Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers seem to have forgotten about fullback Mike Tolbert

Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) is playing only about 25 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, and he’s not producing much when he does get a chance. What gives?
Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) is playing only about 25 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, and he’s not producing much when he does get a chance. What gives? dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

One of Mike Tolbert’s many nicknames is “The Human Bowling Ball,” but he has not been knocking over many pins lately.

The Carolina Panthers have mostly phased their Pro Bowl fullback out of the offense the past three weeks – keeping him on the bench on about three of every four offensive plays.

“Do I think I can help more? Yes,” Tolbert said Wednesday. “But do I really care to play more if we’re winning? No. I just want to win.”

That’s the problem: the Panthers haven’t been winning. They are 1-4 and will limp into New Orleans Sunday on a three-game losing streak.

Tolbert’s lack of productivity has coincided with the team’s. He has never been an every-down back, but he played 29 snaps in each of Carolina’s first two games this season. That has dropped to 17, 14 and 14 snaps over the past three. Even with Jonathan Stewart out recently because of a hamstring injury, Tolbert has barely been able to get on the field.

The Panthers have been mostly going with youngsters Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker. Tolbert has long been valued as a pass-catcher – he had three touchdown receptions in 2015 – but that role has lately been played by Whittaker, too.

When I asked coach Ron Rivera why Tolbert wasn’t a bigger part of the offense Wednesday, he said: “You can point to the fact that Fozzy Whittaker has touched the ball a little bit more. ... Fozzy, because he has shown us ... some things, is getting a few more opportunities with the ball. That’s probably a big part of it.”

Tolbert hasn’t produced, either

Tolbert, who is 30 and a nine-year NFL veteran, has not helped himself by being unproductive when he has touched the ball. He is averaging 2.6 yards per carry in 15 rushing attempts this season and has caught four passes for a total of 13 yards. He doesn’t have a gain longer than 7 yards – run or catch – all season. With numbers like that, you can understand why the Panthers haven’t used him more.

Is Tolbert tailing off that quickly? Or does he need a few more touches to make something happen? I’m honestly not sure.

I think when my number is called, I'm doing a pretty good job. I can't speak for what everybody else thinks. But to be honest, I really don't care what everybody else thinks.

Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert

After all, Tolbert made the Pro Bowl in both 2013 and 2015 with Carolina. At 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds, he has long been a fan favorite because of his end-zone dances and gregarious personality.

Tolbert has always been good near the end zone – he has 44 regular-season TDs over his career – but he has not scored yet this season. The only real headline he has made during the season was the fact that – after a public dispute with a Charlotte auto-repair shop that played out on social media – he decided to pay a $3,900 bill in coins.

As for on the field: “I think when my number is called, I’m doing a pretty good job,” Tolbert said. “I can’t speak for what everybody else thinks. But to be honest, I really don’t care what everybody else thinks.”

Better days ahead?

The fullback means outside the locker room, of course. Tolbert cares plenty about the guys inside it and was happy to get quarterback Cam Newton (concussion) back on the practice field Wednesday.

“It was fun to see your captain, our leader, back on the field,” Tolbert said. “Same bright smile, same energy, same Cameron Jerrell Newton that we all know. ... Whenever you get an MVP-caliber player back on the field, it’s definitely going to lift the team up.”

Tolbert said he is “hurt, just like everybody else” about the way the Panthers’ first five games has gone. But he said he’s not going to stop dancing and that he will continue to showcase his moves in practice along with Newton and some of Carolina’s bigger personalities.

“We still have a good time,” Tolbert said. “We still play the music, we still dance, we still do the things that we love. We’re going to be who we are. Were going to be ourselves. It’s just one of those things where we’ve got to make more plays, and stop the idiotic type of stuff.”

I still feel like Tolbert has a bit more left in his tank, although obviously his career is closer to the end than the beginning. But – like his team – he had better show it quickly or suffer a cruel fate. No one keeps a bowling ball on the shelf just to look at it.

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