For five years, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has tried to see the game the way Cam Newton sees it.
Where can I get open? How can I help? What is he thinking?
All of those questions have swirled in Olsen’s mind, and he often has answered them correctly. The best years of Olsen’s career have come in Charlotte, where Newton has come to rely on No. 88 as his No. 1 receiver.
Now comes their biggest stage. Given that Newton will need to get the ball out very quickly against Denver’s fearsome pass rush in Super Bowl 50, Olsen will be more important than ever on Sunday.
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“This is about cherishing this opportunity and understanding they don’t come around often,” Olsen said. “Cam and I have played five years together. The big thing in game day is you want to see things through the same set of eyes. So it is my job as a receiver to see things through his eyes and make sure I’m where he needs me to be, because he’s the guy obviously pulling the trigger.”
When the Panthers lost 1,000-yard wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August, everyone moaned. But Olsen – perhaps the most sure-handed pass-catcher in team history – shrugged and went to work. He became clearly the best receiver on the team a year after he and Benjamin split that duty. Olsen had career highs in receptions (77) and receiving yardage (1,104) in 2015.
It’s unusual for a tight end in the NFL to lead a team in both categories, but the Panthers have thrived.
“I didn’t think you could go to the Super Bowl with a tight end as your No. 1 receiver,” said Tony Gonzalez, a CBS Sports analyst who played 17 years in the NFL as a standout tight end. “The Panthers proved me wrong.”
Especially early in Newton’s career, Olsen had to correct the quarterback in the huddle sometimes to make sure the team got lined up in the right formation. Olsen’s father was a longtime high school football coach in New Jersey, and Olsen has always had a fast football mind.
“I don’t think Greg gets a lot of credit for his football awareness,” Newton said Thursday. “He’s extremely good at that. A lot of times on the field, he does a great job with just finding ways to get open ... I scramble and I step up and when he senses that I have trouble, he finds a way to get open. I think that’s a credit to him having the lineage of football expertise in his past being coached by his father.”
No one on the Panthers’ team has a bigger heart than Olsen – his charity work to help families who have children with serious heart problems is exemplary. And no one has better hands, either. He demonstrated them most vividly in the regular season with a diving, game-saving, fourth-down catch against New Orleans and in the postseason with a leaping 19-yard touchdown grab against Seattle. Despite the Panthers’ offensive emphasis on Olsen, he manages to sneak behind the defense for at least a long gain during most games.
Said Gonzalez: “That’s because when you go against the Carolina offense, you have to stop Cam Newton first and you have to stop Cam Newton second. Then you have to stop Jonathan Stewart. You have to stop the run first or you’ll lose the football game ... After that Greg is the fourth option, and that’s why he gets behind defenses ... I guarantee you he gets behind the Denver defense a couple of times this week.”
In his ninth NFL season, this is Olsen’s first shot at a Super Bowl. At some point Sunday, the Panthers are going to need a big third-down conversion. And even though everyone will know the ball is likely going to Olsen, it probably will anyway. It might even be the play that decides the Super Bowl. And if it is, the Panthers would take Olsen as the guy trying to make that catch every time.
“I know in crucial situations when Cam really needs to make a play, I try to be a guy that he can rely on,” Olsen said. “When that huddle breaks, barring a bad look or barring something happening, there’s a good chance that if I get open he’s going to come my way. I take great pride in that. I take great responsibility in being that guy for this team.”
Boasting three straight 70-catch seasons, Greg Olsen now has the top four single-season reception records for Panthers tight ends. In order of receptions, here are the top five seasons in Panthers tight end history.
* Olsen made the Pro Bowl in these two seasons.