For most of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s career, the man snapping the ball to him on every offensive play has been a constant.
Newton called Ryan Kalil “a calming presence” this week, ascribing to Kalil some of the same qualities you might attribute to yoga or meditation.
“It’s hard to explain,” Newton said. “But when (Kalil’s) presence isn’t there? It’s a question mark. ... I don’t care if he’s at 80 percent. ... When you’ve got your guys out there, their presence alone gives a calming to you. Kalil is one of those guys to me.”
When I recited part of Newton’s quote to Kalil – a five-time Pro Bowler who is now 32 years old and in his 11th season – the center chuckled. So, I asked, are you truly a calming presence to Newton?
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“If he says so, I guess so,” Kalil said, still laughing. “I might not be able to block a soul, but maybe I can stick around for a couple of years just being a calming presence.”
‘Just raising the arm’
Kalil has always been able to block, lead and, yes, calm others down when adjustments need to be made on the fly and the play clock is winding toward zero. He has done all of that so well that the Panthers decided to double-dip into the Kalil family tree this offseason, hiring Ryan’s younger brother Matt Kalil to protect Newton’s blind side.
The road back to Week 1 at San Francisco was not easy, however, for the older Kalil brother. So much has been made of Newton’s partially torn rotator cuff surgery in March and that’s understandable – he’s the franchise quarterback.
But Kalil is coming off far more serious shoulder surgery. He missed half of the 2016 season, mostly because he sustained both a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Forget running the offensive line – Kalil couldn’t even pick up his kids without pain.
“It took awhile just raising the arm and doing normal stuff,” Kalil said. “But then to have to block pretty talented defensive tackles, that was another task.”
The Panthers have treated Kalil with kid gloves all year. Like Newton, Kalil played only a single offensive series the entire preseason. He has been assigned “veteran days” with regularity. His contact has been limited. The Panthers have been treating him a little like a vase that is very valuable and liable to break at any second.
All of this has been greeted with a bit of frustration by Kalil, who actually would prefer more work and not less.
“There’s a misconception that the older you get, the fewer reps you need,” Kalil said. “And I think that’s the complete opposite.”
‘They make my job easier’
Kalil has kept himself busy in his free time. He runs on the sideline. He is the commissioner of the Panthers’ ultra-competitive P-I-G indoor basketball league. He is always working on something creative and artsy. Kalil has co-authored a book during his decade-plus with the Panthers, dabbles in movie production and masterminded a star-studded group trip to see “Hamilton” in New York while the acclaimed musical was still being performed by the original cast.
But he still loves his job, and so Sunday was quite a test for him. He only played in one game last season after October, and in that one he got hurt badly enough that he was shut down for the rest of the year. Kalil has already more than tripled the average NFL career; he knows there is no guarantee of anything at this point.
Sunday was mostly very good for Kalil and his cohorts in Carolina’s 23-3 victory. The Panthers’ offensive line didn’t allow Newton to get sacked a single time. It blocked well enough that Carolina ran the ball for 13 straight plays at the end of the game to bleed the final 8:48 off the clock without ever giving up possession.
“I play next to two of the best guards in the league,” Kalil said, speaking of Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. “Regardless of my status, those guys make me look a lot better than I really am. They make my job a lot easier, so playing with those two guys, it’s like nothing ever happened.”
‘Dusting off the cobwebs’
There were occasional chinks in the armor, though. Kalil misfired on one snap to Newton – coach Ron Rivera said Kalil was trying to get into his block too quickly on the play. That resulted in a fumble, which Carolina recovered. Kalil also had to leave the game briefly – he said his ankle got “rolled up on” and his shoe came off on the play. Rivera also said Kalil seemed out of breath at one point early in the game on an unseasonably warm day in northern California.
By the end, though, it seemed like vintage Kalil. He was shepherding his younger brother and the other three starting linemen – all of whom are at least four years younger than he is – into the proper protections and making his own blocks with authority.
“I think there was a little bit of dusting off the cobwebs, but once the game was going on, I started feeling more comfortable and having some of that muscle memory come back,” Kalil said.
Can that happen every week? Can Kalil make it through an entire season? The Panthers sure hope so. They keep being careful. Rivera gave the center another “vet day” on Wednesday, prescribing more rest.
Said Rivera, who also frequently gives “vet days” to defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Thomas Davis and a couple of other key players in their 30s: “It’s one of those things where you get a savvy vet like that, it’s more like managing and maintaining. … You’ve got to maintain them. Keep an eye on them. Manage them throughout the year.”
So far, so good with Kalil. But Buffalo will be a different type of test, with Bills head coach Sean McDermott knowing how to attack all aspects of the Panthers’ offense after doing it for six years in practice as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. Kalil said there definitely will be a “cat-and-mouse game” within the game itself Sunday, as each side tries to outsmart the other.
He’s just glad to be a part of it, though. Kalil has such an active mind he will never be short of things to do. But he missed football.
The center doesn’t know how much longer he will be able to play. Maybe five games. Maybe five years. But Kalil hopes the end is still a long way down a very calm road.