A day in the life of Fox Sports South's show, 'The Panel'

FOX Sports South writer Jay Clemons spent Thursday as a proverbial fly on the wall at the Sammy Watkins episode of "The Panel," a comprehensive, 30-minute TV special on Fox Sports South, chronicling some of the most heralded prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, who could go as high as No. 2 in the upcoming NFL draft, will be the subject of a Fox Sports South episode of "The Panel" this spring.

Daniel Goldberger / FOX Sports South

FOX Sports South writer Jay Clemons spent Thursday as a proverbial "fly on the wall" at the Sammy Watkins episode of "The Panel," a comprehensive, 30-minute TV special on Fox Sports South, chronicling some of the most heralded prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft in May. This year's panel hosts include former Cleveland Browns quarterback Tim Couch, longtime NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes, longtime NFL defensive end/linebacker Julian Peterson and current Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. Here are four anecdotal vignettes from a rollicking morning session inside the Fox studio.


It's an interesting dynamic, watching five high-profile athletes -- three retirees in their 30s (Couch, Spikes, Peterson), one active star (Olsen) and one potential dynamo (Watkins) -- shoot the bull on ancillary topics like football, money, motives of sports 'revenge' and the general evolution of today's pro athlete.

It's also cool to see how each panelist prepares in between filming takes: Peterson perpetually scribbles down scripted notes for speaking parts. Spikes intensely pores over notes, as if he were reading a defensive game plan on NFL Sunday mornings. Couch freely chats about a variety of topcis, while heeding cues from the show's producers and camera operators.

As for Olsen ... we'll get to his pre-shoot routine in a little bit.

* * *

It's quite possible that Timothy Scott Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft and purported savior of a reborn franchise 15 years ago, stands as the only quarterback of the Super Bowl era (1966-2013) to earn his first-ever NFL victory on a game-ending Hail Mary touchdown.

Playing for an expansion club on Day 1 of his pro career, Couch had to endure the hellacious triple obligation of:

1) Mastering an absurdly thick NFL playbook.

2) Serving as the face of a franchise that had been dormant for three years (thanks to the "Browns" relocating to Baltimore in 1996 and subsequently re-branding themselves as the "Ravens").

3) Leading a Cleveland offense that was bereft of starter-quality playmakers ... outside of wideout Kevin Johnson (66 catches, 986 yards, eight TDs that year) and tailback Terry Kirby (980 total yards, nine TDs).

As such, it's no wonder the Browns finished with a 2-14 record for that inaugural reboot, with nary a home victory that year.

But there were some good times on the road in '99, particularly in New Orleans. On Halloween afternoon, with the Browns trailing 16-14 late in the game, Couch completed a 19-yard pass to Leslie Shepherd with two seconds left ... before lofting a rainbow alley-oop to Kevin Johnson on the final play, with the receiver executing a toe-tapping touchdown along the sidelines, clinching the new Browns' first win of a technologically advanced era.

It was a great moment for Couch, perhaps his signature experience of a respectable five-year NFL career with the Browns (11,131 yards passing, 64 passing TDs from 1999-2003). Although, on Thursday morning, the ex-quarterback was quick to point out he enjoyed two game-ending Hail Mary TDs as a pro ... with the latter coming against the Jaguars in 2002 (see below).

Speaking of the Browns and Jaguars ... both clubs hold top-five picks in this year's draft, meaning the downtrodden clubs will have their chance to land an elite-level QB prospect (Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel), a high-end tackle prospect (Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Jake Matthews), or supremely athletic studs like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Sammy Watkins (Clemson).

During The Panel's discussion, Couch, Peterson and Spikes polled Watkins about the potential of playing for the Raiders, Rams, Jaguars or Browns. And despite the uniqueness of each team-centric question, Watkins mustered boundless optimism with each scenario:

On playing for the Rams, who currently don't have a receiver beyond 25 years old on their roster: We'll grow together as a unit.

On playing for the Raiders and their notoriously passionate fans: There's a lot of history and tradition with the franchise.

On playing for the lowly Jaguars: It's an opportunity to play in his home state of Florida.

On playing for the Browns: It would be an honor to share the receiving stage with Josh Gordon.

In other words, the soft-spoken and somewhat shy Watkins (a Fort Myers, Fla. native) has been effectively coached up, when pressed for his true NFL preference on draft day.

He even reconstituted a line from last week's Pro Day, existentially saying, "I only control what I can control."

Bottom line: Watkins could miraculously end up with the defending champion Seahawks on draft weekend (hypothetically speaking) ... and he would still be subject to absurdly high expectations for the coming season -- given his immense physical gifts (6-foot-1, 228 pounds, 4.43 40-yard dash, 34-inch vertical leap), supreme college track record (3,391 receiving yards, 29 total TDs from 2011-13) and consensus standing as the draft's premier playmaker.

Heck, even Olsen, while conducting his hosting duties for The Panel discussions, routinely characterized Watkins as "the best" playmaker in the draft. As an aside, he absolutely doesn't want the Clemson star to end up in the rugged NFC South ... unless the receiver-starved Panthers luck into selecting the 2014 Orange Bowl MVP (16 catches, 227 yards, two TDs vs. Ohio State).

Carolina selects 28th overall in Round 1. Quite simply, the Charlotte area has a better shot of being bludgeoned by a snowstorm on May 8 ... than Watkins has of tumbling that far in the draft.

* * *

Julian Peterson had an indirect, but prominent role with one of the greatest sound bites in NFL history.

Back in 2001, when the 49ers were playing the Colts at the old RCA Dome (adjacent to Indy's current digs, Lucas Oil Stadium), Peterson and his fellow defensive teammates terrorized Peyton Manning for three sacks and four interceptions, while rolling to a 40-21 victory over Indianapolis.

Fast forward to that day's post-game media address: Colts head coach Jim Mora Sr., a no-nonsense leader who also had a knack for delivering memorable quotes in the heat of the moment, offered a terse statement that squarely put the loss on the shoulders of Manning and the Indy offense.

"Let me start out saying this. Do not blame that game on the defense, OK," Mora said. "I don't care who you play, whether it's a high school team, a junior college team, a college team, much less an NFL team. When you turn the ball over five times, four interceptions, you ain't going to beat anybody."

The real fireworks occurred, though, when a local reporter later posed a seemingly innocuous question about Mora's 4-6 team competing for an AFC playoff spot.

"Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I'm just hoping we can win a game, another game."

The comically blunt sound bite was played on a continuous loop on just about every local and national sports show that Sunday evening, eventually prompting a frustrated and embarrassed Manning to step out of character and fire back at his coach, through the media.

But the damage had already been done. Almost immediately, Mora's outburst had vaulted to the Mount Rushmore of sports rants -- right up there with Allen Iverson's "Practice" monologue, Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy's "Come at me ... I'm 40!" blow-up ... and one-time Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia's expletive-filled takedown of the usually revered patrons of Wrigley Field, circa 1983.

Regarding Peterson, who loves to share stories with Couch, Olsen, Spikes and Watkins during filming breaks, his eyes lit up when recalling how the 49ers defense had "torn up" one of the greatest passers in NFL history -- especially when the Colts were at a crossroads for that particular season.

(Peterson also correctly remembered that his 49ers were on their way to a 12-win season in 2001.)

But he wasn't alone in the happy recall. After Peterson finished the story -- which didn't require much embellishment -- each panelist tried his hand at mimicking Mora's "Playoffs?" bit ... with Spikes nailing the impersonation.

And with that ... the typically stoic and ultra-focused Spikes emitted a wide smile.

* * *

There is nothing aloof or distant about Greg Olsen.

He may be in the middle of a well-deserved offseason break, but Olsen cares about the current state of the Panthers, who in the wake of releasing Steve Smith (on Thursday) -- the franchise's all-time receiving leader -- are now without their top four wideouts from last season.

He also cares about the league-wide happenings of other clubs during the first week of free agency, blurting out every key signing to The Panel members during filming breaks and feverishly working through his smartphone for real-time information, as if he were tracking his own progress in free agency ... or monitoring a hypothetical major storm in the area. (Olsen restructued his contract last year.)

Apparently, Olsen also cares about charting a different course in the sports-TV world, eschewing the traditional path of former player-turned-color analyst ... for the more disciplined roles of host (information guru/tablesetter/traffic cop).

At least that's how he handled Thursday's panel session with Watkins: Olsen opened each segment with insightful nuggets (with few mistakes amid countless takes) and then seamlessly passed the baton to Peterson, Couch and Spikes for analysis. He eventually wrapped each stanza with cogent thoughts, as well.

Not bad for a non-retired athlete who's in the relative prime of his sports career. (Olsen averaged 71 catches, 830 yards and six TDs for the 2012-13 seasons.)

And not bad for a guy who sought constant free-agency updates during any window of TV downtime.

After all, Olsen (age 29) is acutely aware of what he has with the Panthers: A championship-ready defense (anchored by Luke Kuechly, who Olsen greatly admires), a transcendent quarterback (Cam Newton), a deep, versatile rushing attack (featuring DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Kenjon Barner) and the reigning NFL coach of the year (Ron Rivera).

He's also congizant of what Carolina doesn't have right now: A dependable offensive line (citing the retirement of Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross) and a receiving corps that would sustainably keep defenses honest ... and prevent any double-teams on Olsen during seam routes.

Hence, the well-plugged-in nature to Thursday's free agent occurrences.

The sight of Olsen working his phone for updates would have been endearing to any Panthers fan or front-office executive. In fact, Olsen may be the idyllic athlete in today's NFL:

He fully understands that football is not life and death ... but he also lives and breathes the NFL experience on a daily basis.

* * *

Shortly before 3 p.m. on Thursday, Spikes entertains and enlightens the listeners during a radio interview with 790 AM in Atlanta, offering brutal-truth tales of life in the NFL.

One particular Spikes revelation: Rookies are often shocked by the impersonal nature of professional sports, where only production matters ... unlike high school and college ball "where you're surrounded by people who love and care for you."

That's not to say love doesn't exist at the NFL level. It does, Spikes infers, as long as you're winning ... and your performance and salary are relative to that team-scope process of collecting victories.

Spikes also tackled the sujbect of "revenge" after former clubs drop popular players -- a timely subject given the cryptic, but fascinating words of receiver Steve Smith, just hours after the Panthers released their most storied performer in franchise history.

Smith's Twitter-friendly quote to WFNZ (in Charlotte, N.C.) on Thursday included a preview of how things would shake out, if his new team gets a chance to play the Panthers in 2014: "Put your goggles on, cause there's going to be blood and guts everywhere."

(Note: Smith reportedly agreed to a Friday deal with the Ravens ... who, as luck would have it, meet the Panthers in 2014.)

Never mind that Smith (who turns 35 in May) hasn't tallied one 100-yard outing in his last 20 games (including the 2013 playoffs). Or that Smith hadn't produced an 80-catch campaign since 2007. Or the cap-strapped Panthers don't really have the wherewithal to absorb Smith's $7 million cap charge in 2014 -- had he remained with Carolina.

But viable facts can sometimes run secondary to a player's well-documented feelings of rejection or resentment from his original team.

Which brings us back to Spikes ...

During the radio spot, the recently retired NFL linebacker spun the subject back to the 2004 season, when Spikes -- roughly 21 months after being let go by the Bengals -- had a chance to visit Cincinnati as a member of the Buffalo Bills.

On that December day, Spikes' first trip to Paul Brown Stadium in enemy garb, he collected a slew of tackles and registered a game-breaking pick-six against Cincy QB Jon Kitna ... taking the interception to the house for 62 yards.

In terms of getting sweet revenge against his old club, Spikes characterized it as the "ultimate virtual middle finger" for a player once scorned by the here today/gone tomorrow mentality within the modern-day NFL.

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