Scott Fowler

TE Greg Olsen called Panthers’ 1-4 start in 2016. What does he say about 2018?

Tight end Greg Olsen (88) has great intensity — and great hands — on a football field. His return from a foot injury could be big for the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton in 2018.
Tight end Greg Olsen (88) has great intensity — and great hands — on a football field. His return from a foot injury could be big for the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton in 2018. AP

You are not going to find Greg Olsen on the field Thursday night in the Carolina Panthers’ final preseason game.

As usual, Olsen and the rest of the veteran starters will sit this one out, watching instead as Taylor Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert and the rest of the youngsters get to drive the car for one night at Pittsburgh against the Steelers.

“Guys are now looking forward to taking two weeks to get us physically and mentally ready to embark on this long season,” Olsen said. “Obviously it starts with Dallas.”

Yes, it does — the Cowboys come to Charlotte on Sept. 9 for the most anticipated Carolina Panthers season opener in years. And it will also start with a healthy Olsen. After a broken foot limited him to career-low numbers and only seven regular-season games last season, the tight end has looked strong in limited work this August.

“I’ve had as good a camp as I’ve had in I don’t know how long,” Olsen said. “I feel really good.”

Does he also feel a little quicker?

“Well, having the bone healed in my foot helps a lot,” Olsen cracked. “That was a good place to start.”

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Much has been made of the Panthers’ new receiving corps this season. But if Olsen, 33, can play a full season again at near 100 percent, that may be the best news of all for Cam Newton.

The Panthers quarterback has bundled himself inside the Olsen security blanket for years, helping Olsen become the first tight end in NFL history with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons (2014-16). In the run-up to the Super Bowl following the 2015 season, former NFL standout tight end Tony Gonzalez told me: “I didn’t think you could go to the Super Bowl with a tight end as your No. 1 receiver. The Panthers proved me wrong.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) had three straight 1,000-yard receiving yards from 2014-16 but slumped to only 191 yards in an injury-plagued 2017. David T. Foster III

Olsen had started every game for five straight seasons for the Panthers before last year’s foot injury, and the team believes that injury won’t recur. Olsen received a two-year, $17.1 million contract extension before the season began that keeps him locked into the Panthers through the 2020 season.

Olsen will one day undoubtedly be working in an NFL studio or announcing booth somewhere. Olsen has dabbled in TV already and auditioned for the “Monday Night Football” analyst job that Jon Gruden vacated in the offseason. (The job eventually went to another well-spoken, productive former tight end – former Cowboy Jason Witten.)

But the son of a high school football coach is in no hurry to leave the game, especially now that he feels like himself again.

Olsen has seen a lot of Panthers teams now — he joined the team via trade in 2011 in a deal the Chicago Bears have regretted ever since. He likes his new receiving teammates and Norv Turner’s offense, he said, and believes this one has a chance to be special.

“I think we’ve got a shot,” Olsen said. “But then again, everybody thinks they’ve got a shot right now.”

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Olsen isn’t one for sugar-coating. After Carolina’s Super Bowl season, he warned that nothing was guaranteed and that the team could find itself 1-4 and wondering what had gone wrong five games into the next season if things broke wrong. And that’s exactly what occurred. He is matter-of-fact about life in the NFL, whether it is injuries or missed calls (the officials blew one in the New England preseason game last week, he thought, when he slid out of bounds during a two-minute drill but the clock kept running).

“It happens,” Olsen said.

As for Carolina’s preseason itself — which is basically over already for the team’s key players — Olsen cautioned that the team’s 3-0 exhibition record was meaningless.

“You just have to be careful you don’t get too ahead of yourself,” Olsen said. “It’s still the preseason. I’ve been around teams where this time of year you think the world is coming to an end. The sky is falling. And you go out and you play great. And you have other seasons where you think you’re on top of the world and you struggle right out of the gate. I think you just have to take preseason for what it is and know that — until you start playing real games — none of this matters.”

Well put.

Let’s get this last one over with, dismiss whatever happens in the Steelers-Panthers preseason game quickly, and get the Cowboys to Charlotte. It’s almost time.