Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen says he tries to view games through the eyes of quarterback Cam Newton.
That has worked out well for the two since 2011, Newton’s rookie season and Olsen’s first year with Carolina (via a steal of a trade with Chicago). Olsen and Newton largely have been so in-sync, the tight end became the first at his position in history with three consecutive 1,000-yards-plus receiving seasons, from 2014-16.
Newton and Olsen are so reliable for each other that Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons – full of forced throws and miscommunication between the two – looked all the more strange.
“Last week, there were probably a few decisions that I made that weren’t the right ones, and weren’t on the same page,” Olsen said Thursday. “You know, I always try to see the game through the eyes of the quarterback and, you know, sometimes on the fly you have to make the right decisions.”
Newton opened the game 0-for-9, a career- and franchise-worst start, and finished 14-of-34 for 180 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
Olsen came away with one catch on 10 targets, with one target resulting in an interception.
“I think sometimes targets can be misleading. I don’t make too much of one game,” Olsen said. “The reality is, over the last couple of years Cam and I have been more productive than any tight end-quarterback combo in the whole league. So we know what we’re doing, we have a great feel for what each other wants.
“Sometimes things don’t go your way, sometimes you just have one of those days. But we have a lot of confidence in what we’ve been able to do and what we still can do. And we haven’t forgotten how to play. ”
Correcting the anomaly
As much of an anomaly as Sunday’s performance was for Olsen, it matches the rare year he’s had. He broke his foot in Week 2 and spent eight weeks on injured reserve (missing the first games of his career), and sat out of Carolina’s Week 13 matchup against New Orleans out of concern the Superdome turf might aggravate his foot.
Recalibrating his rhythm with Newton has taken some time. Olsen caught nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay, but in the next two games he totaled four catches and 37 yards.
“Well, I think they’ll be OK,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday. “They’ve worked a lot the last few weeks just to get on the same page. Again, Greg was out for awhile and hadn’t really had an opportunity to work, and they’ve got to get that familiarity back.”
For the rest of Carolina’s receiving corps (including rookie running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey), that familiarity can’t come soon enough. Olsen’s presence clarifies the roles for everyone else, and helps open things up for other playmakers, in both the run and the pass.
If Olsen runs an intermediate route, McCaffrey or a slot receiver has the underneath matchup, usually one-on-one. If Olsen stays underneath, deep threats such as Devin Funchess and Kaelin Clay have a better chance of finding vertical space with Olsen clogging things up below them.
“Greg, man, he opens it up for everybody,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “It enables the rest of the offense to kind of have one-on-one matchups, and being able to win those matchups.”
A key to success
After last week, Panthers receivers will take all the help they can get finding space to operate. Funchess, Brenton Bersin, Russell Shepard and Clay had less luck detaching themselves from defensive backs than boats do barnacles, a detriment exacerbated by Newton’s slow start.
Funchess and Bersin led the group in catches with two apiece, on six and four targets, respectively. Funchess also had the lone touchdown of the game, and McCaffrey led the team with five catches for 40 yards.
Olsen missed the Week 3 and the Week 13 matchups against New Orleans this season. His presence can be a difference-maker, teammates say.
“He’s a huge difference,” center Ryan Kalil said. “He’s a guy you’ve got to account for. He’s an every-down player, too.
“I know Greg’s status as a player in this league is a lot of what he does catching the ball and running routes. But he’s a huge part of our run game, and time and time again I see him come down and collapse pretty impressive defensive ends.
“Also, too, his smarts. He does a lot of directing out on the field. ... He’s somebody that is a game-changing type player, especially for our offense.”