Mike Tolbert may not cure all of the ills of the Carolina Panthers’ offense, but he’ll at least be chicken soup for their cold.
The Pro Bowl fullback will return to the lineup Nov. 30 against Minnesota after spending the past eight weeks on injured reserve with a designation to return.
Just how much did the Panthers miss Tolbert? Of all the injuries this season, the Panthers have been able to plug holes at every other position with backups. But with Tolbert, Carolina didn’t add a fullback, in part, because they couldn’t find someone who can do all the things Tolbert can. Instead, they filled the role with blocking tight ends.
“They’ve done a good job,” Tolbert said this week of the tight ends. “They’ve asked me a lot of questions about my angles and (helmet) placement. I try to help out as much as I could, but I’m back now and I’m ready to roll.”
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The 5-foot-9, 245-pound Tolbert gives the Panthers a bruising rusher, a punishing blocker and an added receiving threat out of the backfield. The Panthers’ Swiss Army knife, Tolbert will allow offensive coordinator Mike Shula to open up his playbook a little more.
Tolbert didn’t know how much he meant to the offense until he sat out for the past two months.
“I guess you could call it a compliment,” Tolbert said. “It’s going to be fun being back out there with the guys.”
When Tolbert injured his left knee against Pittsburgh in Week 3, the Panthers used their only designated-to-return spot on him. His 10 rushing yards and 59 receiving yards weren’t nearly the kind of production he had during his Pro Bowl season in 2013, but his hidden value to the offense has become clear.
The Panthers have based their offensive personnel around two running backs. With either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart in the backfield along with Tolbert, quarterback Cam Newton has more options.
He could hand off to one of the two backs on traditional rushes or zone reads, he could use them in play action to have them block defenders, or send Tolbert out of the backfield on a short passing route.
Much like the defense’s options shrinking with the loss of end Greg Hardy this season, something similar has happened with Carolina’s offense, which ranks 24th in the NFL.
Tight ends Ed Dickson and Brandon Williams filled Tolbert’s void, but their primary roles have been blocking.
“Those tight ends – Ed and Brandon – have done a nice job playing that position,” Shula said. “That being said, it’s a little different making those blocks they’re used to making on the line of scrimmage or close to it as opposed to making it with a lot of space before you get there from the I (-formation) position. Mike’s got a lot more experience in doing that. Play action passes off of that are good as well.
“And also you can line him up outside. You wouldn’t ask him to do a lot of deep routes, but he can run little routes that will help you be a little more unpredictable if you just had a normal fullback in there that’s not a really good route runner.”
There won’t be any easing Tolbert back into the flow of things against the Vikings, either. Shula said Tolbert will be full-go during Week 13. Tolbert said he was healthy enough to play against New Orleans three weeks ago but couldn’t because of IR rules.
There are plenty of other woes for the Panthers’ offense: inconsistent offensive line play, injuries to starting running backs, spotty play from Newton and dropped passes by receivers.
But Tolbert’s return will help, especially as the Panthers enter a five-game stretch that will decide if they play in January or finish with a top-10 pick in next year’s draft.
“I wouldn’t say elements have been missing (from the offense), but I definitely bring a different dynamic back there,” Tolbert said. “My tenacity on the field is something I pride myself on, being able to bring a lot of heart and passion to the game.
“And I think my teammates will get some help from that.”
Norman fined: Cornerback Josh Norman was fined $8,268 for his role in a third-quarter scuffle with the Falcons during Carolina’s 19-17 loss last week, according to a source close to Norman. Atlanta receiver Devin Hester told ESPN.com that he was fined the same amount for his part in it.
The ESPN article also said receiver Roddy White was fined for a separate scuffle during the quarter with Carolina defensive end Kony Ealy.
Each player plans to appeal. It’s unclear if other Panthers players were fined.