Would you like to be known as king of the pigs?
For the Carolina Panthers, this is a true honor. The pig in question is “P-I-G,” a shortened form of the backyard basketball game of “H-O-R-S-E.” The tournament in question is a 32-player bracket carefully written out on a piece of cardboard and played indoors with a toy basketball, a miniature hoop and an abundance of testosterone.
P-I-G commissioner Ryan Kalil – also the Panthers’ five-time Pro Bowl center – rules the league, seeds the bracket from 1-32 and has the final say on all of the many controversies.
The biggest story in the run-up to this year’s still-in-progress tournament has concerned the absence of quarterback Cam Newton, a previous P-I-G champion and noted pot-stirrer who took exception to some of Kalil’s many rules and decided not to enter.
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“He wanted me to beg him to get in,” a chortling Kalil said of Newton, “and I wouldn’t do it.”
I asked linebacker Thomas Davis – P-I-G champion in 2015, a finalist in 2016 and the No. 1 seed in the 2017 bracket – about Newton’s reputation for rule-bending in the tournament.
“Yeah, he’s a big cheater,” Davis said, laughing. “That’s why we’re happy he’s not in it.”
Added Kalil of Newton: “That’s one of the reasons I took it public this year, to show him that the league goes on without him.”
Kalil has this year decided for the first time pulled back the curtain on the P-I-G tournament, which has been a diversion in the Panthers locker room for about a decade now.
The game’s originator and commissioner was former Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross, and Gross still serves as an unpaid consultant to Kalil on all rules disputes.
“Most of the rules are in place to protect everybody and make it fair,” Kalil said. “I get being (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell. ... You can’t please everybody. You do what you think is best and somebody is not going to be happy.”
‘No dunks, no jumping’
If you think a game like this would not need many rules, you would be dead wrong. Kalil gave me only a sampling, and he kept thinking of others as we talked.
“No dunks,” Kalil said. “And no jumping. In the past, we had guys who were more athletic than others doing some really crazy stuff. They felt like I changed the rules to make it more fair for the offensive and defensive linemen. But in fact I didn’t want to have to explain to Coach why a guy rolled an ankle or something, so I banned it all. It’s called ‘too athletic.’ (Newton did not agree with this rule). So any shots called ‘too athletic’ are completely banned.”
The point in P-I-G, of course, is not to get any letters and to make your opponent spell out the word first by missing three shots that you made. The player who gets to shoot first used to be determined by a 2-out-of-3 rock-paper-scissors contest. But in the interest of speeding up the game, the higher seed now always gets that right.
Kalil also reserves the commissioner’s power to hand out additional penalty letters to anyone showing poor sportsmanship or delaying the game.
“If you miss a shot and out of anger you spike the ball or you toss it on the ground where somebody else has to go pick it up?” Kalil said. “That’s an automatic letter for you. Also, say you do a shot and then I have to match your shot and I miss. And then I catch the ball and do another practice shot? Automatic letter. There’s no extra practicing.”
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Any player who goes on injured reserve is also knocked out of the tournament, Kalil said. This may seem heartless, but Kalil said it is only because that player’s schedule no longer gives him the same break time as the others.
Thus, safety Dean Marlowe won his first-round matchup but then was disqualified for the rest of the 2017 tournament because he was recently placed on IR with his hamstring injury.
How to replace him? Kalil decided to use a kids’ horse-racing game during training camp, where six players would pick a horse and the winner got back in. Linebacker Luke Kuechly won what was christened the “Spartanburg Derby,” which Kalil also put on social media. Kuechly celebrated his return to the tournament like he had just taken back an interception for a touchdown.
‘Cam has a lot of theatrics’
Newton was also a big part of the video Kalil posted for the “Spartanburg Derby,” and he has been hanging around the game occasionally without playing it. The quarterback teasingly posted on Instagram that Kalil should “give the people what they want. This year’s tourney has NO entertainment or PHENOMS. ... The tourney needs a different marketing strategy.”
Newton also told the team’s website that his absence has struck a deep blow to every game’s attendance. “I’ve been the cash cow for that association for too long,” he said.
It is true, Kalil admitted, that Newton as a competitor in any P-I-G game brings more players in to watch. The audience is encouraged to verbally abuse the players competing, but cannot touch them.
“Cam doesn’t have a lot of trick shots,” Kalil said. “But, as you can imagine, Cam has a lot of theatrics. So he has one shot where he leans against the wall and does the Saturday Night Live ‘What is Love’ thing and he says ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ about eight times. Then he does an easy shot. But what happens is you are so distracted by the ‘Yeah, yeah’ that by the time you get to the easy shot you’re so flustered and distracted that you end up missing."
‘I took out Duke!’
There are controversies inside this year’s tournament as well. Quarterback Derek Anderson has a signature shot he calls “The Dolphin,” in which he bounces the ball off his forehead and into the hoop. At 6-foot-6, this shot is a lot easier to make for Anderson than it is for 5-9 cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who complained it should be illegal.
“We ruled in favor of D.A.,” Kalil said of Anderson. “We felt like he was using his body type as an advantage. Captain has to figure out a shot that only a short guy could do.”
Kalil is a playing commissioner but always loses quickly. “I like to play,” he said, “but I don’t like to win because it becomes very controversial if I go deep. I don’t honestly throw any games, but I don’t get upset if I’m out early.”
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Last year’s tournament was won by the now-departed offensive tackle Mike Remmers – who was much better at playing P-I-G than he was at blocking Von Miller in the Super Bowl – so there will be a new champion this year. The tournament is headed toward the quarterfinals with a change of venue, and Kalil plans to get some games in during the Panthers’ five-day stay in Nashville this week.
Defensive end Julius Peppers has already been eliminated this year by offensive guard Trai Turner despite the fact Peppers once played in college basketball’s Final Four.
Defensive end Charles Johnson is still alive – he eliminated a former champion in long snapper J.J. Jansen – but believes he has been placed in the toughest part of the bracket.
“I took out Duke!” Johnson said, speaking of Jansen.
“The problem is that North Carolina is still in your bracket,” countered Kalil, speaking of Davis.
As for Davis, he exudes confidence and is Kalil’s pick to win his second championship this season.
“I’m pretty versatile,” said Davis, who in slightly more important news signed a one-year contract extension with the Panthers Tuesday to play actual football. “I can make them all.”
The linebacker hasn’t won the 2017 tournament yet, though. The tournament continues, with the winner taking home the piece of autographed cardboard the bracket has been written on – and bragging rights as king of the pigs until next year.
Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans players were treated to Kona Ice, a shaved ice treat, by the Kona Ice Music City franchise after the teams scrimmaged at Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville. David T. Foster IIIdtfoster@charlotteobserver.com