Cheat Sheet: Newton gets the headlines but Panthers are built to last

If you talk to folks who work in Silicon Valley, they’ll often name CEOs of companies lesser known than Apple or Google when asked whose corporate cultures or résumés they most admire.

Speak to a musician, and it’s the Dave Davies and the Dave Lombardos of the world, not the guitarists and drummers you see feted at the Kennedy Center, that they worship. The ultimate compliment in the comedy world is being dubbed a “comedian’s comedian.” Bill Burr and Marc Maron aren’t starring in a romantic comedy alongside the girl from “Glee” anytime soon.

Which leads me to my appreciation of the Carolina Panthers.

I consider myself a bit of an NFL salary cap wonk and a front office fan.

For those who love the art of building a roster, you can do a lot worse than checking out what the Carolina Panthers have going on down in Charlotte.

As it should be, the Panthers’ star players make the most money on the team. It’s Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Charles Johnson, Ryan Kalil and Greg Olsen making the big bucks. Those are great guys on the field and tremendous men in the community and locker room. You have your core there.

But it’s the gems in the meat of the 53-man roster that make the Panthers a special team. Josh Norman is the best cornerback you’ve never heard of and he makes $1.5 million. Kawaan Short is a no-nonsense defensive tackle whom you won’t hear much about, but is stuffing the run for one of the league’s best rush defenses. I can go on and on about guys like Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere, A.J. Klein and Colin Jones — but I can sense you tuning out already. Just know that these aren’t guys teams necessarily were clamoring for, but all played big roles last season down the stretch and have picked up right where they left off. Not to mention the addition this week of Jared Allen, which may or may not provide much boost, via a trade with the Bears. 

In 2014, the Panthers let Steve Smith go to the Ravens and everyone just assumed they’d be dazed and confused at receiver. They resisted a splashy signing or trade (DeSean Jackson or Percy Harvin) and went with what they had in-house. Kelvin Benjamin stepped up and the offense found a way. When Benjamin went down this summer, the media did the same thing, wondering, "Who’s Cam going to throw to? How can they compete?!"

General manager Dave Gettleman, an Ernie Acorsi protégé, and assistant general manager Brandon Beane didn’t press the panic button. They spent money to extend Newton and Kuechly instead, and the offense has functioned without a true No. 1, 2 or 3 wide receiver.

The Panthers are 3-0. They’re not particularly pretty to watch. They might not be getting the Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels and Faith Hill marquee treatment week to week, but they’re a damn well-built machine. And they’re built to last.

They’re never the media "winners" when free agency opens and they don’t have the best record when it comes to draft grades. But the Panthers have won eight of the past nine times they’ve taken the field. They’ve done it the right way. That works for me.

Week 4 Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week

Steve Smith caught 13 balls for 186 yards last Sunday, the second-most ever for a player 36 years or older. Which player had more?

This Week’s Podcast

Schrager and John Lynch talk about the new-look defense-first Broncos, what makes Bruce Arians so unique, and being courted by Bill Belichick.

And now, the picks. Much better week last week, but still working out of that enormous Week 2 hole. Disagree with me? Let me know at or @Pschags on Twitter.


Week 3 Record: 11-5

Overall Record: 25-23


Baltimore at Pittsburgh: I was in the building and on the field for that wild fourth quarter of Bengals-Ravens last Sunday, which might someday be discussed in Baltimore circles as the "Steve Smith-A.J. Green Game." It was as devastating and as deflating a September loss that I can remember seeing in person. The Ravens fought back from a 14-0 deficit, took the lead and then surrendered another lead late in the game at home, when their defense just couldn’t stop Andy Dalton. John Harbaugh’s team always will compete and they’ll always show up for Steelers week, but it’s hard to imagine them bouncing back from that short rest — backup QB or not — on the road.

The Pick: Steelers 24, Ravens 16

The result: Ravens 23, Steelers 20 (OT)


New York Jets at Miami: England gives us John Oliver and Ed Sheeran. We give them … Jets and Dolphins. Yuck. No team laid a bigger stinker — including the 49ers — than the Dolphins in Week 3. Warren Buffet in the building, wearing a Suh jersey, and the defense just gets absolutely torched by the Bills in Miami’s home opener. The Dolphins were one of those teams I said to be careful about this season. I’m always suspicious of teams that have never done it being penciled in as contenders. The Dolphins haven’t done anything, at all. I think they find a way on Sunday, because if they don’t, it could make for a very interesting flight back for everyone.

The Pick: Dolphins 23, Jets 17

Jacksonville at Indianapolis: Some people rolled their eyes at Chuck Pagano’s emotional locker room speech after last week’s win over the Titans, but I was ready to run through a wall after hearing it. Pagano has that effect on his players, and though he may not be the big name (Urban Meyer, Tony Dungy) some Colts fans wish was roaming the sidelines, his players love to battle for him and his résumé can’t be questioned. And one more note on the emotion of last week’s speech: The win came three years to the weekend that he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Pagano’s a special guy.

The Pick: Colts 27, Jaguars 17

New York Giants at Buffalo: The Bills will be without LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins. Even so, I wouldn’t necessarily write off that Buffalo offense. The unit has put up very un-Bills-like numbers through three games and I don’t see it stopping against a Giants defense that has played about as well as it possibly could without a premier pass rusher. Trust me, Steve Spagnuolo’s doing a lot with very little in the Big Apple this season. Greg Roman should attack their weak spots and Buffalo should win this one up in Western New York.

The Pick: Bills 27, Giants 20

Carolina at Tampa Bay: The box score won’t show it, but Jameis Winston had a very solid game Sunday in Houston. There were some bad drops that set the team back and special teams plays that will give Lovie Smith nightmares. Those things can be worked on. The Panthers may jump out to a quiet 4-0 start, but things get rocky after the bye. How’s this for a slate: at Seattle, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Indianapolis, vs. Green Bay. One week at a time. And I think they’ll be fine in Tampa on Sunday.

The Pick: Panthers 20, Buccaneers 16

Philadelphia at Washington: The Eagles still are struggling on offense and injuries are mounting. Good teams overcome tough times, and if the Eagles come out of Week 4 as a 2-2 team with two solid road wins on the résumé? I think they’d sign up for that. How about Darren Sproles? He joined Deion Sanders as the only players to return three punts for touchdowns after their 31st birthdays. More from Sproles on Sunday. This is a payback game for what I think was the worst loss — by any team — of the 2014 season.

The Pick: Eagles 24, Redskins 20

Oakland at Chicago: Don’t look now, but the Raiders could end up 3-1, heading into a battle for first in the AFC West vs. the Broncos in Oakland next week. Amari Cooper is becoming one of the best young receivers in the league before our very eyes — at least those watching — and Michael Crabtree’s having a career revitalization. This Raiders offense isn’t getting many headlines, but it’s one of the youngest and best-coached units three weeks into the season.

The Pick: Raiders 27, Bears 23

Houston at Atlanta: The Falcons are the first team in NFL history to start 3-0 after trailing in the fourth quarter in all three games. They also have a schedule most teams would pay good money to get. Looking at it from afar, there might not be a single game in which they’re underdogs from here on out. The Texans offense won’t be able to score enough to keep up with Air Atlanta on Sunday.

The Pick: Falcons 34, Texans 20

Kansas City at Cincinnati: I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the Bengals last week and I can say there are few teams in the league with as much swagger and confidence as those guys. Marvin Lewis is the head coach, but I look at offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, and I see two of the most intense, high-energy coaches in the league. It seeps from top to bottom. I like the Bengals this year. A lot.

The Pick: Bengals 27, Chiefs 16

Cleveland at San Diego: The Chargers got beat up badly by the Vikings last week in Minnesota. Philip Rivers was asked afterwards if the Chargers locker room still had faith in head coach Mike McCoy. Rivers seemed shocked by the question. "Yeah," he said. Then, after a brief pause: "That’s crazy." It is, but that’s the NFL. The Bolts should get back in the win column this weekend.

The Pick: Chargers 27, Browns 20

Green Bay at San Francisco: The media pile-on of Colin Kaepernick has hit its apex. You’d think he’d never completed a pass before the way people have been writing and talking about him this week. I’d say to be patient before burying Kaepernick and these 49ers. Bad losses happen. It’s how you respond that matters. I’ve seen Kaepernick destroy Dom Capers’ Packers defenses enough to know anything’s possible. This is your upset special.

The Pick: 49ers 31, Packers 28

St. Louis at Arizona: The Cardinals keep winning and as long as Carson Palmer’s under center, I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. Not at home in the Birds Nest, at least. Carson Palmer’s 16-2 as a Cardinals starter since 2013. Make that 17-2 after this one.

The Pick: Cardinals 24, Rams 12

Minnesota at Denver: Here’s your litmus test game, and I mean it both ways. The Vikings’ front seven doesn’t get much acclaim, but they’re among the very best in the league. How will Peyton Manning fare against relentless pressure? On the other end, you’ve got Teddy Bridgewater, ”off to an up-and-down start, going up against the top edge rushing group in the NFL. Close game, but I like the Broncos in their building.

The Pick: Broncos 27, Vikings 21

Dallas at New Orleans: The Saints’ salary cap situation is insane. And not in a good way. Jimmy Graham, Junior Galette, Curtis Lofton and Ben Grubbs — all playing elsewhere this year — make up $26 million in dead money against the salary cap. That’s wild. The Cowboys competed last week with a group that still was getting comfortable. Brees or not, I like the ‘Boys on Sunday night.

The Pick: Cowboys 31, Saints 21


Detroit at Seattle: The schedule makers did the Lions no favors this year. Third road game in four weeks and it’s in Seattle? Yuck. Tough one for any team, let alone one struggling as much as Detroit.

The Pick: Seahawks 31, Lions 16

Reader Email of the Week


Big fan of the Cheat Sheet each week, but you used to give us commentary on things other than football. Pop culture, etc. Anything I need to download, buy, see, or read?  


Saratoga, New York

I enjoyed the HBO series "Show Me a Hero" more than anything else I saw this summer. Loved Ryan Adams’ "1989" Taylor Swift cover album that came out last week, too. Also read a great unauthorized book about Allen Iverson by Kent Babb called "Not a Game". Physically, mentally, emotionally did not know what I was watching when tuning into the MTV Video Music Awards. How’s that for a recap, Rich?

Week 4 NFL Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week

In 2010, then-Cincinnati Bengal Terrell Owens had 222 receiving yards in a game vs. the Browns. He was also 36 years old.