The circumstances surrounding the status of Carolina Panthers left tackle Michael Oher have been a mystery since Week 4.
The Friday before the Panthers played in Atlanta, the team announced Oher was in the league concussion protocol and out for the game.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he wasn’t sure how Oher was injured, although a source told the Observer that Oher had post-concussion symptoms before playing in a Week 3 game against Minnesota.
That was Sept. 30.
More than three months later, there has been little clarity on where Oher fits into the Panthers’ plans.
Rivera indicated Monday that Oher would be back with the team in 2017, but declined to discuss Oher further.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was non-committal when asked whether Oher would be the left tackle next season.
“Right now I don’t know that,” Gettleman said at his post-season press conference. “Frankly, I haven’t spoken to Michael in a while. So let’s leave it there.”
Gettleman’s non-answers in previous offseasons have foretold personnel moves, most notably his release of franchise receiving leader Steve Smith after the 2013 season.
I’m not convinced that’s the case here.
It could be Gettleman not wanting to make any assumptions since he hadn’t talked with Oher lately. It also could have been Gettleman being cautious on anything concussion-related in much the way Rivera was all season.
(Rivera told reporters Monday he was implementing a new rule: If a player is in the NFL’s concussion protocol, don’t ask about them.)
It’s impossible to know what Oher is thinking because he hasn’t spoken to reporters since before his injury. He did address speculation he might retire with an October Instagram post scoffing at the suggestion he “was walking away from this great game.”
Panthers right guard Trai Turner told the Observer last week that Oher has given him every indication he plans to continue playing, which a league source confirmed.
But considering that Oher will turn 31 in April and missed nearly the entire season with a head injury, Gettleman needs to start working on a better Plan B than he had in 2016.
The Panthers got lucky from an injury standpoint during their Super Bowl season of 2015. Yes, No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL during the preseason, but it was early enough that coaches could adjust the offense and overcome it.
But the offensive line only lost a few games to injuries in 2015, and that continuity was a key piece of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense.
That luck ran out in 2016.
Oher missed the final 13 games, forcing right tackle Mike Remmers to play out of position on the left side.
Then the Panthers had a “position catastrophe” at center, with Ryan Kalil (shoulder) and backup Gino Gradkowski (knee) both going down with season-ending injuries in November.
There’s a reason the Panthers had to scramble and quilt together a patchwork line: Gettleman had not brought in enough proven backups, particularly at tackle.
That David Foucault was getting second-team reps at tackle in Spartanburg tells you all you need to know.
‘They didn’t fall apart’
I asked Gettleman about the tackle depth specifically Tuesday at his season-ending press conference.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t sit my big cheeks at my desk and say, ‘Have I given Ron enough players? Have I given the coaching staff enough players?’” Gettleman said.
He went on to talk for four minutes about all the injuries that had befallen the line and the play of the backups. Gettleman also pointed to the zero sacks the Panthers allowed at Seattle – a bit of an odd example given that Carolina lost that game by 33 points.
“This is one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league and we hold them to zero sacks. You can’t (say), ‘Well, they got lucky.’ That game’s up in Seattle, now,” Gettleman said. “I feel good about those backup players because they had to play. And they didn’t fall apart.”
Gettleman then was asked whether he thought he had, in fact, given Rivera enough players to be successful in ’16.
“Healthy (players)?” Gettleman said. “Yes.”
Gettleman’s been around the game long enough to know you can’t assume the kind of health the Panthers enjoyed in 2015 – especially along the offensive line, which he described Tuesday as a “tough man’s game in there.”
How to be more prepared
Injuries happen, and the Panthers need to be better equipped to handle them than they were during their 6-10 season.
“It’s the classic when it rains, it pours,” Gettleman said. “But we’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to be accountable for what happened and we’re going to get this fixed.”
Here’s a way to start on the process:
▪ Figure out where things stand with Oher, who is due nearly $13 million over the next three seasons.
▪ Sign a free agent offensive tackle. I’d look hard at Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, the younger brother of the Panthers’ Pro Bowl center.
▪ Draft an offensive tackle. If not at No. 8 – where the Panthers took Jordan Gross in 2003 – then somewhere in the first three rounds.
Gettleman has plenty of other things to worry about this offseason – fixing Cam Newton, re-signing Kawann Short and Mario Addison, gearing up for the draft.
But he can’t afford to give short shrift to the offensive line again.