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by David Newton posted Oct 17 2017 1:46PM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton laughed and made light of a female reporter who asked about one of his teammates, saying it was "funny to hear a female" ask the question.

Charlotte Observer beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue asked Newton during Wednesday's news conference about wide receiver Devin Funchess embracing the physicality of routes and if Newton got enjoyment out of that.

Newton responded, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like -- it's funny.''

Panthers director of communications Steven Drummond said in a statement that he spoke with Newton and Rodrigue "and I know they had a conversation where he expressed regret for using those words. We strive as a department to make the environment for media comfortable for everyone covering the team."

Rodrigue said in a statement that Newton did not apologize.

"This afternoon, I did my job as an NFL beat writer and asked Cam Newton a question about one of his receivers. I was dismayed by his response, which not only belittled me but countless other women before me and beside me who work in similar jobs," Rodrigue said. "I sought Mr. Newton out as he left the locker room a few minutes later. He did not apologize for his comments."

According to a Charlotte Observer report, Rodrigue asked Newton afterward whether he thought a woman couldn't understand receiver routes.

"Newton said she wasn't really seeing specific routes when watching the game, she was just seeing if somebody was open," the Observer reported. "She argued that he didn't know what she saw nor how hard she had studied football, and that maybe the two of them needed to have a deeper conversation.

"Newton said that maybe he should have said it was funny to hear 'reporters' talk about routes and that, if she actually did know about them, then she knew more than most reporters," according to the Observer. "Then he gestured toward the locker room, still filled with her colleagues."

Rodrigue, whom the Observer reported had introduced herself to Newton last October on her first day with the newspaper, asked him if he knew her name. Newton said he did not, according to the report.

"Jourdan Rodrigue, Charlotte Observer," she said before walking away, according to the report.

Mike Persinger, the executive sports editor of the Observer, said Newton's comments were "unfortunate and out of line."

"The question Jourdan asked during the news conference was a good one, like countless other questions about football strategy and nuance she has asked in the course of doing her job,'' Persinger said.

In a statement, the NFL said "the comments are just plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters and all journalists. They do not reflect the thinking of the league."

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, league spokesman Joe Lockhart said the NFL has further plans to get involved in the situation.

Dannon, which had an endorsement deal with Newton through its Oikos yogurt, issued a statement Thursday that it would "no longer work with him."

"We are shocked and disheartened at the behavior and comments of Cam Newton towards Jourdan Rodrigue, which we perceive as sexist and disparaging to all women," the statement read. "It is entirely inconsistent with our commitment to fostering equality and inclusion in every workplace. It's simply not ok to belittle anyone based on gender.

"We have shared our concerns with Cam and will no longer work with him."

Newton's marketing agent, Carlos Fleming, told ESPN's Darren Rovell that Dannon has not terminated the agreement and has no grounds to do so, and that the brand has advertising with Newton that is still running.

The Association for Women in Sports Media said in a statement that it "is very discouraged by Cam Newton's disrespectful remarks and actions directed to a female reporter during today's Carolina Panthers press conference. As a watchdog group, AWSM demands fair treatment and positive workplace environments for women working in sports media."

The Pro Football Writers of America also condemned Newton's comments, saying in a statement that he "crossed the line."

Newton made headlines for his interaction with the media after the Panthers lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, when he cut short his session with reporters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
by Buster Olney posted Oct 17 2017 1:41PM
In this postseason, Aaron Judge has had strike calls repeatedly on pitches that appear to be at the very lowest edge of the strike zone -- or to be less charitable to the home plate umpires, low and out of the zone.
One evaluator noted that this seems to be a common experience for Judge, perhaps because umpires are simply not accustomed to interpreting balls and strikes for a player as large as the Yankees right fielder. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Judge is the largest position player in MLB history, at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds.
Shorter players such as Jose Altuve know all about unusual strike zone interpretations: The short guys will sometimes have strikes called on pitches higher in the zone, and conversely, Judge seems to have more than his share of shin-high pitches interpreted as strikes.
Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information dug out these numbers: Only two other players in MLB had more low strikes framed against him -- pitches that were called strikes that were near the bottom edge of the strike zone or below, and had a low probability of being called a strike -- during the regular season.
Most Strikes Framed Against
Pitches in the lower third of the strike zone and below.
Matt Carpenter 50
Cameron Maybin 35
Aaron Judge 33
Nick Markakis 30
Paul Goldschmidt 30
Matt Holliday 29
Dansby Swanson 29
Nick Castellanos 27
Domingo Santana 27
Hunter Pence 26
Dexter Fowler 26
Strike framed: A called strike with less than a 25 percent chance of being called a strike.
Judge has adjustments to make and challenges to overcome as he learns more about hitting in the big leagues. A rival evaluator following the Yankees noted that time and again in the playoffs, Judge tends to dip his back shoulder at the outset of his swing and then turn his front shoulder out, toward third base, as he tries to loft the ball -- and this has left him completely exposed to breaking balls low and away. His only defense against those pitches has been his ability to sometimes recognize the spin and hold his swing. Over the Yankees' past five playoff games, Judge is 2-for-20 with 14 strikeouts. (Similarly, Gary Sanchez is 2-for-20 with 12 strikeouts in that same span.)
But Judge also has seen more than his share of strike calls below his strike zone -- maybe where umpires are accustomed to calling strikes on players who aren't as tall.
October outcomes
Willson Contreras tries to tag out Charlie Culberson while blocking the plate in Game 1 of the NLCS. Paul Buck/EPA
Joe Maddon was so furious that Willson Contreras was called for blocking home plate against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series that he argued after the replay review rendering, even when he knew that he would get tossed. Maddon doesn't like the home-plate collision rule, nor how it was interpreted in this instance. "I don't think the rule was called correctly either," he told reporters after. "From what I saw, the ball took Willson toward that line. I disagree with that. So I disagree with it on both counts, your Honor."
On the TBS game broadcast, the esteemed Ron Darling took issue with the home-plate collision rule, mentioning that the "beautiful and athletic" play of Contreras was effectively removed from the game because of regulations.
2017 MLB Postseason
Keep up with the latest as baseball's top teams contend for the title.
• Ultimate playoff guide » | Picks »
• Yanks win Gm 3 in Judge's chambers »
• A new epic Bronx moment for Frazier »
• Houston, we have a problem: Offense »
• Time to pay attention to Justin Turner »
• Bryant, Rizzo must find their swings »
• Insider ranks: LCS hitters » | Pitchers »
• Schedule » | Complete coverage »
But if the old rules were in place -- in other words, no rule regarding collisions -- perhaps Contreras wouldn't have been able to make a play. Instead, Dodgers baserunner Charlie Culberson might have decided as he neared home plate to err on the side of aggressiveness, turn himself into a human missile and simply target Contreras in an effort to knock the ball loose.
This is what Marlins baserunner Scott Cousins did in 2011, as he rounded third in a game against the Giants. Because he didn't know whether San Francisco catcher Buster Posey was going to shift late and block the plate as he caught the ball, the 200-pound Cousins -- running full speed -- launched himself at Posey, who wasn't even in front of the plate. Posey was bulldozed, his leg was shattered, and as Posey went through almost a year of rehabilitation, the Giants didn't know whether the career of their promising young catcher had been altered forever.
What Major League Baseball and the Players Association determined, together, is that players should not be exposed to the violent home plate collisions that could lead to serious injury -- like this hit in 2013 on minor league catcher Brian Jeroloman, who was hospitalized for days afterward.
Since then, what is almost never seen in baseball is a catcher (or a baserunner) getting carted off after a collision at home plate, like that experienced by Brett Hayes and others, as seen in this reel of catcher collisions.
In order to prevent baserunners from targeting catchers, MLB officials had to write a rule that also ensured baserunners a path to home plate; they couldn't let catchers plant themselves in front of home while waiting for the throw, which they were once expected to do. And under the wording of the new rule, Contreras was determined to have violated the rule by stepping in front of home plate before he caught the ball.
One disputed run in one game over the course of a long season. It seems like a small cost to ensure that players at a position that already bears a heightened risk for concussions and CTE are protected from a debilitating blindside hit.
Whenever this issue pops up, I remember the muffled words of a longtime catcher -- a player widely respected in his clubhouse and all around baseball -- about the antiquated culture of collisions. He had been injured a couple of times in his career, as he recalled sitting at his locker, and he glanced around the room at the players around him, lowered his voice so that others could not hear and muttered: "If I don't block the plate, I have to come in here and look in the eyes of 24 other guys who think I don't care. Would I like a rule that would mean I don't have to put myself in position to get run over and seriously hurt? Hell, yeah."
The Cubs lost a game that almost nobody will remember five years from now, and today, Willson Contreras is intact.
• Justin Verlander's hero growing up was Nolan Ryan, because he loved how Ryan continued to be a power pitcher well into his 30s and 40s. Verlander has endeavored to do the same, and he was throwing very hard in dominating the Yankees on Saturday; it was the best he felt all year, Verlander said.
He is 34 years old, and during the course of the 2017 season, he averaged 95.2 mph with his fastball, the eighth-highest velocity among all pitchers. He was also the only pitcher among the top 14 in average fastball velocity over 30 years old.
But the Astros have been surprised and pleased by how much Verlander is interested in learning. The first time that Houston manager A.J. Hinch talked to Verlander after the pitcher agreed to the trade to the Astros on the night of Aug. 31, Hinch mentioned to Verlander that the Astros had some thoughts to present about how he might get better. In particular, they wanted to talk about his changeup, because they felt that Verlander could use an offspeed pitch that moved away from left-handed hitters.
While with the Tigers, Verlander threw a split-finger type of changeup, which he felt complemented his fastball. But the speed variation between those two pitches was often under 10 mph, mitigating the impact of the change of speed. After joining the Astros, Verlander has worked on a changeup with more of a standard grip, and with a greater speed variation than what his old changeup had in Detroit. Verlander has used the pitch increasingly, including on Saturday, when he threw it to Brett Gardner to finish off a strikeout. The pitch veered away from Gardner at 86 mph -- about 10-12 mph slower than the best fastballs that Verlander threw in the game.
• In Game 1 of the ALCS, Aaron Judge lashed a single over shortstop Carlos Correa toward left-center field that the Yankees had hoped would drive in baserunner Greg Bird in the fifth inning. But left fielder Marwin Gonzalez took a direct route at the ball, and with a powerful throw, cut down Bird at the plate.
The play might not have been made in other places, because the Houston left fielders are uniquely positioned in Minute Maid Park. As you stand at home plate, the Crawford Boxes in left field in Houston are so close that they seem to hang over the infield, and just to the right of those seats, there is a recessed wall in left-center -- a cutout in front of the visitors bullpen.
The Astros left fielder often stands at the edge of the Crawford Boxes, on the center-field side, because the Astros believe if a ball is hit in the air to the left, it's either going to be a home run or bang off the fence, or have enough loft that the left fielder will have the time to run it down. And by playing at the corner of the Crawford Boxes on the center-field side, the left fielder is assured of direct access to the drives that are hit into the area of the cutout. If the left fielder is positioned in the typical spot in Minute Maid and a ball is hit into that recessed section, then the left fielder has to turn the corner of the Crawford Boxes in pursuit. More and more, visiting teams have mimicked the way the Astros position their left fielders -- an alignment that paid off when Gonzalez threw out Bird, after having a better angle to close on the hit and make a throw home.
• Speaking of Nolan Ryan: Before the first game of the ALCS on Friday, the Astros honored some stars of the past, Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio, Ryan and others. Among the group, there were a lot of bro hugs. But not with Ryan -- not when a good, stiff handshake sufficed.
Baseball Tonight podcast
Friday: Jesse Rogers on what lies ahead for the Chicago Cubs, after their epic Game 5 win against Washington in the NLDS; Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post on what's next for the Nationals as they pick up the pieces after another postseason exit; Karl Ravech and Paul Hembekides on the crazy Game 5, and the question of the use of starting pitchers in relief in the postseason.
Thursday: Bob Nightengale of USA Today on the Stephen Strasburg saga and his brilliant Game 4 outing; Boog Sciambi on the Yankees' closeout of the Indians; Scott Lauber on the Red Sox's managerial search.
Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian on the playoffs; Indians play-by-play man Tom Hamilton; Andrew Marchand on the Yankees' comeback.
Tuesday: Keith Law and Jessica Mendoza discuss the playoffs; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Monday: Peter Gammons on John Farrell and the Red Sox; Jerry Crasnick on the playoffs; Todd Radom's uniform and logo quiz.
And today will be better than yesterday.
by Chris Low posted Oct 17 2017 1:37PM
FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU's Kenny Hill has been here before.

The perfect start. The rising expectations. The fame that comes with being the quarterback of a top-10 team in Texas.

"I didn't handle success the right way the last time," Hill said of his first stab as a starting quarterback at Texas A&M. "We're 5-0 right now. We also started that year off 5-0 at A&M. I've been at this point and seen where it could go, and really, where we're trying to keep it from going."

Following in the footsteps of Heisman Trophy winning-quarterback Johnny Manziel, Hill passed for a school-record 511 yards in his first college start for Texas A&M, a 52-28 win over South Carolina. As the Aggies rolled to five straight wins during that 2014 season, Hill's legend continued to grow.

Three losses and six interceptions later, Hill found himself suspended for the second time in the calendar year and without the starting job.


Kenny Hill Jr. isn't into nicknames these days. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
This time, Hill has vowed that it will be different.

"It's about understanding who you are and what has gotten all of us here, the hard work, the extra throwing, the extra film study, all the little things," Hill said. "You've got to keep doing those things because you can't stop now."

Hill transferred to TCU following the 2014 season. After sitting out in 2015, he stepped in last year as TCU's starting quarterback, a season in which the Horned Frogs finished 6-7 and Hill experienced his share of ups and downs. He passed for 3,208 yards and 17 touchdowns, but also threw a Big 12-high 13 interceptions and was victimized by dropped passes. TCU coach Gary Patterson said he blames himself for some of Hill's travails last season.

"I was probably too hard on him last year," Patterson said. "As much as anything, he understands and we understand as a team that your quarterback doesn't have to win games for you. He's had a chance to grow into what we do, and I haven't put as much on him."

For starters, the Horned Frogs are running the ball 60 percent of the time this season, and Hill, now a fifth-year senior, has spread the ball around to his playmakers. He's completing 69 percent of his passes, ranking him 10th nationally, and he's 21st nationally with a 154.4 passing efficiency rating. He's passed for 1,153 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions through five games and is completing 65.2 percent of his passes on third down with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

EDITOR'S PICKS

Spoiler alert! Here's how the second half of the season will play out
Will the balance of power shift in the Big Ten? Which Power 5 conference will have its heart broken? Are we headed to a rematch of epic proportions? Here are a dozen predictions for the second half of the season.

Best CFB Week 7 bets
Week 7 of the college football season is here, which means Phil Steele, Chris Fallica and Stanford Steve are back to give their best bets on 15 different games.

Midseason awards: Honoring the standout performers so far in 2017
There's an eerily familiar feel to 2017 as we hit the midway point of the season. But this isn't predicting a national championship game three-peat. It's about the best games and performances and the biggest disappointments so far.
What's more, his ability to run and create have softened up defenses and opened up things for his teammates. On the game-winning drive against West Virginia last Saturday, Hill completed two third-down passes and then bulled his way into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 3.

"If I go out there and do my job and get the ball in these guys' hands, they're going to make plays, and that's how this offense goes," Hill said. "That's something in the past that I didn't really understand. I thought I had to go out there and win every game and make every throw. At A&M, I was thinking, 'I am the next Johnny.' But now, it's finding the easy one or the matchups you want and letting those guys work because we have talented guys on this team."

Hill has gone out of his way to shun the spotlight at TCU, although anybody who saw his three-touchdown performance in the 31-24 win over West Virginia might disagree. He became only the fourth player in Big 12 history to have a passing touchdown, rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same game.

"He's just a great player and exciting to watch," TCU senior defensive tackle Chris Bradley said. "Saturday was amazing what he did. He's been very calm and patient out there, and when we need a play, he's there to make it."

Hill jokes that he's actually become pretty boring. These days, his idea of celebrating after games is going to dinner with his parents, preferably at a place that doesn't have televisions. He's sworn off Twitter and has no interest in reading articles about himself or listening to glowing commentary.

"I go eat and chill with my parents and then head back to the house and turn on whatever game is on," Hill said. "I'm not the old Kenny Hill -- when I couldn't wait for the game to be over so I could go out and do something."

Nope, instead of spending time on the town, he's more interested in spending time in the film room or talking to teammates about pass routes, checks or different ways to attack opposing defenses. He and receiver John Diarse were texting soon after the West Virginia game about plays they thought might work this Saturday against Kansas State.

"A lot of what Coach P tries to tell me ... is that you've got to perfect everything, be good at everything, on and off the field," Hill said. "Find your weaknesses and work on them. If you're not as good at something, you've got to work on it instead of going out there and trying to hide what you're not as good at."

And, yes, Hill has noticed a difference in Patterson this season.


Hill says his coach, Gary Patterson, doesn't yell as much as he stares this season. LM Otero/AP Photo
"Coach P is a yeller. That's how he is," Hill said, chuckling. "I had that a little bit in high school, but it's not something I've ever really responded to. I'm a pretty laid-back person. So this year, I know when he wants me to do something differently because he will walk over right to where the signal guys are, where he knows I can see him, and will just sit there and stare at me. And I'll be like, 'All right, coach, I know, I know. I got it.'

"So, yeah, it's been different this year. He hasn't yelled at me as much. He's definitely pulled back. We have a better relationship this year because we've been together, and you keep growing. It's been cool and a lot of fun. We understand each other."

Hill has also heeded his dad's advice. Ken Hill Sr. pitched for 14 seasons in the major leagues and didn't pull any punches with his son when he landed at TCU.

"He told me to put my head down and work, that this was my last chance," Hill recounted. "That's what I've tried to do, put my head down and work and make the best of this chance."

And as far as any catchy new nicknames?

"None. Kenny Hill Jr., and that's it," Hill said behind a convincing smile.
by David Newton posted Oct 12 2017 11:08AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz weren't exactly hot topics in the MVP conversation before the season.
Wentz wasn't on the radar at all, coming off a rookie season in which he threw 14 interceptions to 16 touchdown passes for a 7-9 team.
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Newton, coming off shoulder surgery in March, disappeared from the radar three weeks ago after throwing three interceptions at home in a 34-13 loss to the then-winless New Orleans Saints.
Keep in mind it's early, but Newton and Wentz are legitimate contenders for the MVP award that Newton won in 2015 in part because of their statistics and in part because their teams are off to 4-1 starts heading into Thursday night's matchup at Bank of America Stadium here.
You can't call them MVP favorites. Alex Smith has 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions for Kansas City, the NFL's only undefeated team. Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt is making a strong case for the award, as well, with an NFL-best 609 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
Don't forget Aaron Rodgers. He has the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North at 4-1 with 13 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
And as Tom Brady proved in the Super Bowl in February, you can never count him out. Although New England is 3-2, Brady has thrown 11 touchdowns to one interception and leads the league with 1,702 passing yards.
But Newton and Wentz are right there on the periphery, and both will have an opportunity to impress voters in front of a national TV audience on Thursday.
NFL Nation Panthers reporter David Newton and Eagles reporter Tim McManus are here to break down why each is deserving at the moment and whether their play is sustainable:
Cam Newton
Cam Newton enters the Panthers-Eagles game with two straight 300-yard passing games, the first time he has accomplished that since the first two games of his rookie season. AP Photo/Steven Senne
The good: Newton had his MVP form of 2015 over the past two weeks in wins against New England and Detroit. He threw six touchdown passes and only one interception, completing 77.4 percent of his passes. The latter jumps out because Newton has a career completion percentage of 58.9. His 68.3 completion percentage on the season is up there with Drew Brees (69.1) and Tom Brady (68.2). Newton also surpassed 300 yards passing in each of the past two games, the first time that has happened since the first two games of his rookie season in 2011. And oh, by the way, he's showing his legs still are a weapon, with 15 rushes for 44 yards and a touchdown in the past two contests, after running only 14 times in the first three games. He's still, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Public Enemy No. 1" as a running quarterback.
Cam Newton Through Five GamesCom. Att. Pct. Yards Yards/att. TD INT Rate
99 145 68.3 1,237 8.53 8 5 98.5
The bad: Easy. The first three games. Newton had two touchdown passes and four interceptions. Although Carolina coach Ron Rivera insisted his quarterback was making good decisions, Newton was out of sync with his receivers. He was badly missing wide-open targets. He was at his worst against New Orleans, with two of his interceptions coming without any pressure. That Newton was practicing on a limited basis, still experiencing fatigue in his shoulder, which appeared to be a red flag that he wouldn't get better any time soon. His health was impacting the way offensive coordinator Mike Shula called the game too, with deep passes and called runs all but eliminated from the game plan. It wasn't until Newton increased his practice time before the New England game that things turned around.
Can he sustain it? Here's a stat for you. Newton has eight touchdown passes and five interceptions this season. He had eight touchdown passes and four interceptions after five games in his rookie season; he then threw three interceptions to one touchdown pass in a Week 6 win against Philadelphia. Newton didn't get hot until the final nine games of his first campaign, when he threw 24 touchdowns to two interceptions. That season, Newton began spreading the ball around more after Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. He has a more talented receiving corps this season with Benjamin, an emerging Devin Funchess and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who leads the team in catches with 27. McCaffrey, in particular, makes Newton's job easier now because opposing teams have to pay so much attention to the rookie playmaker. The offensive line also is playing more like it did in 2015. Remember, that group was decimated by injuries a year ago, when Carolina lost six games by a field goal or less. So yes, Newton can sustain this productivity as long as his shoulder continues to improve. -- Newton
Carson Wentz
Carson Wentz has been the NFL's best passer on third down this season. Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire
The good: Wentz ranks in the top 10 this season in just about every major statistical category, including yards (1,362), touchdowns (10) and quarterback rating (97.7). He has shown growth across the board from his rookie season. Nowhere is that more evident than on third down. He now leads the NFL as a third-down passer (71 percent completion rate, 6 touchdowns) after showing inconsistencies in that area in 2016. Wentz wanted more pre-snap control, and he has used it to put the offense in favorable positions with checks at the line of scrimmage. With better weapons such as receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith at his side, and supported by a strong running game over the past several weeks, Wentz has taken the Eagles' attack to another level in Year 2.
Carson Wentz Through Five GamesCom. Att. Pct. Yards Yards/att. TD INT Rate
110 177 62.1 1,362 7.7 10 3 97.7
The bad: One area that had been a trouble spot for Wentz -- downfield passing -- is showing signs of improvement. Entering last week's game against the Arizona Cardinals, Wentz had completed just 33 percent of passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield -- 28th in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. The long ball game got real healthy real quick on Sunday, as Wentz connected on 57 percent of his downfield throws with three touchdowns. He tossed a career-high four touchdowns in all versus Arizona. There's not a whole lot to pick apart in Wentz's game at the moment. His completion rate (62 percent, 21st in the NFL) could be a bit higher, and he has left some plays on the field -- particularly on deep balls earlier in the season. But overall, he is playing like an elite QB -- just 21 games into his career.
Can he sustain it? There's little reason to think he can't. It won't always look like it did on Sunday, and there are sure to be some stumbles along the way, but Wentz is still very young in his career and should only get better with experience. He has a good supporting cast around him. While he's expected to be without right tackle Lane Johnson on Thursday against Carolina (concussion), Wentz plays behind a quality offensive line and has plenty of capable targets to choose from in the passing game. His style of play does lead to a good amount of hits (35 QB contacts through five games, tied for eighth in NFL), but so long as he stays healthy, Wentz's ascension should continue. -- McManus
by Edward Aschoff, ESPN Tri-Cities Guest Editor posted Oct 12 2017 10:39AM
Washington State is 6-0 for the first time since 2001. In his sixth season in Pullman, Mike Leach has a Pac-12 and College Football Playoff contender -- and it's because of the Cougars' defense.

Bet you didn't see that coming.

The Cougars as contenders, the sorry state of the SEC and the return of (the state of) Texas are among the most surprising developments in 2017.

Will they last through the second half of the season? Maybe. How does Mike Leach vs. Nick Saban in the CFP sound?
Meet the man behind the most impressive turnaround of 2017

To celebrate Washington State's 30-27 upset win over then-No. 5 USC in Pullman, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch did what he always does after a game.

He ate pepperoni pizza rolls with his wife and two kids.

"Nothing exciting," Grinch told ESPN last week. "That's the deal."

It's a postgame tradition for Grinch and a few other coaches after any win, even if you'd think they might have indulged themselves with a shrimp or two after topping the Trojans. But the Cougars have a strict, 24-hour celebration rule, and Grinch strictly abides by it to keep his focus on improving one of the nation's stealthiest defenses.
Hercules Mata'afa leads Washington State's defense with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Washington State has seen incremental improvement under Grinch in his first two seasons coaching the defense, but 2017 has been something totally different. Wazzu ranks 11th nationally in total defense, allowing just 275.5 yards per game, and 13th in opponents' yards per play (4.5). The Cougars are giving up just 18.5 points per game and are fifth nationally with 15 takeaways. Opposing teams are converting just 24.7 percent of their third downs (20 of 81), and Washington State has registered 21 sacks and 49 tackles for loss in six games after having 20 sacks and 72 TFLs for the entire 2016 season.

"There's a brand of football on the video that we'd like to be -- playing fast, playing aggressive, playing hard," Grinch said. "When you do those things, you got a chance.
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"The [defensive] expectations are never coming to our program, so we have to create them ourselves. We're not in it to seek people's approval. We're trying to play the best brand of football we possibly can."

He's absolutely right. As long as Mike Leach is coaching in Pullman, defense will be overlooked. But Grinch is making fools of us with how good he has made this defense. Over the weekend, Wazzu held an Oregon run game that was averaging 260.8 yards per game to just 132 yards and 2.9 yards per carry in 31-10 win in Eugene.

It's not like he's recruiting first-round NFL draft prospects. No, Grinch knows the Cougars "aren't going to get them fast, big and ready" in recruiting, so he's having to develop more than a lot of coaches at bigger schools do.

"We can't have a model that we put on the board and say, 'This is what they look like,'" Grinch said.

Editor's Picks

2017 ESPN college football midseason All-America team

Welcome to the Barkley and Baker Show. The first half of the season has been all about the Penn State running back and the Oklahoma QB, and they lead ESPN's 2017 midseason All-America team.
Midseason awards: Honoring the standout performers so far in 2017

There's an eerily familiar feel to 2017 as we hit the midway point of the season. But this isn't predicting a national championship game three-peat. It's about the best games and performances and the biggest disappointments so far.

He has created his own by finding measurables when he can, while refusing to compromise on athleticism and fitting guys in their correct positions. Grinch moved Isaac Dotson (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) from safety to linebacker -- he's currently second on the team with 30 tackles. He moved Frankie Luvu from Will linebacker to the outside, and he has 6.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks this season. Both starting safeties -- Jalen Thompson and Robert Taylor -- are former cornerbacks. Thompson leads the team in tackles (34) and interceptions (three), while Taylor has two picks this season.

Grinch also has the league's most disruptive interior lineman in Hercules Mata'afa, who has 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks, but he has been able to make that entire line dangerous with the different looks they've given and some of the movement up front. It also helps that Grinch sees guys constantly competing with and against Mata'afa to try to duplicate his on-field success.

"That culture is starting to take over a bit," Grinch said. "That's how you take the next step as a defense. It's not just being in the right spot, but making plays.

"I'm the first one to admit that we're better, but we're not there."

With the way the Cougars are playing, "there" might end up being the Pac-12 championship game and a playoff berth.
The best defensive line isn't in the SEC

Sorry, SEC. Your claim to fame has always been speed and trench warfare, but right now, it's Clemson that has the nation's best defensive front.

(Braces ears for thunderous "A-C-C!" chants)
Left to right, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins headline Clemson's fearsome defensive front. Mike Comer/Getty Images

Clemson's line has accounted for a Power 5-best 65.9 percent of the Tigers' sacks (14.5 of 22). Defensive end Austin Bryant is tied for second in the ACC with five sacks and 10.5 TFLs, but this entire line gives opposing offenses a migraine.

Clemson is tied for first nationally with 16 sacks when the Tigers don't blitz, 10.5 of which have come from defensive linemen, which is best in Power 5, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Four of the Tigers' sacks when they do blitz have come from linemen.

Quarterbacks have a QBR of 18 when Clemson doesn't blitz. When under duress without a Clemson blitz, quarterbacks have completed 7 of 32 passes for 79 yards. Teams are also rushing for zero or negative yards 29 percent of the time against Clemson.

You would think Alabama would maintain the SEC's reputation as having the nation's best defensive line. The numbers aren't that much different, but Clemson has the statistical edge.

Eight of Alabama's 14 sacks have come from defensive linemen, led by Raekwon Davis with three, which is ranked 13th in Power 5. Seven of them have come when Alabama doesn't blitz (10th in Power 5). When under duress without a blitz, Alabama's opponents have completed 13 of 35 passes for 178 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

The Tide are better at stopping the run (2.57 yards per carry vs. 2.82 yards per carry for Clemson), but when you add the way Clemson's defensive line has fared against the pass, the Tigers top the Tide once again.
Texas is back!

OK, not necessarily the Longhorns (sorry, Joe Tess!), but the state in general has remembered how to play football. Through six weeks, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, Texas Tech, Houston, North Texas and UT San Antonio all have winning records, going a combined 30-11.

Texas A&M is 4-2, and while it didn't beat Bama over the weekend, the Aggies played the Tide better than anyone all season. Texas Tech is averaging 46.8 points per game, but more importantly, it's allowing nearly 20 points fewer after surrendering 43.5 points per game and 7 yards a play last season.

Houston is 4-1 without Tom Herman, while Herman is 3-2 with Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns are getting better, and Saturday's Red River Rivalry is much more interesting today than it was when Maryland Terrapins was embarrassing UT in Week 1.

The leader of the pack is (surprisingly) TCU. The sixth-ranked Horned Frogs won at Arkansas 28-7 and just wrapped up back-to-back wins over ranked teams, first beating then-No. 6 Oklahoma State 44-31 in Stillwater and then surviving No. 23 West Virginia 31-24 over the weekend.

TCU's defense hasn't been talked about enough, even though it's allowing around 60 fewer yards and nine fewer points than it did per game last season. This weekend was a perfect example of how frustrating the Frogs can be, as West Virginia quarterback Will Grier completed 15 of 33 passes outside the hashmarks, his lowest completion percentage in a game on such passes this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Grier completed all but two of his 12 attempts over the middle of the field with two touchdowns. TCU came into the game allowing opponents to complete 47.8 percent of passes outside the hashes, which was the sixth-lowest completion percentage among Power 5 defenses.
Kenny Hill has completed 69 percent of his passes this season. Ron Jenkins/AP

West Virginia also gained 90 of its 142 rushing yards before contact Saturday, more than 2 yards per rush fewer than its season average and its fewest in a game since it had 28 such yards against Alabama in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Coming into Saturday, the Mountaineers ranked third among Power 5 teams in average yards before contact per rush, but the Frogs were having none of it.

Then there's the improvement of quarterback Kenny Hill. He scored throwing, rushing and receiving on Saturday, and he's learning to stand in the pocket with poise and command. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Hill completed nearly 64 percent of his passes against standard pressure versus the Mountaineers, including his lone touchdown pass. Entering the game, Hill completed 73 percent of his passes against four or fewer rushers, best completion percentage in the Big 12.
Sideline swag is the newest fad

Swag is something non-millennials greatly despise, but sideline swag has been a tremendous addition to in-game aesthetics. Miami has appropriately donned a thick, gold, "turnover chain" with a gaudy "U" emblem for takeaway-hungry defenders, and Georgia Bulldogs defenders transform into "Mad Max" extras with their golden, spiked shoulder pads with a black Georgia "G" in the middle and the word "savage" underneath.

"We get the ball off someone, we get the spikes," Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter told reporters of the shoulder pads earlier this season.

Alabama has its way-too-perfect and way-too-obvious title belt for defenders, and Texas A&M has a big-play scepter for players to twirl on the sideline.

Yes, they're gimmicks, but they're fun. They are rewards for being ruthless, and we approve.

"In Miami, what are we famous for? We're famous for the Cuban chains," Anthony John Machado, the jeweler who made Miami's chain, told the Sun-Sentinel. "But we need to add a little something to it.
Tennessee got in on the sideline-swag action with a trash can to celebrate turnovers. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"So we did a big U charm -- orange stones, green stones in there to flash it out."

Then, you have Tennessee. The Vols have been the butt of too many jokes for the past year, thanks to too many cheesy news conference remarks from head coach Butch Jones. This season, they introduced a turnover trash can to their sideline. The social media reaction to the Vols' sideline swag was to be expected, as jokes and parodies have piled onto an already ugly scene in Knoxville to start the season.

I guess you can't be champions of everything.
Year of the Quarterback is Year of the Running Back

Move over Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen. College football's golden arms have been replaced by workhorse backs such as Saquon Barkley, Bryce Love and Rashaad Penny.

Barkley might be your new Heisman favorite with his 1,302 all-purpose yards. The Penn State wonder-back has 649 rushing yards on the season, but he's averaging 217 all-purpose yards per game and has nine touchdowns this season with three multi-touchdown games. He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry and 13.6 yards per catch (29 receptions). Through the first five games of the season, Barkley had more yards and more touchdowns than Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had at that point in 2015 when he went on to set the FBS single-season, all-purpose yardage record.

The Cardinal's Love has been even better from a rushing perspective. Love has an FBS-high 1,240 rush yards this season and has rushed for at least 100 yards in eight straight games dating back to last season. He's averaging 10.5 yards per carry, and 44.9 percent of his runs have gone for 5-plus yards.

Love has a nation-leading 30 rushes of 10-plus yards, 20 of which have gone for 20-plus yards (six more than anyone else in the country), and eight of his nine rushing touchdowns have come from 20-plus yards out. He's also second nationally with 390 yards after contact.

Penny is probably someone you've never heard of, but he picked up right where Donnel Pumphrey left off at San Diego State when he rushed for a nation-best 2,133 yards last year. Penny hit 1,000 yards last year -- as Pumphrey's backup -- and he's 7 yards away from hitting it again this year.

Penny is second in the nation in rushing and has 14 20-plus-yard runs with 28 10-plus-yard runs. Say what you will about his competition, but against Stanford, Penny ran for 175 yards and a touchdown to Love's 184 yards and two scores, but his team won. He's also used in the passing game more, catching 16 passes for 127 yards and two scores.

As it stands now, Penny has 1,325 all-purpose yards to Barkley's 1,302.
The bottom has fallen out in the SEC

Nick Saban assured us that the SEC was about more than just his Crimson Tide. So far, that hasn't been the case. Alabama has already playfully batted around three league counterparts like a cat with an injured mouse, and outside of Georgia and Auburn Tigers -- and maybe Texas A&M -- the SEC doesn't have much of anything to offer.

Florida and LSU -- both unranked and with four combined losses (one of LSU's being to Troy at home) -- just disgraced their rivalry over the weekend in a 17-16 win by LSU that shouldn't make anyone in Baton Rouge feel better about the direction of the program and should have everyone in Gainesville yearning for Ron Zook's offensive staff.

Vanderbilt upset Kansas State a couple of weeks ago and has since then gone 0-3, losing by a combined 104 points. Arkansas is 2-3 and just watched South Carolina score three defensive touchdowns in a 48-22 rout. Tennessee should probably be 1-4 and just lost at home 41-0 to Georgia -- trash can and all.

Missouri and Ole Miss have taken a zombie-like approach to the 2017 season, and Mississippi State went from a 37-7 blowout of LSU to losing back-to-back games to Georgia and Auburn 80-13 combined.

The SEC has a Power 5-worst three ranked AP teams -- Alabama, Georgia, Auburn -- and is last among Power 5 conferences with a point differential against nonconference opponents of 14.05.

Because of this, coaching inefficiency chatter is deafening in the SEC. The season started with Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Tennessee's Butch Jones and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin bearing the brunt of the hot-seat talk. Malzahn and Sumlin have fanned those flames to a degree, but Jones' uninspiring 3-2 start has him estranged with his fan base.

Jim McElwain's inability to find any sort of offense or a quarterback in Gainesville in Year 3 (ranking 93rd or worse nationally in passing, scoring, total offense and first downs) has Gator Nation fed up, while Ed Orgeron's 4-2 without much of an offensive identity himself has a lot of people on the Bayou wondering if he was, in fact, the right choice to replace Les Miles.

Arkansas' Bret Bielema is at a crossroads with his own program, as the Razorbacks are in danger of missing out on the postseason after a 2-3 start.
by Buster Olney posted Oct 12 2017 9:17AM

No matter how you dissect the New York Yankees' loss Friday night, first baseman Greg Bird explained in the somber clubhouse, the outcome was excruciating for everyone: For the Yankees' accomplished relievers, who failed to maintain an 8-3 advantage, the second-largest blown lead in franchise history; for the hitters, who pounded likely Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and saw their work squandered; for Ronald Torreyes, who was picked off second base in a crucial spot in extra innings.

But the defeat weighed on manager Joe Girardi more than any other Yankee. His initial explanation to reporters for failing to ask for a replay review of a hit batter ruling in the sixth inning sounded hollow and bureaucratic. A little while later, Girardi looked distraught as he stepped down a hallway in the clubhouse, his face seemingly veiled in sadness. He and a reporter nearly bumped into each other, and Girardi quietly and genially yielded the right of way.

After a night of further contemplation, Girardi responded differently Saturday afternoon to questions about what had happened, simply acknowledging and owning a mistake that, if the Yankees lose this series, will become part of franchise lore. The worst decisions in organization history probably include Babe Ruth's failed stolen-base attempt to end the 1926 World Series, the firing of Yogi Berra after the 1964 season, the signing of Ed Whitson before the 1985 season, and Joe Torre's passive handling of the midge situation in the 2007 playoffs. Girardi's gaffe now becomes part of that infamous list, especially if the Yankees lose.

"I screwed up," he said repeatedly.
Joe Girardi still had a challenge available when he did not ask for video review of a critical play in the sixth inning of Game 2. Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

But it might turn out to be a teachable moment that informs all other managers how to handle possible challenges in the postseason: When in doubt, ask for a review. Every time.

By rule, the managers have limits on how often they can trigger a review, and during the regular season, they need to be cognizant of this. But in the playoffs and the World Series, the umpires are under incredible scrutiny, more than at any other time of the year. As several have explained to me privately, the last thing they want is to be saddled with a mistake that will be replayed over and over through the years, like Don Denkinger's missed call in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series or Phil Cuzzi's misread of a fair/foul call in the 2009 playoffs. I remember talking with Rich Garcia after he acknowledged botching the call on the Jeffrey Maier play in 1996. He talked with some frustration about his own positioning on the play, about watching the replay afterward and knowing immediately that his mistake probably affected the outcome of a game.

Girardi still had the right to challenge in the sixth inning, and even if he had been wrong and had burned a challenge, he would have had the safety net of knowing that after the seventh inning, the crew chief can initiate a review. And at this time of the year, the umpires almost certainly would grant any request. Just to make sure.

This is what happened in the Cubs-Nationals game Saturday after Anthony Rizzo clubbed a two-run homer that cleared the right-field wall. Washington manager Dusty Baker asked the umpires to double-check the call, and although they all probably had a pretty good idea of what happened, they reviewed the homer. Just to make sure.

Girardi needed to get the call right; the umpires want to get the call right. This time of year, when everybody wants to avoid the big mistake, there really are no limits on review challenges.

When in doubt, ask for a review. Every time.
Hosmer won't have many teams in pursuit
The Royals still hope they can re-sign Eric Hosmer. Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote the other day about how the Royals are holding out some hope that they can retain first baseman Eric Hosmer, even if it means committing a nine-figure contract. And it might work out for them, because so many big-market teams already are committed to first basemen, either because of an existing contract or because they have a young and cheap alternative.

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo.

Dodgers: Cody Bellinger.

Phillies: Rhys Hoskins.

Braves: Freddie Freeman.

Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman.

Blue Jays: Justin Smoak.

Mets: Dom Smith.

Hosmer theoretically fits the Red Sox or the Yankees, but each of those big-market teams have worked to get under the luxury-tax threshold. New York believes in Greg Bird's talent and swing, and the potential savings of Bird over Hosmer is likely to keep the Yankees out of the Hosmer bidding. The Red Sox already have over $130 million committed in 2018 payroll before they pick up the options on closer Craig Kimbrel ($13 million) and Chris Sale ($12.5 million) and before they deal with the pricey arbitration cases of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts.

The Giants also have very little payroll flexibility, to the degree that they informed Madison Bumgarner last winter they weren't ready to talk about a contract extension yet because of luxury-tax implications. The San Francisco front office would probably love to have Hosmer, who would help in so many ways -- the offensive production and RBI potential, the defense, the leadership. But Brandon Belt is about to reach the backloaded portion of his contract: He'll make $17.2 million for each of the next four seasons, a staggering debt that the Giants might have to live with.

If Justin Upton opts out of the last four years of his deal with the Angels and walks away from $88.5 million, the Angels could be a fit for Hosmer. But if Upton stays, there might not be enough payroll flexibility for a serious run at the Royals' first baseman.

The Cardinals again face the challenge of trying to figure out a way to make all of their ill-fitting pieces work. Matt Carpenter has been one of their best hitters for years, and during the 2017 season, he posted a .384 on-base percentage. Increasingly, however, evaluators view him as a defensive liability. The Cardinals have moved him from second base to third base to first base without settling on any one spot.

What follows is speculation: Carpenter is owed $30.5 million for the next two seasons, including a $2 million buyout on a 2020 option. The Cardinals have discussed the need to get better defensively, to get more athletic, and unquestionably, they would do so if they dealt Carpenter away and invested in Hosmer to be their everyday first baseman -- and Hosmer would make the Cardinals' pitching and the rest of the St. Louis infielders better with his defensive prowess.

As the saying goes: All it takes is one serious bidder. But it does not appear as if Hosmer will have a high volume of teams in pursuit, and the Royals might turn out to be his most ardent suitors.
Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: Aaron Boone discusses the Diamondbacks-Dodgers series and his interest in becoming a major league manager; Karl Ravech and Paul Hembekides on the playoffs; Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post discusses the Nationals.

Thursday: A conversation with Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins about his instant success, dealing with the media and his sports fandom; Tim Kurkjian on the playoffs; Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle discusses the Astros; Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago talks all things Cubs.

Wednesday: Keith Law on the re-energized Yankees and the Braves' debacle; David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on what's next for Atlanta; and Alex Speier of the Boston Globe on the Red Sox.

Tuesday: Jessica Mendoza and Boog Sciambi on the playoffs; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game; a discussion about the greatest home run in MLB history.

Monday: Jerry Crasnick on the best and worst moments of baseball's final weekend -- the Royals and the Mets highlight this segment -- plus a conversation with former Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who tells stories about the deals for Manny Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez and about what he first saw in a teenage left-hander named Clayton Kershaw; Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post on the Rockies; Todd Radom's uniform and logo contest.

And today will be better than yesterday.

by David Newton posted Oct 12 2017 9:15AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton laughed and made light of a female reporter who asked about one of his teammates, saying it was "funny to hear a female" ask the question.

Charlotte Observer beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue asked Newton during Wednesday's news conference about wide receiver Devin Funchess embracing the physicality of routes and if Newton got enjoyment out of that.
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Newton responded, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like -- it's funny.''

Panthers director of communications Steven Drummond said in a statement that he spoke with Newton and Rodrigue "and I know they had a conversation where he expressed regret for using those words. We strive as a department to make the environment for media comfortable for everyone covering the team."

Rodrigue said in a statement that Newton did not apologize.

"This afternoon, I did my job as an NFL beat writer and asked Cam Newton a question about one of his receivers. I was dismayed by his response, which not only belittled me but countless other women before me and beside me who work in similar jobs," Rodrigue said. "I sought Mr. Newton out as he left the locker room a few minutes later. He did not apologize for his comments."

According to a Charlotte Observer report, Rodrigue asked Newton afterward whether he thought a woman couldn't understand receiver routes.

"Newton said she wasn't really seeing specific routes when watching the game, she was just seeing if somebody was open," the Observer reported. "She argued that he didn't know what she saw nor how hard she had studied football, and that maybe the two of them needed to have a deeper conversation.

"Newton said that maybe he should have said it was funny to hear 'reporters' talk about routes and that, if she actually did know about them, then she knew more than most reporters," according to the Observer. "Then he gestured toward the locker room, still filled with her colleagues."

Rodrigue, whom the Observer reported had introduced herself to Newton last October on her first day with the newspaper, asked him if he knew her name. Newton said he did not, according to the report.

"Jourdan Rodrigue, Charlotte Observer," she said before walking away, according to the report.

Mike Persinger, the executive sports editor of the Observer, said Newton's comments were "unfortunate and out of line."

"The question Jourdan asked during the news conference was a good one, like countless other questions about football strategy and nuance she has asked in the course of doing her job,'' Persinger said.

In a statement, the NFL said "the comments are just plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters and all journalists. They do not reflect the thinking of the league."

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, league spokesman Joe Lockhart said the NFL has further plans to get involved in the situation.

Dannon, which had an endorsement deal with Newton through its Oikos yogurt, issued a statement Thursday that it would "no longer work with him."

"We are shocked and disheartened at the behavior and comments of Cam Newton towards Jourdan Rodrigue, which we perceive as sexist and disparaging to all women," the statement read. "It is entirely inconsistent with our commitment to fostering equality and inclusion in every workplace. It's simply not ok to belittle anyone based on gender.

"We have shared our concerns with Cam and will no longer work with him."

Newton's marketing agent, Carlos Fleming, told ESPN's Darren Rovell that Dannon has not terminated the agreement and has no grounds to do so, and that the brand has advertising with Newton that is still running.

The Association for Women in Sports Media said in a statement that it "is very discouraged by Cam Newton's disrespectful remarks and actions directed to a female reporter during today's Carolina Panthers press conference. As a watchdog group, AWSM demands fair treatment and positive workplace environments for women working in sports media."

The Pro Football Writers of America also condemned Newton's comments, saying in a statement that he "crossed the line."

Newton made headlines for his interaction with the media after the Panthers lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, when he cut short his session with reporters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
by Chris Low posted Oct 12 2017 9:09AM
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- With chants of "U-G-A, U-G-A" echoing in his ears, 10-year-old Andrew Jones stands solemnly and protectively by his mom, Barbara, high atop a once orange-and-white checkerboarded (and now deserted) Neyland Stadium.

The final few minutes of Georgia's 41-0 battering of Tennessee are excruciating. The Vols, showered with boos from an increasingly disenchanted fan base, had just made history for all of the wrong reasons, and the hurt, disappointment and concern were etched into every one of the faces still remaining inside the Jones' family suite.
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Down below, their husband, father, uncle, friend -- and Tennessee head football coach -- Butch Jones walked slowly off the field, dragging with him the Vols' most lopsided home beating in more than 100 years and a coaching future that's certain to take an even worse beating on Rocky Top.
Butch Jones struggled to explain Tennessee's worst home loss since 1905. AP Photo/Wade Payne

"It's going to be a rough two weeks," says Barbara, known to most everyone as Barb, sighing slowly.

Indeed, the bye week might have come at a good time for a Tennessee team trying to find a pulse on offense and pick up the pieces after a turbulent September. But for the family, it's anything but a good time for a bye week as the "hot-seat" talk and "Butch has to go" talk is sure to only intensify.

"The coaches are almost in a bunker," Barb says. "They go back to work, the next practice and the next game, and figure out how to get better. We go back to life. They do, too, but it's different. We're still in grocery stores and still in school. That's part of it. I understand that and so do the kids, but it doesn't make it easy."

"The coaches are almost in a bunker. They go back to work, the next practice and the next game, and figure out how to get better. We go back to life. They do, too, but it's different. We're still in grocery stores and still in school. That's part of it. I understand that and so do the kids, but it doesn't make it easy."

Barb Jones

Barb, Butch's wife of 25 years, allowed ESPN to spend most of Saturday with her to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what game day is like for a coach's family, particularly at a pressure-packed place like Tennessee that is thirsting for a winner.

"You have to learn to put on blinders and focus on your family," says Barb, still managing a warm smile as her guests tell her goodbye. "We know the noise is only going to get louder."

Barb swore off listening to sports talk radio a long time ago and never goes close to internet message boards. Her three sons, on the other hand, live on Twitter, similar to most kids their age. Alex, 21, works as a student assistant coach under his dad at Tennessee. Adam, 16, attends Catholic High School in Knoxville and plays on the football team. Andrew is still in elementary school, but is no stranger to social media. He had his cell phone, complete with a LeBron James cover, by his side the entire game on Saturday.

"That's how kids get their news now [on social media]," Barb says, "but they also know how mean people can be sometimes."

The volatility of the coaching business isn't lost on Barb, even though it's not necessarily a topic at family dinners. Just last week, she was in the car and listening to music on one of the local radio stations when a D.J. mentioned something about Butch getting fired. Andrew was in the backseat at the time and immediately piped up, "What did he just say?"

Barb jokes that it was a rookie mistake on her part.

"Thank goodness for satellite radio," she says.

Barb is a realist and admits this is uncharted water for the family after Butch's previous two head-coaching stints at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, where he won four conference championships in six seasons. Now in his fifth season at Tennessee, with an overall record of 33-23 and 14-20 in the SEC, Jones is finding out that patience in the realm of SEC football gets thinner every year.

"They say there are two kinds of coaches, coaches that have been fired and coaches that will be fired," says Barb, staring straight ahead and holding her glasses in her hands. "We have never been through that in Butch's career. All of this right now -- we've never been in this territory.

"The thing that's hardest for me is I know everything he's put into this for five years. The next person that would come in here would look like a genius. We're so close, but the powers that be are the ones who have the final say.
You can find Barb Jones, left, Butch Jones' wife, at the Vol Walk before every Tennessee home game. Chris Low

"You have to accept that and know there's a lot of football left."

Game day for a coach's wife is an emotional roller coaster. Barb, outgoing and the quintessential people person, is on campus three hours before kickoff. She plays the role of wife, mom, friend, host, recruiter -- and probably most importantly in these parts -- Tennessee football's First Lady.

Longtime friend and real estate broker Randy Golden from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, has known Barb and Butch since Butch's days as an assistant coach at Central Michigan.

"Look at how cool she is on the outside," Randy says, motioning to Barb as she visits with friends at the coaches' wives' tailgate. "But you know what's going on inside. She's just so real and has always been that way. I still remember her calling me when Butch got his first head-coaching job [with Central Michigan]. She had a 5-year-old and a 2-day-old. She told me, 'I don't know if I'm ready for this.' I told her, 'You'll be great,' and she has been."

It's no wonder Butch calls Barb his rock and best friend. She's the one who has done the heavy lifting in the eight different moves during his coaching career. She has been a source of comfort, a sounding board, even a therapist.

Asked if Butch listens to her advice, she quips, "Most of the time."

At every home game, she's there waiting for him at the start of the Vol Walk and gives him a kiss and hug. She also hugs the players as they pass by and make the trek down Peyton Manning Pass to Neyland Stadium.

She makes the rounds at the tailgate, dressed for the occasion in orange slacks. Friends from just about all of Butch's coaching stops still make regular trips to Knoxville. Jeff and Kathy Robinson lived in the same neighborhood as the Joneses in Cincinnati. Mark Murray's wife, Sherry, was Butch's secretary at Cincinnati. Pat and Nancy McGuirk helped Butch with fundraising at Central Michigan.
Butch Jones is greeted by his youngest son, 10-year-old Andrew, prior to Tennessee's game against Georgia on Saturday. Chris Low

They all gather in the Jones family suite, but not before Barb makes a trip to the sideline to mingle with recruits before the game. Andrew, a slick-shooting guard on his youth basketball team, tags along to the sideline with some of his hoops buddies.

A throwback in a lot of ways, Andrew is a "yes sir" and "no sir" kind of kid, and his elders are all "Mr." or "Mrs."

Most of the stadium workers know Barb and greet her warmly, but not everybody recognizes her. She heads toward her shortcut through the Lettermen's Club to navigate her way to the elevators prior to kickoff. An attendant initially stops her and says the lounge is closed. Within seconds, he realizes who she is and apologizes.

Adam and his two cousins from Toronto -- Cameron and Connor Cruickshank -- stay on the sideline for the first half, but Andrew and his mom return to the suite. Barb admittedly doesn't like to sit still. She squirms in her seat, on the edge for some plays, sitting all the way back for others. But through it all, she's still mom. Andrew wants to know where the napkins are when he makes himself a plate of food, and Barb finds them for him.

The game starts ominously for Tennessee with quarterback Quinten Dormady throwing an interception on the Vols' first play. Barb slumps in her seat and mutters, "Are you kidding me?"

Much to her chagrin, it only gets worse. Andrew, if he doesn't have a hoops future, may have a future in color commentary. He sees and notices everything and doesn't pull any punches.

After one of the Tennessee offensive linemen jumps early, he exclaims, "We false-start every game."

Later, when one of the Vols' receivers doesn't pull in a pass he should have caught, Andrew deadpans, "And you wonder why you're not playing more."

Georgia leads 10-0 before anybody can blink, and the Jones family suite is eerily quiet. Barb fidgets in her seat. She's still remarkably pleasant, though, while playing mom, host and even coach.

"Get him right there. Open-field tackle. Wrap him up," she bellows as Georgia's Nick Chubb breaks several tackles.

Finally, there's some life as Tennessee's Justin Martin intercepts a pass to give the Vols the ball in Georgia territory. Andrew, sitting on the front row of the suite, stands up and turns around to alert everybody that Martin "jumped the slant route."

Barb nods approvingly at Andrew's football acumen.

By the second quarter, Barb has added a light shawl. It's cool in the suite, matching the atmosphere in the stadium. When the Vols lose a fumble after it bounces off of center Jashon Robertson's rear end on the shotgun snap, she laments, "If it can happen to us, it does," and she leaves the suite to clear her head.

It's not the last time she storms out of the suite in frustration while suffering through the first shutout of her husband's head coaching career.

By halftime, it's 24-0 Georgia, and friends and family do their best to comfort Barb. A year ago, it was 21-3 Florida at the half, and the Vols rallied to play their best half of football in the Butch Jones era and beat the Gators 38-28.

There would be no such comeback this time, only more misery.

Adam and his cousins join the rest of the family in the suite for the second half. They sit in the front row in the left corner and watch the stadium slowly empty out and Georgia methodically add to its commanding lead.

The only semblance of life from the Vols in the second half ends with John Kelly losing the football after a long catch and run.
It was a long day inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday for Tennessee fans. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"He didn't ... fumble," Barb says, her voice trailing off.

It's too much. She bolts out of the suite yet again, her face pale and her lips pursed.

Her friends are careful to give Barb her space, but they're also very attentive. With the score ballooning to 31-0 entering the fourth quarter, Golden is already worrying about what the boys may face Monday in school.

Golden has been there for the Jones family before Butch was even a head coach. In fact, when Butch left Central Michigan to take an assistant coaching job at West Virginia, he called Golden in a huff and said, "Sell the house. Take care of Barb and the kids, and I'll take care of you."

The truth is they've taken care of each other.

"They're like family. They are family," said Golden, who owns a RE/MAX Realty company in Michigan. "This is bad, and we hurt for them. Fans forget a lot of times that real people are involved, families and wives and sons. Nobody hurts worse than they do, but I can promise you that Butch is going to see this thing through."

Occasionally, Barb will slip into the back of the room for Butch's postgame media conference. Not after this carnage, though. In fact, she doesn't even take the elevator and opts instead to take the stairs -- from the fifth level.

Butch, as red-faced as ever, does his best to explain the 41-point beatdown in a crowded media conference.

"There are no excuses. There is no hiding behind it," Butch tells reporters. "We're going to find out who the true leaders are. We're going to find out who the true competitors are. The bye week is coming at the right time."

Barb and the kids may beg to differ.
by David Newton posted Sep 11 2017 9:26AM
The thing that surprised me most in the Panthers' 23-3 win at San Francisco was how well rookie Christian McCaffrey adjusted his pass route on a Cam Newton scramble and made the reception for a first down. I knew he excelled at running routes but McCaffrey adjusted on the fly like a 10-year veteran.
by Chris Low posted Sep 11 2017 9:17AM
Jarrett Stidham hadn't played football for 22 months before last week's 41-7 win over Georgia Southern. John Reed/USA TODAY Sports
He's also one of Auburn's hardest workers and a film-room junkie and endeared himself to his teammates when he arrived on the Plains with the way he connected with everybody. "He reminds me of Peyton (Manning) with his demeanor, the way he carries himself and the way he transcends all barriers. He fits in with everybody and can relate to guys from all races, cultures and backgrounds," said Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who was on Tennessee's staff during Manning's last two years in 1996 and 1997. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn added, "He's such a great leader, and his teammates trust him. He's got that 'it' factor that attracts people." Stidham counters that it's more the "Stephenville, Texas" factor.

"Where I come from, Stephenville, Texas, we know how to work one way, and that's hard," Stidham said. "Even back in high school, it was like that, and I had that same mentality coming in here. I had to show these guys, not talk about it."

The stakes for both Stidham and Bryant go up considerably this week, as both face defenses that should be among the best they face all season. There's genuine respect on both sides.

Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and Stidham were teammates in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game.

"I got an up-close look at him and just remember thinking he was one of the two best quarterbacks out there, for sure," Wilkins said. "He has a really good arm, is a great passer of the football and is a lot more athletic than people give him credit for.

"They will be ready to bring it against Clemson and ready to open things up and come after us."

Steele, who was the defensive coordinator at Clemson from 2009 to 2011 under Swinney, was especially impressed with Bryant's poise and how the moment didn't look too big for him in his first career start.

"He sure didn't look rattled, and it looked like he'd been doing it for a couple of years," Steele said. "We've got to find a way to make him uncomfortable, which isn't easy to do with a guy that can do everything he can and all the people they have around him."

Even though both are beginners when it comes to starting on the college level, Bryant and Stidham both have their pregame rituals down pat. Bryant simply likes "to chill." Stidham prefers to watch old 1980s and '90s movie cult classics, many of them for the first time. He took in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" last week.

"I'd never seen Spicoli, but I'm a big fan now," Stidham joked.

No bigger, though, than the Auburn and Clemson fans will be of Stidham and Bryant if they can help deliver more hardware to a pair of schools who've either won or played for four of the past seven national championships.
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