When Chris Clark got the call, he was sweaty, exhausted, and over the moon.
And waaaay too short on time.
For those who don’t know him yet — that means fans, but also a number off people within the Carolina Panthers’ own locker room — Clark is the veteran free agent tackle Carolina signed earlier this week after Daryl Williams was placed on injured reserve. He’s 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, and spent the past three seasons as a fill-in starter for the Houston Texans. Before that, he did the same for the Denver Broncos, protecting a five-time NFL Most Valuable Player, Peyton Manning.
But on Tuesday afternoon, after he finished up a workout with the Texans in Houston, Clark got the call from his agent that he’d be responsible for guarding a different former MVP: Cam Newton. And perhaps as a starter, as soon as Sunday in Atlanta against the Falcons.
So there was no time to waste.
“They were like, ‘We need you right now, let’s go,’” Clark said Wednesday. “And I was like, ‘Let’s go!’”
Clark, still fresh off his workout, sped home and basically threw some clothes in a bag. With his wife several months pregnant and two children already in tow, Clark didn’t want to leave his wife without any notice — but once she reassured him she’d be fine, he took off for the airport and the second-fastest flight there was to Charlotte.
Wednesday morning, he signed his papers. By 11 a.m., he was out at practice.
“I told my wife, I said, ‘I’m probably not gonna call you tonight,’” Clark said Wednesday. “So we got it all working, and being able to come here and contribute is going to be huge, man. I’m looking forward to it.”
‘He’s got to get used to the pushing’
Clark’s addition this week was just the most recent shakeup for a constantly shuffling Panthers offensive line.
First, there were the knee injuries to Williams and guard/tackle Amini Silatolu early in training camp that jeopardized their start to the season. That meant second-year tackle Taylor Moton slid into Williams’ vacated right tackle spot, and Greg Van Roten assumed Silatolu’s role at left guard.
Then, soreness in left tackle Matt Kalil’s knee that stemmed from training camp led to an arthroscopic procedure on that knee after the team’s second preseason game. That procedure meant the team ultimately placed Kalil on injured reserve, costing him the first eight games of the season. To remedy that, Moton slid back to left tackle, and backup Jeremiah Sirles went to right tackle .... only for Sirles to subsequently injure his hamstring and eventually be waived with an injury settlement.
By that point, Williams and Silatolu had both made tremendous progress in their rehabilitation, prompting them to rejoin practice.
For Carolina’s season-opener against Dallas, Williams started at right tackle as originally planned ... only to be hit in his rehabbing knee and then be placed on injured reserve.
Phew. It’s a lot to handle.
So the move to add Clark, with his 53 starts in over 100 games, was as much a depth move as a necessity. Rivera said Wednesday that Clark arrived in good shape, but added that there’s only so much readiness for someone missing that live action.
“He’s got to get used to the pushing and shoving and bumping and stuff like that again, but he’s an older vet, too,” Rivera said Thursday. “You’re never really ready until you start playing. That’s why you watch some teams, they don’t start hitting their stride until Week 3, 4, 5.”
Only given Carolina’s predicament on the O-line, there’s no time to wait for Clark to reacquaint himself.
‘Take it and run with it’
Clark said the biggest change for him, naturally, will be the accelerated learning curve that is this Panthers offense.
With scarce depth across the line, Clark will be expected to know the offense and be available Sunday against the Falcons — perhaps even as a starter.
But running back C.J. Anderson, who played with Clark in Denver and signed with the Panthers in May, said Clark is a quick study.
“Everybody learns different, but you would assume anybody who played with Peyton Manning should be able to go pick up any offense in the world,” Anderson said. “He can come to me right now, since I’ve been here since May, just about some of the offensive things we’re trying to catch him up to speed with. So that’s the good thing about it.”
Rivera said Thursday that Clark being left-handed makes him more of a natural left tackle than right, which would suggest he could fill that role with Moton moving back to the right side of the line.
Either way, it’s unusual for a free agent signing to start at left tackle — protecting the quarterback’s blind side — less than a week after he joined the team.
But again, as Rivera and Anderson pointed out, Clark is no average guy. He has starting experience in this league, playoff experience, and there’s a reason the team chose him out of the crop of free agents available.
“I’m gonna prepare as much as I can, as hard as I can. No time off. Just hit it, every time I’m thinking about it, it’s football, football, football,” Clark said. “I’m familiar with some of the calls and I’m dialed in, so that’s gonna help me.”
Something else that might help? Clark’s appreciation for the man he’s protecting.
“I’m excited about getting the chance to play with Cam,” Clark said. “I think that’s huge. Kinda always been something I’ve wanted to do, watching how electrifying he is, and you appreciate a guy like that to block for.”
Come Sunday, Clark will finally get his wish. There’s no nerves, no apprehension. Only the desire to prove Carolina made the right choice.
“Still got the juices flowing,” Clark said, “so I’m gonna take it and run with it.”