Several times in the second half on Sunday, as Cam Newton began to call out the snap count against the Atlanta Falcons at the line, he could hear right offensive guard Nate Chandler turn to his left and ask center Ryan Kalil an important question.
Recalled Newton: “As I’m in cadence, he’s asking Kalil, ‘Who do I have?’ As a quarterback, that’s not exciting, especially it being a pass play. ‘Oh, I got him? OK. No, him? OK?’ Hut! Hut!”
No. 78 got a hurried promotion Sunday, getting into the game at right guard for 41 of the Panthers’ 71 offensive snaps after both Chris Scott and Jeff Byers went down with injuries on the same series late in the first half.
Chandler had never played guard before, not even in practice. But in a way he was uniquely qualified for the switch. After all, Chandler has already been moved more often than a beach chair in his career.
At age 24, Chandler has already played tight end, offensive tackle, defensive end, defensive tackle and now offensive guard in either college at UCLA (he grew up in San Diego) or with Carolina.
“I wouldn’t say it’s crazy,” Chandler said. “It’s just my role.”
Certainly, players at the high school level or below wouldn’t think it’s crazy. It is frequent for teams with small rosters to utilize two-way players in high school, with running backs doubling as linebackers or quarterbacks handling the punts.
But once you get to the NFL, roles are intensely specialized. There are slot receivers, kickoff specialists and blocking tight ends – all of whom the Panthers have employed.
Chandler, though, is happy to line up wherever he’s told to go as long as it gives him a shot to stick around. With the odds stacked heavily against him, he made the Panthers as an undrafted rookie free agent defensive tackle in 2012. He was on the practice squad for the first six games, got activated because of injuries and played as a reserve defensive lineman in the final 10, even recovering a Philip Rivers fumble against San Diego to set up a touchdown.
Then the Panthers picked defensive tackles with their first two selections in the 2013 NFL draft. Chandler was suddenly unlikely to make the team again as a defensive tackle.
“We went to Nate and said, ‘Look, to be honest with you it’s going to be tough,’” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
But, Rivera continued, how about switching to offensive tackle? “We see that to be your future,” he said.
Sure thing, Chandler said.
He found a new niche, coming in as the Panthers’ third tackle on special teams as a blocker as well as on maybe three short-yardage offensive plays per game. You know that announcement the official makes a couple of times per game that goes, “No. 78 is reporting as eligible – No.78.”
That was Chandler.
On Chandler’s chest, he has a tattoo of wings and the inscription “Established 1989” – the year he was born. “That’s a symbol of my journey,” Chandler said.
That journey took another turn Sunday, when he had to play guard. He’s the fourth guy the Panthers have stuck into that position this season, and he may have to play it again Sunday at San Francisco depending on how the injuries to Scott (knee) and Byers (ankle) come out.
“I can’t complain about being moved here or there,” Chandler said. “It’s nothing like ‘They’re messing with you.’ It’s not that. At the end of the day, all you do is play football.”
Said Panthers tackle Jordan Gross of Chandler when he got to the huddle: “Sometimes you look a guy in the eye and you see that thousand-yard stare. They’re nervous or scared. There was none of that with him. He was ready to go.”
Offensive line coaches John Matsko and Ray Brown had prepared for such an eventuality, as they have gotten Chandler and the other offensive linemen to learn everyone’s assignments on a “just-in-case” basis. And it’s not like Chandler had to play quarterback of course – guard is only one position over from tackle.
Chandler graded out well as the Panthers outscored Atlanta 20-0 in the second half to win, 34-10 – their fourth straight victory. Chandler said his favorite moment was the seven-play drive that culminated in Newton’s 8-yard touchdown run, on which Chandler pulled to the right and delivered an effective block.
“Getting to celebrate with the guys in the end zone, that was the best,” Chandler said. “It was a special feeling. I felt proud of myself – where I’ve been, what I’ve overcome.”
On the replay, you can see Newton doing a lengthy touchdown celebration while facing the delirious crowd. Chandler then comes up behind the quarterback, reaches out for a second and touches Newton lightly on the back.
It was almost like Chandler had to make sure all of it was real.