Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil made a splash before the 2012 season when he took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer predicting a Super Bowl title for the Panthers.
Kalil’s season ended in October with a foot injury, and the Panthers’ season ended two months later well short of the Super Bowl.
Kalil has taken a different approach this season, quietly playing through pain while returning to his pre-injury form to earn his fourth Pro Bowl berth.
There were no newspaper ads or bold pronouncements from Kalil when the Panthers won the NFC South and grabbed their first playoff berth in five years. Carolina (12-4) faces San Francisco (13-4) at 1:05 p.m. Sunday in a divisional-round game at Bank of America Stadium.
Kalil – in a more subtle fashion – demonstrated his faith in his team this week when he was asked about the possibility of missing the Pro Bowl, played in Hawaii the week before the Super Bowl.
“That’s the plan,” Kalil said. “That would be the ideal situation.”
There was nothing ideal about Kalil’s 2012 season.
He injured his left foot in the first half of a Week 5 loss, and played the second half on what doctors first thought was a sprained ankle. It turned out to be a Lisfranc injury, a mid-foot injury typically marked by a ruptured ligament that causes the joints in the arch to be displaced.
Panthers physician Robert Anderson performed the surgery in late October, the same week the renowned foot and ankle specialist did New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s ankle surgery. Kalil’s teammates joked he bumped Jeter’s surgery back a few days.
Kalil talked to a couple of players who had undergone Lisfranc surgery, including San Diego Chargers center Nick Hartwick.
“He said, ‘Once they fix it, it’ll work. But it’s going to hurt for a long time. If you can handle the pain, you can be fine,’ ” Kalil said of his conversation with Hartwick.
Hartwick wasn’t kidding.
Kalil maintains a weekly regimen of rehab, including hot and cold tubs and a cold compression, to reduce swelling and minimize the pain. He gets his foot wrapped every game to give him more support in the arch.
And still there is pain.
“When we get going and we’re playing, I don’t notice it. It’s just immediately following” the game, Kalil said. “Then you start over with rehabbing it again and getting the swelling down.”
Doctors have told Kalil it will probably be four or five months before he can play pain-free.
But teammates say they haven’t noticed any change in Kalil’s performance.
Veteran guard Geoff Hangartner was cut early in training camp before re-signing with the Panthers in November. Hangartner watched the Panthers’ games from Texas the first two months of the season.
“Explosiveness, quickness and balance are his best attributes, and he’s got it all back. He’s powerful as ever. He’s quick as ever,” Hangartner said. “If you didn’t know that he had a major foot injury with surgery last year, you couldn’t tell by his play.”
Never knew he was hurt
Kalil, the Panthers’ second-round pick in 2007, appreciates the kind words from teammates. But Kalil said his barometer is offensive line coach John Matsko, who is “brutally honest” with his assessments of players.
Matsko, in his 22nd NFL season, was effusive in his praise of Kalil, calling him a “rare talent” who also is smart with a good work ethic.
Several times this season Matsko has been leaving Bank of America Stadium around 9:30 or 10 on a Thursday night, and seen Kalil walking in the parking lot after watching film.
As for Kalil’s performance this season, Matsko said: “You never knew the guy was hurt. He’s pulling out on screens and chasing guys downfield. On our outside game, he’s out there pulling, blocking linebackers. I didn’t notice anything. I saw the same guy.”
Kalil is athletic enough to be used as a pulling blocker, and strong enough to keep interior lineman out of Cam Newton’s face. But Kalil has provided Newton with more than protection the past three seasons.
During Newton’s rookie season in 2011, coaches asked Kalil to help him with recognition of defensive fronts and alignments. It was an extra responsibility for Kalil, who already was making pre-snap calls for the offensive line.
“In my opinion, he’s the captain of our offense. He does so much that helps our team,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “He’s the guy that makes all the calls. He’s the guy that gets Cam right sometimes. I’m happy to be behind him, and I’ll do anything for him.”
Matsko compared Kalil to former Steelers center Mike Webster, the now-deceased Hall of Famer widely regarded as the best center in NFL history.
Said Matsko: “If (Kalil) keeps going the way he’s going, which I think that he will, I don’t know how many centers are in the Hall of Fame, but he’ll be a Hall of Fame candidate.”
Newton called Kalil the Panthers’ secret weapon.
“He’s an unsung hero that doesn’t get a lot of attention. ... No one really has the spotlight on the center, yet each and every year he puts up All-Pro type statistics with protecting the quarterback,” Newton said. “Having a guy like that who controls the line, smart and savvy enough to know what’s going on, understanding the offense to a T, makes my job easy.”
Hangartner calls Kalil a “super nerdy” guy off the field who is “into all things technology.”
Kalil is also a comic book buff who documented his trip to the San Diego Comic-Con convention two years ago with a video for NFL.com. Kalil this week tweeted a picture of him sitting next to a new Chewbacca collectible figure.
But Kalil has flown mostly under the radar, especially considering the attention he received last season for his Super Bowl ad.
Kalil wasn’t interested in revisiting that subject this week, but made it clear his confidence in his teammates never waned.
“I feel as strongly about this team as I did last year. We’ve got a good group. We’ve got a good shot at going to the big show,” Kalil said. “But we have to take care of a tough opponent this week.”
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