Carolina Panthers

Panthers lose two offensive starters to injury in season-opening win. So... now what?

Chris Manhertz recognized that look the second he saw Greg Olsen.

It was nearing the end of the first quarter of Carolina’s eventual 16-8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, and here came Olsen limping to the sideline. Olsen missed eight games last season with a Jones fracture in his right foot, and now — less than 15 minutes into the Panthers’ 2018 season, after a standout offseason where he appeared fully healthy — it appeared he had re-injured the same surgically repaired foot.

And Manhertz knew exactly what was up the second he saw Olsen limping off the field.

“Just the look in his face, man, he looked a little disappointed and defeated,” Manhertz said. “It sucks. How would you feel if you hurt the same foot two times in a row?

“It’s not something I want to get used to.”

Olsen ultimately left the game and did not return, instead re-emerging after halftime with a walking boot on that right foot and a pair of crutches to help him walk.

But unfortunately for Carolina, Olsen wasn’t the only offensive starter the team lost on Sunday. Right tackle Daryl Williams, who tore the MCL and dislocated the patella in his right knee during training camp in July, was carted off after an injury to the same knee in the fourth quarter.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) leaves the team’s season-opener against the Cowboys with a foot injury. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Coach Ron Rivera said postgame he had no updates on either injured starter, but added that he knew Williams’ injury was not a “re-injury.”

As for Olsen’s and Williams’ teammates? Well, the struggle was dealing with the emotions of losing a peer while simultaneously leaning into that “next man up” mentality the team so often preaches.

“You guys know how I feel about Greg, and you can’t ever replace him — just his professionalism that he brings to this game and his overall outlook and IQ and understanding,” quarterback Cam Newton said, “but in a way, Ian has been being prepared for this moment.”

It’s true — Newton, along with Rivera and Olsen himself, have sung Ian Thomas’ praises ever since the team selected him in the fourth round of this year’s NFL Draft. His athleticism, his willingness to block, those strong hands and a quick-developing penchant for route-running ... all the skills that made Thomas so attractive as a prospect also make him intriguing as Olsen’s replacement.

Rather, it’s a question of how a rookie who just finished his first professional game feels about replacing someone as beloved and valuable to this offense as Olsen.

“I feel like I’m getting there,” Thomas said. “I still have a couple of things to improve on, but it’ll get better and better as the season goes on.”

Thomas noted all the small things he intends to hone in on in the coming weeks — better learning Newton’s audibles, developing chemistry with the offensive tackles next to him, further memorizing Norv Turner’s offense — but also how: by continuing to learn from Olsen, as he did on the sidelines Sunday.

Not that Olsen would offer anything less than his full support.

“That’s just the leader in him. That’s in his DNA,” Manhertz said of Olsen’s willingness to tutor his teammates. “That’s what he does. He’s a very selfless person, and regardless of what he’s going through, he’s trying to ensure that we’re on point and doing our jobs at a high level.”

Manhertz knows well the pain of a Jones fracture, considering he suffered the same injury earlier this summer that forced him to miss most of training camp. But it doesn’t take that firsthand experience to see the pain in a teammate’s eyes.

“Whenever you see someone down and you play long enough, you know when someone’s really hurting,” receiver Torrey Smith said. “I mean that’s just what it was. You can tell certain things based on the glares and the type of pain they take all the time, so you know it hurts.”

Now, the trick for Carolina is two-fold: support their injured friends emotionally, making sure they remain a part of the team — but also prepare the next line of players, from Thomas to Manhertz to whoever fills Williams’ void at tackle, for next weekend’s divisional game against the Falcons.

“You know, it sucks,” Manhertz said. “But it’s the reality of things.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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