(Sports Network) - That's rubbish, ref! Good Ball! Down in front!
Those are a sprinkling of phrases I heard at a professional rugby match on my recent trip to the United Kingdom. For the hometown Northampton Saints versus the visiting London Irish on Sept. 17, fans full of vim and vinegar, and possibly a few pints of lager, let their feelings be known when a play doesn't go as originally planned.
After absorbing the vocals from the locals in the East Midlands region of England, I wondered which players in the NFL could hang with one of the world's most beloved and physical sports. A few lineman would do quite well on the front or back row and several linebackers should have no problem taking a beating for 80 minutes. In my opinion the wing position in rugby is more suited for running backs, quarterbacks and safeties, and that's why Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton would fit in perfectly playing in the Aviva Premiership or for the U.S. National Team.
With the 2011 Rugby World Cup nearing its conclusion in New Zealand, Newton fits the mold as an ideal rugger with a 6-5, 250-pound frame and speed uncommon for a man his physique. The 22-year-old quarterback is carrying the torch for an NFL franchise and is an example of what it takes to succeed in any sport at any age. Instead of amassing tries inside the 22-meter mark on the pitch, Newton is stacking up touchdowns and shredding defenses within 100 yards for a Panthers team still in search of its glory days.
Selecting Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft back in April set the wheels in motion for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in the past five years, posting 10 or more wins in a season on only one occasion over that span. Toughness, growth and maturity are some of the characteristics that make Newton such a special player and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is counting on the rest of his players, even the veterans, to follow suit.
"When the rest of us catch up with Cam...because some of us aren't growing at the same pace...I think we'll be a good football team," said Rivera. "It's a learning process."
Expectations weren't high for the Panthers entering the season. That would be silly after a dreadful 2-14 campaign the year before and 10 wins over the past two seasons. Carolina is currently 1-3 and has faced a handful of tests so far versus the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and last week's setback against the Chicago Bears, a team that was one win away from playing for the Lombardi Trophy. It doesn't get any better from here for Newton and the Panthers, who will host the New Orleans Saints Sunday before back-to-back matchups with the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins.
All three of Carolina's losses have been decided by seven points or less, and Newton's played well in all three of those defeats. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has thrown five touchdown passes and five interceptions while completing 59.5 percent of his attempts for 1,386 yards. He has sent shockwaves throughout the league with his strong arm, poise in the pocket and a chiseled build that allows him to bounce off of pursuing defenders. Opposing defenses never had to worry about a Panthers quarterback with this many gifts since previous candidates such as Kerry Collins and Jake Delhomme were mainly pocket passers. A quick release saved Collins and Delhomme from destruction, but Newton is more like Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a big-framed QB who can move around and absorb hits.
"Ben's a hard sack. Ben's a big, physical player that you can get hits on him, free rushes on him, and they don't necessarily equate to sacks and certainly that would be the case with Cam," said New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, who will face Newton on Sunday. "He's younger with more speed and more of a run threat I think than Ben. But he has that arm. He has that moxie that you look for at that position. It's not too big for him. He's very comfortable in the pocket and then escaping."
Payton's no stranger to talent having been in the league for as long as he has, and is one of 32 coaches in the NFL that should worry about a player of Newton's caliber. That's just part of the coaching fabric; select the standout players and scheme against them. Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith seems rejuvenated with Newton under center and the franchise's all-time yards receiving leader is second in the NFL with 530 receiving yards, just 24 yards shy of his 2010 season total. His 22.1 yards per reception leads the league among receivers averaging more than three catches a game.
Behind Smith's numbers is Newton. Newton doesn't have tunnel vision for Smith and can spread the ball around to tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The running game has room to improve and would make Carolina's offense even more threatening.
Newton will hear his fair share of rhetoric from critics much like the one's across the pound on the turf of Franklin's Gardens, but his skin is tough enough to deal with it. Listening to Newton after games proves this kid has the right mindset and wants to win right now regardless of how naysayers perceive the Carolina organization.
If Newton's teammates can soon match his intensity and desire, the Panthers will have plenty of "Good ball!" moments in the future.
BUCS ARE THE NEW CARDIAC KIDS
A new marketing twist for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be related to defibrillators or maybe they could go in partnership with Life Alert.
Lately the Buccaneers have been giving their fans, and possibly coaches, enlarged hearts with their high-wire act late in games. Down 10 or more points at any moment in the game? Not a problem for the Bucs, one of the youngest teams currently assembled in the NFL.
The young Bucs were at it again on Monday night under the bright lights of primetime television and erased a 10-point deficit to claim a 24-17 win over the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts. Wide receiver Preston Parker and running back LeGarrette Blount scored the final touchdowns of the game to lift Tampa Bay to 3-1 and a first-place tie with New Orleans in the NFC South. Both Blount and Parker are in their second seasons in the NFL.
"I am fired up about those young guys, and they're getting better and better," said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. "I see improvement every week. They just kept coming, putting heat on the quarterback. Those guys are really playing well and playing physical and I'm enjoying the moment. Hopefully it will translate into more wins."
Morris' bunch has erased a pair of double-digit deficits to come out on top already this season, the first coming on Sept. 18 in a 24-20 win at Minnesota. Since the 2008 season the Buccaneers have registered nine come-from-behind wins of that magnitude. The message has been sent throughout the league not to get too complacent when holding a lead on these guys. Quarterback Josh Freeman has been an engineer of such comebacks and contributed to the 466 yards of offense Monday by passing for 287 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He even chipped in 27 yards to the Bucs' season-best 192 yards rushing. Blount had a season-best 127 yards and a score on 25 carries.
Second-year receiver Mike Williams has only 155 yards and one touchdown on 15 receptions in four games. He had three TD catches through four games in his rookie campaign, but is also drawing more attention from his successful 2010 season in which he caught 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 scores. Preston Parker leads the Bucs with 223 yards on 16 catches while running back Earnest Graham has a team-best 23 receptions for an offense rated 11th in rushing, 16th in total yards and 17th in passing. In order to overthrow Atlanta and New Orleans for division supremacy those numbers have to improve.
The Bucs are set to face San Francisco this Sunday by the Bay and have recorded nine wins in their last 11 road games since the 2009 season. They haven't been 4-1 since the 2005 season.
"It's just going out there and almost being a little bit of road warriors," Tampa center Jeff Faine said. "It's something that we kind of take a little pride in. Go out there and have fun with it. You've just got to be very, very focused and hopefully we'll be able to come away with a win."
Tampa Bay is 7-1 when Freeman records a rating of 100 or better as a starter and the big quarterback has won five of his past six starts. Veteran defensive back Ronde Barber has started 187 straight games, a record for cornerbacks in the NFL. Tampa Bay is 20th in yards allowed (368.0), 21st in pass defense (267.0) and 11th against the run (101.0).
BRONCOS IN A (JOHN) FOX HOLE
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is in his first season at the position and needless to say he's a little hot under the collar.
Allen wasn't taking over a defense comparable to the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and one of his top defenders, DE Elvis Dumervil, was still recovering from a torn pectoral muscle when he was appointed to the position back in January. Allen hasn't been able to work with veteran cornerback and possible future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey that much either because of injury issues as well, but is glad to have Dumervil back.
"I did see some things in (Elvis) that obviously I'm excited about having him back," Allen told the team's website. "I think every day that he's out here, every game he plays in, every practice he practices in, he gets a little bit better every day."
Allen added basically practice makes perfect and the more Dumervil gets into a groove the easier it will be for him to dominate again. Dumervil led the NFL with a club-record 17 sacks in 2009 and missed all of last season because of injury. He started in a Week 1 loss versus Oakland and was then limited to passing downs due to a shoulder problem. Dumervil, who brings a nasty combination with rookie linebacker Von Miller, missed the next two games against Cincinnati and Tennessee before returning in Sunday's forgettable 49-23 loss at Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers sliced the Broncos' defense for 408 yards and six touchdowns, including four TDs through the air.
The Packers compiled 507 total yards of offense against Denver, which is 23rd in both pass defense (275.0 ypg) and yards allowed (377.8 ypg), and 29th in points surrendered (27.8 ppg). A healthy return by Bailey, who hasn't played since Week 1 versus Oakland because of a balky hamstring, could be what the doctor ordered. One of the fastest cornerbacks in the league at one point in his career, Bailey said he will be on the field against Philip Rivers and the Chargers in an AFC West showdown.
"We know he's going to bring his best, we just have to be better," Bailey said of playing against Rivers. "It's a huge game for us."
Bailey added he knows the guys need him out there and wants to be on the field helping this team turn the season around from a 1-3 start. Veteran safety Brian Dawkins said it's huge to have him back and senses a ton of confidence from his teammate when he sees Bailey lining up next to him. The two will have to work together in stopping a San Diego offense rated sixth in the NFL with 313.8 passing yards per game and seventh in total yards (415.8).
The Broncos hope to enter their bye week with a 2-3 record. Otherwise it will be their first 1-4 start since the 1999 season.
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