Monday, December 28, 2009

Commentary: Fox, Hurney to stay at Carolina in 2010

John Fox has apparently saved his job... for another year at least.

A report in Monday's Charlotte Observer says that both Fox and Panthers' General Manager Marty Hurney will both return in 2010 but that no extension will be given to Fox, who has taken the Panthers to the post-season three times since being hired in 2002 to replace George Seifert who led the Panthers to a dismal 1-15 season.

The report credits the Panthers' upset wins over the Minnesota Vikings on December 20th and this weeks 41-9 shocker over the New York Giants as the catalyst for keeping Fox around another year.

Fox, Hurney, and the current coaching staff will stay in 2010. But then the question of what's next will be the topic of conversation on ESPN and various radio and television markets in the Carolinas and probably around the nation as well. The Panthers are currently 7-8 on the season heading into the season finale with New Orleans on Sunday afternoon.

Fox is one of two coaches in NFL history to inherit a team with only one win in the season before their arrival and later take that team to a Super Bowl. And that's pretty remarkable considering the only other coach to accomplish that was Vince Lombardi.

The Panthers have enjoyed the most success in their short history with Fox at the helm. His 68 wins are by far the most in the history of the franchise. In fact he has 22 more wins than Dom Capers (1995-1998) and Seifert (1999-2001) combined. He took the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance at the end of the 2003 season. He's taken the Panthers to the playoffs three times which is twice more than Capers did (1996). He has turned the franchise into one of the elite in the NFL with an explosive wide receiver in Steve Smith, a multi-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers, and what I think is the best running back tandem in the league with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

But does he deserve to stay around another year? Despite another season of missing the playoffs after a disastrous start I'd have to think the answer is yes. Here's why: Who else are they gonna get to coach the Panthers? The list of quality coaches is very short right now in my opinion. Most of the top coaches already in the NFL are staying put. They've got success right now and why should they change that and risk being a failure?

Obviously the top candidate is former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. But other reports suggest he may be snatched up by Tampa Bay during this off-season. Who else can take over this franchise and win immediately? A college coach? Maybe another year of coaching changes in NCAA and NFL levels might land the Panthers a winner.

The second question I pose is this: does Marty Hurney deserve to stay around another year? Absolutely not. Look at the talent the Panthers have right now on both sides of the ball. Look at where the Panthers are struggling right now (specifically at quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive secondary.) How can a general manager of an NFL franchise not work to fix those problems? Part of the reason the Panthers struggled earlier this season was because Jake Delhomme couldn't find anybody downfield that actually wore a Panthers uniform. Interceptions were expected when he played. The Panthers have nobody to really compliment Steve Smith at wide receiver (now nobody after Smith's season ending injury on Sunday) and the defense struggled to contain both the pass and run until the last two weeks.

If the Panthers do not fix these problems in the off-season they will struggle again next year. I'll permit keeping John Fox but there is no reason at all to keep Hurney. The Panthers have gone to the playoffs three times in this decade. If significant changes aren't made now they might not make it back there for a long time to come.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jimmie Johnson named AP Male Athlete of 2009

It's been about a month since I last posted. In that time I've graduated college and embarked on a new chapter in life. Just wanted to get that out of the way and now on to my point...

Monday morning Jimmie Johnson was announced as the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. He beat out names like Peyton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, and (yes) Tiger Woods. He became the first NASCAR driver to ever win the award. Yes, Jimmie Johnson has done something else that Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, and Yarborough never did. Just the fact that Johnson was in the running is remarkable and it boasts so much about how NASCAR's place in mainstream sports media has jumped over the last decade. When I began watching NASCAR in the late 1980's, I doubt anyone would have selected a racecar driver as male athlete of the year. Here we are: December 21, 2009, and it's become reality.

I've talked at length about the enormity of the Johnson's accomplishment this year. A fourth straight championship is remarkable in any sport. I've noticed over the years that drivers who win a lot get booed by fans. Gordon, Stewart, Kyle Busch all come to mind for receiving their fair share of boos. But in the races I've been to in the four seasons that Johnson has taken home the crown, I don't ever remember hearing boos. I don't remember hearing cheers either. Are NASCAR fans nonchalant about Johnson and what's he done?

But back to the point at hand and this morning's announcement of Johnson's newest title. Take a look back at the 2009 sports world. Let's see what's happened in the last 12 or so months. A-Rod finally won his World Series title, Big Ben Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl with great heroics, Peyton Manning is on the verge of perfection in this year's version of the National Football League. And Tiger Woods overshadowed both John & Kate separating on national television and Mark Sanford and his antics with South American women.

But whatever Rodriguez, Roethlisberger, Manning, and Woods have done this year, have they done more than what Johnson has done? The obvious answer is no and anyone who is still thinking about this question needs to hit the refresh button because you are taking WAY too long.

I think NASCAR fans look at this from a two-fold standpoint. First, those that are Jimmie Johnson haters don't like this because it's Jimmie Johnson and they'd rather someone else had won the award. On the other hand, you've got a core group of NASCAR fans, some of whom have felt very neglected by mainstream media over the years, that are just happy that a driver had been chosen.

I remember when Dale Earnhardt made the cover of Time Magazine following his February 2001 death at Daytona. I remember thinking how huge it was for the sport to have one of its own on the cover despite the manner in which Earnhardt got there. Last February I was surprised to see the number of different national news outlets that were on hand for the season-opening Daytona 500. And now I'm seeing news people from all over the world at Daytona to watch Danica Patrick make single-file runs in an ARCA car (a topic by the way that I haven't even begun to vent about and will do so at length at a future date and time.)

But the fact of the matter is that the Associated Press has named a NASCAR driver as it's male athlete of the year. I like the idea and I say that while disclosing that I'm not necessarily a Jimmie Johnson fan. It's true I didn't like him that much when he first got into the sport and he certainly didn't help his cause with me when he won his first, second, and third championships. But you've got to respect the man and his latest accomplishment.

Take pride NASCAR. For the next 12 months you have the top male athelete in your ranks. Enjoy the ride. Maybe five in a row will also warrant the honor as well.