault on Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. When the Redskins were pressuring Freeman early, he couldn't find open receivers and the Redskins' coverage issues on the back end were masked. When the Bucs stepped up their protection in the second half and Freeman had time to throw, he was able to exploit mismatches in the secondary with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams against the Redskins' defensive backs. It's pretty simple, really. The Redskins' defense requires pressure in order to succeed.

Redemption... barely: You have to wonder if Cundiff would have been back next week if the kick had hooked any farther left. He'd already missed from 41 and 31 yards (and 57, but whatever) in the game, and his misses left the door open for Tampa Bay to mount its comeback. The Redskins got Cundiff (and cut Graham Gano) because of his ability to deliver touchbacks on kickoffs. But as much as NFL coaches prize field position in the kicking game, they almost certainly assumed he'd at least be reliable on field goals. Could be one bad game, but if the trend continues, the Redskins may have to sacrifice something on the kickoffs and look elsewhere for a more reliable kicker. It appears they're going to be in a lot of close games.

What's next: The Redskins play host to the 4-0 Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Landover, Md. Having allowed 326.3 passing yards per game so far this season, they will try and stop Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and an Atlanta passing game that's one of the deadliest in the league. They'll also be looking to break a seven-game home losing streak.

Observation deck: Bucs-Redskins

August, 29, 2012
8/29/12
10:28
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Just when I thought I was out, Roy Helu pulls me back in.

As this preseason has unfolded, the one thing we thought we knew about the Washington Redskins' running back situation was that Helu was confirming the coaching staff's fears about his ability to stay healthy. He hadn't been any kind of factor at all since the first preseason game, sitting out practices with sore Achilles' tendons while Evan Royster and Alfred Morris got starts and Tim Hightower made his return from last year's knee surgery. And in the first half of the Redskins' 30-3 preseason victory over the Buccaneers on Wednesday, it was all Royster.

But then in the second half came Helu, showing that burst through the line he showed when he got his chance last year and rolling up 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 carries. He even added 34 more yards on two catches, reminding everyone of that receiving ability with which they fell in love last year. I thought he looked good in blitz pickup, too. The result was the upstaging of Royster's 10-carry, 44-yard first half and a further deepening of the muddle that is the Redskins' starting running back picture with a week and a half left before the season opener. To wit:

Is Helu really their most talented back? And if he is, can they count on him to stay healthy? Or will nagging injuries always be an issue? Can they use him as a third-down back, or increase his reps in the second half after one of the other guys has softened up the defense?

Is Hightower healthy enough for a starter's workload 10 months after surgery to repair a torn ACL? And even if he is, has he lost a step?

Does Royster show more as a consistent runner than Helu does, in spite of the latter's explosiveness and receiving ability? And if so, is that the more important factor?

Is the rookie Morris good enough yet in pass protection to get significant reps as the starter if need be?

All we know is that (a) they like Hightower as the starter out of all of these guys if he's healthy and (b) he's not fully healthy right now. So there's no way to know who the starter will be on Sept. 9 in New Orleans until we see who runs on the field. But Mike Shanahan believes he has four good running backs who can succeed in his system, and that's fine by him. I reassert my belief that four different backs will start games for the Redskins this year, which is the same number of backs that started games for them last year, and that whoever it is that gets the ball from week-to-week will be a threat to clear 100 yards. Call the Redskins' running back "Timfred Heloyster."

Here's what else I noticed in the Redskins' final game of the preseason. Warning: It ain't much.
  • It's not that they had five sacks -- it's where they came from to get them. Marlon Favorite, Kedric Golston, Darrion Scott... the defensive line was generating pressure up the middle. With backups. And against backups, too, yes, I know that. But what this tells me is that the Redskins' defensive scheme doesn't plan to limit itself to using those outside linebackers to generate pressure. If they get an interior rush going, they could be a real force up front with the depth they do have (ahead of the guys who played Wednesday) on the defensive line.
  • The Redskins had to like seeing rookie cornerback Richard Crawford get an interception a few days after trading Kevin Barnes. Crawford's performance this preseason is one of the things that made Barnes expendable. The Redskins also like rookie safety Jordan Bernstine, who also had a pick.
  • I don't see how Brandon Banks has made the team as a wide receiver. He is still dangerous as a return man, and he had one very long catch. But he doesn't fight for the ball effectively against defenders and just doesn't show enough, technique-wise, as a wide receiver compared to the other guys competing for the spots. And Aldrick Robinson looks like he can handle kick returns, and someone (Santana Moss?) will figure out punt returns.
  • New kicker Billy Cundiff missed from 46 yards, but he sure looked good drilling those kickoffs through the back of the end zone. Expect a lot more of that from the guy who set an NFL record last year for touchbacks in a single season. I have to believe that's why he's on the team and Graham Gano is not.
The Washington Redskins play their final preseason game of 2012 at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While most, if not all, of the Redskins' starters are expected to sit out the game, here's a look at what I'll be watching ...

Most closely: The secondary. It was rough out there in the first two games, and then Tanard Jackson put on a show in the third and made you think maybe they have something at safety. I imagine we'll see some of DeJon Gomes at safety and some of Richard Crawford at cornerback, especially now that he's being given a great role in the wake of the Kevin Barnes trade. Tonight could offer a look at some of the depth at these key positions.

On the other side of the ball: The fight for the final wide receiver spots on the roster gets interesting with final cuts looming Friday. It could be a big night for guys like Brandon Banks, Aldrick Robinson, Dezmon Briscoe and Anthony Armstrong. Lots of people ask about Banks, and it's hard to see what he could do at this point to get on the roster. But I guess you never know.

If I think of it: The young offensive linemen remain interesting as the Redskins look for some long-term answers along the line. ... Lots of eyes will be on new kicker Billy Cundiff, just signed Tuesday to replace Graham Gano. Based on the reaction I saw, some people liked Gano and some hated him. Both groups should be interested to see how Cundiff fares.
People have been asking me all summer who's winning the Washington Redskins' kicker competition, and we now have our answer. It's the guy who lost the Baltimore Ravens' kicker competition.

Cundiff
One day after cutting veteran Neil Rackers (and ostensibly leaving the job to Graham Gano), the Redskins have signed former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, Adam Schefter reports. And according to ESPN 980 in Washington, Gano says he's been cut.

Cundiff was released by the Ravens on Sunday in a surprise move after undrafted rookie Justin Tucker outperformed him in camp. Clearly, the Redskins think the Ravens made a mistake, as they raced to sign him and cut both of the guys who'd been kicking for them all summer. The surprise part of today's move is the cutting of Gano, who hasn't been the most reliable of kickers but has a strong leg and might have been able to win a competition with Cundiff if given the chance. I mean, Justin Tucker did...

But kicker is really an eye-of-the-beholder thing, and Mike Shanahan must see something in Cundiff that he likes. Cundiff was a Pro Bowler in 2010, when he hit 89.7 percent of his field goals. And over the past two years, he's 53-of-59 on field goals of less than 50 yards and leads the NFL in touchbacks. Last year, he was 28-for-37 on field goals -- a more pedestrian 75.7 percent that compares closely with Gano's 75.6 and with Cundiff's career percentage of 76.7. But Cundiff was 1-for-6 from beyond 50 yards while Gano was 4-for-6 from that distance.

Cundiff did also, of course, famously miss a 32-yard field goal that would have tied last year's AFC Championship Game and sent the Ravens to overtime against the Patriots for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

So what to make of this? Cundiff is more reliable inside the 50, which matters more than the ability to boom the occasional 50-yarder. But the main difference is on kickoffs, where 83 of Cundiff's 154 kicks (53.8 percent) have resulted in touchbacks over the last two years while just 40 of Gano's 144 (27.8 percent) have done the same. That's the part that matters most to coaches, who know kickers are eventually going to break their hearts on field goals but really want them to deliver in terms of field position. That's got to be the main reason Cundiff is the Redskins' new kicker while Rackers and Gano are looking for work.
ASHBURN, Va. -- As the rest of the teams in the NFC East talk about dynasties, defending championships and ... whatever it is that Jerry Jones has been talking about all week, the Washington Redskins are working on moving up from fourth place. It has been a long time since the Redskins were a real factor. They've had three straight losing seasons and have reached the playoffs in just three of the past 19 years.

But for the first time in a long time, there is reason for hope. His name is Robert Griffin III, and he is a rookie quarterback on whom everything now rests. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick for the right to draft Griffin, and all he has to do is look around or listen to know what he represents to the Redskins' starving fan base.

"I didn't expect the excitement," said Griffin, who doesn't seem to be caught off-guard by too many things. "I wasn't looking to get drafted and have a whole city fall in love with me. So it's definitely a great experience. Hopefully, I can be the catalyst and get a lot of fans excited about this team."

Months before the games -- months before training camp, even -- Griffin already was doing that. His jersey became a fungal phenomenon, sprouting up instantly everywhere in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Stores began selling posters modeled after the iconic 2008 Barack Obama "HOPE" campaign posters, only with Griffin's face on them instead. The public reaction to Griffin has been outsized and unreasonable. But given the way Redskins fans feel about their team and how long they've gone without a franchise quarterback, it's easy for longtime residents of the area to understand.

"It's Washington, man," veteran Redskins receiver Santana Moss said. "There's nothing reasonable. The whole city expects 'now,' so at the end of the day, all you can do is give them what they want."

"Now" may not be a reasonable goal for a rookie quarterback on a team that won five games last year and plays in the same division as the Super Bowl champions. But what Griffin has already done around here is change the vibe. People are talking with real excitement about what can or will be. Even coach Mike Shanahan, who has overhauled the roster to the point where 19 of the projected 22 starters weren't on the team two years ago, feels differently about 2012.

"It's the first time, I feel like, you go into a season and you've got a chance," Shanahan said. "You're excited about the year. You're excited about your football team. You're excited about the direction you're going."

That's all new this year, and the new front man is a huge reason why.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How will the offense be different under Griffin? If you watch the Redskins practice, you see a lot of new stuff. There are rollouts. There are bootlegs. There are designed runs for the quarterback. There are option sets, where Griffin has to decide whether to keep, pitch or throw the ball. Shanahan admits he's throwing a lot at his rookie quarterback, and it's by design.

"What I think you do is, you feed him everything," Shanahan said. "For people to grow, in my opinion, you teach them everything and then you find out what they're able to do. So we teach him everything, see how much he can handle, knowing he's going to get better and better every year because he's smart enough to get it. And then that'll be our job here for the next three weeks, really after this week, to isolate it down more to what we're going to do this season -- get a package for him that he's most comfortable with."

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelRedskins fans are hoping Robert Griffin III can turn things around in Washington.
In other words, all of the stuff we're seeing Griffin do in practice might not necessarily carry over into the season. If there's a particular part of the offense with which he's having a hard time, the Redskins could shelve it until next summer and go with the things they know he can do. Regardless, though, Griffin's athleticism and running ability give the Redskins options they didn't have in previous years. And it may help them cover up question marks on the offensive line and in the running game. Speaking of which ...

2. Do they have enough around him? Shanahan won't talk about the salary-cap penalties the league imposed on the Redskins (and the Cowboys) just before the start of free agency. But it's a pretty fair guess that, had they not been docked $18 million in cap space this year and again next year, they might have been able to sign some offensive line help. They did not. They're bringing back last year's offensive line, and two of the starters are already injured. There's a chance left guard Kory Lichtensteiger makes the season opener, but right tackle Jammal Brown has a recurring hip problem that could prevent them from being able to count on him. The good news is that some of their backups got playing time last year because of injuries and suspension. And left tackle Trent Williams looks like the best player on the field in practices. But Griffin's protection could be an issue all year if the line struggles with injuries.

If it doesn't, Shanahan believes it can be effective because the players all know the system and each other. He's also not worried right now about who will emerge has his starting running back. Veteran Tim Hightower would be the starter if not for his ongoing recovery from last year's knee surgery. Evan Royster, a sixth-round pick in 2011, has looked the best of the remaining bunch so far in camp, but they also like 2011 fourth-round pick Roy Helu and 2012 sixth-rounder Alfred Morris. "We have four backs that can play," Shanahan told me, and he's willing to let the camp competition sort it out for him.

Griffin's receiving group includes newcomers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, veteran Moss and last year's rookie star, Leonard Hankerson, whose 2011 was cut short by injury, appears to be back. They're also expecting big things out of tight end Fred Davis, who was their best pass-catcher for much of last year before a drug suspension cost him the final four games.

3. The secondary. The defensive front seven looks strong and deep, but there are question marks at cornerback and safety. Will DeAngelo Hall thrive in his new role as the nickel corner? Will Cedric Griffin or Kevin Barnes be good enough as his replacement on the outside? Is strong safety Brandon Meriweather a talented star who was miscast in Chicago? Or is he a malcontent who got kicked out of New England because he wasn't playing to his potential? Can Madieu Williams or Tanard Jackson hold down the free safety spot? Lots of new faces and moving parts out there, and these questions need to be answered if the defense is going to continue to make progress.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

As they will tell you, the Redskins did beat the Giants twice last year. And they played the Cowboys tough twice. Of all the last-place teams in the NFL, only one finished closer to its division's first-place team than did the Redskins, who at 5-11 were still only four games out of first. They have replaced a starting quarterback (Rex Grossman) who somehow threw 20 interceptions in only 13 games with a brilliantly talented, charismatic and ultra-promising rookie. They've beefed up at receiver and on the defensive line. And even if all of that isn't enough for them to contend in 2012, Redskins fans have all kinds of reasons to feel good about the direction in which their franchise is pointing.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Eagles should be better than they were last year. The Giants have reason to believe they'll be better than they were last year. The Cowboys made major upgrades at cornerback and should be tougher to play than they were last year. Even with the improvements, there are very few positions (Tight end? Linebacker? 3-4 defensive end?) at which the Redskins appear to be as good as or better than their division rivals. That's a comment on the talent in the rest of the division as much as it is on what the Redskins are doing, but it remains a troubling reality. The Redskins are still a work in progress, and while the NFL prides itself on the number of its annual surprises, a Redskins playoff push at this point would likely rank among the biggest.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Santana Moss
Geoff Burke/US PRESSWIRERedskins receiver Santana Moss has lost 16 pounds since last season.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Moss' weight loss is striking. He's down 16 pounds and says he feels completely different. The Redskins' coaches called him in the offseason and told him they thought he was too big, and he agreed, so he got in shape and has come to camp determined to show the world he's still a top receiver.
  • The Redskins are converting Niles Paul, who last year was a rookie wide receiver, to tight end. He's 234 pounds and said his biggest concern when they asked him to make the change was that he wouldn't be able to block big pass-rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Pierre-Paul. But incumbent tight end Chris Cooley told him it was all about technique, and Cooley has been working with Paul to help refine that.
  • That's a pretty cool thing for Cooley to do for a player who may be about to take his job. Shows you what kind of guy and teammate Cooley is. He's got a chance to stick on the roster, but he has to show he's healthy and probably take a pay cut.
  • The Redskins' plan as of now for three-receiver sets is to use Garcon and Hankerson wide and Moss in the slot. But Moss could play well enough to see action outside in two-receiver sets, especially if Hankerson and Morgan have injury problems. Morgan, who has always had those, is being looked at as someone who can play any of the three receiver slots in Shanahan's offense.
  • Shanahan named defensive lineman Chris Baker as a player he thinks will surprise people. If that's true, the defensive line rotation looks formidable with Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Adam Carriker and 2011 second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins, who missed his rookie year with a knee injury but is back and looking good.
  • Outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will switch up from time to time this year instead of staying pinned to specific sides of the field. Orakpo also says he's working on adding pass-rush moves to his arsenal in an effort to get his sack numbers up.
  • Neil Rackers has a chance to unseat Graham Gano as the kicker, but Gano held off a challenge from veteran Shayne Graham in preseason last year, so don't give up on him yet.
  • Brandon Banks has been told he has to make the team as a receiver, not just a return man. If he doesn't make it, look for Aldrick Robinson as a possible kick returner.
  • Somehow, we have reached this point in the Camp Confidential without mentioning the name of London Fletcher. But he's still very much in the middle of things at age 37. He ran an interception in for a touchdown during the first week of training camp. He's in the best shape of anyone in camp, as usual. They put Griffin's locker next to his because they felt Griffin could benefit from proximity to their best veteran leader, and Griffin said he knew right away the significance of the locker assignment. Fletcher said he wanted to come back to Washington in part because he wants to be there when they turn it around. If they do, his presence will of course be a big reason why.

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