Go down the list of starters along the Panthers’ offensive line this season and you’ll see at least two different names along each position except one.
There have been two left tackles, two right tackles, three left guards and three right guards. But for all 16 games there has been only one center.
Eight-year veteran Ryan Kalil has been the one constant along a Carolina offensive line that has struggled with injuries and subpar performances. The four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro has weathered eight different starting combinations this season.
Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals, the Panthers are slated to start the same offensive line for the fifth consecutive week after battling injuries and finding the right players. Without Kalil’s consistency, the Panthers might not be in the playoffs.
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“He really, from the beginning of the offseason, has taken on the responsibility of the leadership and the communication and has really helped those guys,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “It’s always hard when you have different guys in there. Everybody looks up to Ryan, and he leads.”
Kalil isn’t a rah-rah type of guy, as many of his teammates and coaches have said in recent weeks. But after the retirement of vocal left tackle Jordan Gross last offseason, and three other veteran offensive linemen, Kalil was thrust into a leadership role.
That started in training camp when he became the longest-tenured Panther on the offensive line. He worked closely with rookie guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell even though he would start the season with third-year guard Amini Silatolu and veteran Fernando Velasco on either side of him.
“He’s been a leader in the offensive line room for I don’t know how long,” said Norwell, an undrafted rookie. “He gives me advice every day. That really means a lot to me because he’s looking out for me and wants me to be successful at the right time. Being a leader of the offensive line, being the center, making the calls and making sure we go the right way, that’s a tough job. He’s great at it.
“He’s someone to look up to. He’s definitely a leader every day.”
Through the first six games of the season, the Panthers were 3-2-1, had started just two different offensive lines and had allowed 13 sacks. The line wasn’t great, but with Kalil’s experience and talents, it held up.
Then came the injuries.
Starting in Week 7 at Green Bay and continuing for nearly two months, the Panthers started a different offensive line in six consecutive games.
Left tackle Byron Bell missed a game, guard Andrew Norwell took over on the left side, then the right, then back to left. Right tackle Nate Chandler went to the injured reserve with a leg injury.
Carolina lost those six games and allowed 25 sacks. The Panthers struggled to keep Cam Newton upright and open holes for the running backs. The line took the brunt of the blame from fans, media and football analytics sites, and it reached a peak in Week 10 in Carolina’s 45-21 loss to Philadelphia on Monday Night Football.
Newton was sacked a career-high nine times as Ron Rivera left him in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Upon the ninth sack, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden noticed Newton grimacing as he jogged off the field.
“I worry about him,” Gruden said in a forlorn tone.
Fullback Mike Tolbert, whose blocking was deeply missed when he went on temporary injured reserve, said in December that the criticism ticked off Kalil.
“You know you’re doing your job when no one’s talking about you,” Kalil said. “I think the frustrating thing is we just have a really good room and guys who are really talented and care and want to win. So it’s frustrating when we worked hard every week and we weren’t getting the results we wanted.
“It’s frustrating when the conversations are set up as if it’s not important when it’s the complete opposite. That’s what frustrates me. I’m a realist. I think there are games we deserve the blame, and I think there are games we don’t. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is us staying consistent and staying together and working toward the common goal.”
Communication along the offensive line is paramount. Kalil diagnoses the defensive front and calls out the protections, and the two guys on each side of him must work in concert.
Norwell has proven to be one of the best undrafted rookie free agents signed by the Panthers post-draft, and Turner has gotten better in his rookie season while battling injuries. Carolina found its best option at right tackle off the St. Louis practice squad with Mike Remmers, who signed with the team two months ago.
Although the line’s play improved when positions were settled, Kalil downplayed the importance of continuity.
“It’s not as difficult as you want to make it out to be,” Kalil said. “I think in the NFL, continuity is something that is helpful, but it’s not the end all. In a league where injuries are so prevalent, you’re used to guys moving in and out. Even last year when we won 12 games, we had (five) guards who were rotating in and out.
“The hard thing, looking at this season, is when you’re not playing well offensively, you try to pinpoint exactly what it is. There are so many moving parts it’s hard to have exactly one answer. I know it’s frustrating for (the media) and us when we come and talk on Mondays after losses about what happened and we don’t have a single answer why something happened.”
Panthers offensive line coach John Matsko said the gold standard for center play is Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center with the Steelers who was a nine-time All-Pro selection.
Matsko believes Kalil has met that standard in the four years Matsko has been the offensive line coach.
“We did it because of Ryan Kalil. That’s the answer to that,” Matsko said. “He’s at that standard. Consistent performer day-in and day-out. You get a gameday performance out of this guy every single day. Every day is Sunday to him. He’s the very best at walk-throughs, meetings and on the field.”
In the past four games – all wins – the Panthers have allowed five sacks, the fewest of any four-game stretch all season.
But the foul stretch of the 2014 season is still fresh in the minds of players. They recall the struggles of the offensive line, and tight end Greg Olsen is thankful the team had Kalil to get through it.
“Without Kalil for that stretch, it would have been tough,” Olsen said. “If you’re going to have one consistent guy, having a Pro Bowl center is a good place to start. He’s as good as there is in the league, both performance wise and his ability to set points and protection schemes in the run game and pass game. He’s invaluable.”