Nothing says the Holidays more than welcoming old friends. For Broncos fans, nothing says old friends more than Andrew Mason. Mase spent 6 years with the Broncos organization, keeping fans close to the action at DenverBroncos.com as well as at his blog, Mason's Morsels. Upon his "departure", Mason landed on his feet with the Carolina Panthers.
Mase agreed to do a Q&A for us leading up to today's game. My thanks to Andrew for taking the time, and for the incredible work he did while at the Broncos -- TSG.
MHR -- That was quite a performance on Monday Night. A big game coming up next week as well. Could this be the dreaded ‘Trap Game'?
AM -- Theoretically, it could, but from talking to guys in the locker room, it seems that isn't the case. First, there's the Broncos' spotless record against the NFC South; given how powerful the division has been this year, that quickly got everyone's attention. Then there's the Broncos' performance in some tough road games -- in particular the 17-point dismantling of the Jets.
There's also the collective understanding that the Panthers' postseason place is still precarious. Carolina has the one-game lead over Tampa Bay, but a Bucs win Sunday would give them a tiebreak advantage on division record (Bucs 4-2, Panthers 3-2 in that scenario) and a Panthers loss Sunday would give the Bucs a potential tiebreak advantage on common opponents (the Bucs would be 8-2; the Panthers would be 8-3). The Bucs close at home with San Diego and Oakland, who are a combined 8-18; the Panthers close at New York and New Orleans, who are a combined 18-9.
The players I've talked with this week are confident, but there remains a palpable edge and urgency to the tone in the locker room -- which is what you want to see.
TSG -- Now that we are several months down the road, what effect did the Steve Smith situation have on the football team and how have they used a negative event and turned it into a positive?
AM -- Simply put, it brought the team together. A crisis like that can be a crowbar that forces open the doors of communication, which was the case here. Both Smith and Ken Lucas have spoken at great length of the healing that has come from sitting down and discussing their differences. All that might not have been possible had Lucas not forgiven Smith for what happened.
But the final step was the winning two games when Smith was suspended, which spawned a wave of confidence that seemed to wash over everyone in the locker room. Neither win was easy -- at the last second in San Diego, from 14 points behind against Chicago -- but they all count just the same, and they seemed to inspire faith and confidence that has bolstered the team throughout the season. This year, the Panthers have come back from two 14-point deficits, a 10-point hole and, against Green Bay, a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit when the Packers had scored 18 unanswered points out of halftime. Even in the loss to Atlanta, they whittled a 17-point gap down to three points before succumbing. This team might get beat, but if it does, it'll go down swinging to the last.
TSG -- What will the Broncos have to do in order to win?
AM -- For openers, start fast. In the midpoint of the season, the Panthers lurched to a series of balky beginnings, falling into double-digit deficits against Tampa Bay, Arizona, Detroit and Atlanta over a six-game stretch. They managed to get out of the hole against the Cardinals and Lions, but weren't so fortunate against the Bucs and Falcons. The last two weeks have seen the Panthers get off to steadier openings, leading 21-10 and 10-3 at halftime aganst Green Bay and Tampa Bay, respectively.
The Broncos will also need to convert third downs. Perhaps the Panthers' biggest issue in the loss at Atlanta last month was that the defense couldn't get off the field at the beginning and end of the game. Atlanta went 4-of-5 on its third downs on its first three series and 2-of-4 on its last three series, and then followed those two failures with fourth-down touchdown runs.
But what makes this Panthers team so difficult to handle is that they can adjust to what opens up offensively. If the run is taken away, Jake Delhomme will look towards Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. If a defense is designed to take Smith out of play, there'll be openings for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. After scoring three points in Week 6 at Tampa Bay, the offense has been cooking with gas, scoring 29.4 points per game in the last seven games and 33.0 in the last three. The exception was against against Oakland -- which I'm sure sounds familiar to Broncos fans -- when the Panthers only got 17 points and Delhomme threw four interceptions.
TSG -- Name a Panther that gets little attention that Broncos' fans should keep their eye on this Sunday.
AM -- It's actually a collection of players -- the offensive line. Through most of the season, the story up front was about the shuffling that injuries caused; every starter but right guard Keydrick Vincent missed at least one game. Three players listed on the second team have started. But for the past three weeks, the first-team line has been together; they hadn't made it through more than one quarter as a group in the first 10 games. Now, they're developing some chemistry -- which is particularly true for center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah, the youngest starters of the group, and the two who nursed ankle injuries throughout October. I think readers of this site might appreciate watching Kalil in particular. I remember noting to myself during 2007 Senior Bowl week that he reminded me of Tom Nalen. Then, this year, Paul Zimmerman put Nalen on his midseason All-Pro team and called Kalil "a worthy successor" to Nalen, his perennial All-Pro choice. We'll see how that develops, but Kalil is what you'd like a center to be -- smart, tenacious and aware.
TSG -- What similarities and differences exist between Mike Shanahan and John Fox?
AM -- Both can adjust to what their team's strengths are in a given season or a specific game. They'd both like to win games with ground-based, clock-controlling strategies, but they know it's not always possible, so they are flexible. They both command the respect of their players. They relate to players differently, but the results are generally effective, and they maximize what their team possesses in a given year. Last year, for instance, the Panthers' 7-9 finish was disappointing, but given the elbow injury to Jake Delhomme and the need to start four different quarterbacks, it actually stands as a stalwart effort under adverse circumstances. Both Shanahan and Fox have more going for their teams this year than they did in 2007 -- and the results are clear; they're both in first place. Both organizations consider themselves fortunate to have these men as head coaches, and understandably so.
TSG -- Finally, the really important stuff...What is your favorite Simpsons episode?
AM -- This is like asking Ben or Jerry to choose their favorite ice-cream flavor. But I'll have to concur with the choice of many Simpsonologists -- the fourth-season gem "Last Exit to Springfield," otherwise known as the episode where the power plant goes on strike. At this point, the show was starting to mature; the main characters had been fleshed out, and the humor was starting to incorporate the surreal elements that would take the show to a higher plateau. This was the episode where Lenny's utterance of "dental plan" gets stuck in Homer's internal monologue, where Homer becomes head of the power-plant employees union and becomes convinced that Mr. Burns is making homosexual advances at him, where Homer can only scream when Kent Brockman calls organized labor "a lumbering dinosaur" during a TV interview, where Smithers and Burns giddily pet a two-headed dog that comes out of the nuclear-reactor core, where the restoration of power after a Burns-caused outage induces glee at the "Fake Vomit Co." I could go on ...
"Last Exit" was not my favorite episode at the time it aired -- at the time, my favorite episodes in the first four seasons were "Marge vs. the Monorail" and "Colonel Homer." But the more I watched it, the more I appreciated it -- especially because it began a run where, for about five years, the show was hitting it out of the park every week. The successes have been far more sporadic the last decade -- which was inevitable, I reckon. Thank goodness for DVDs.