Because injuries are inevitable, every good NFL team must have at least a couple of “where the heck did this guy come from?” sorts of stories.
The Panthers have one of those at left tackle, where Chris Clark has stepped into one of the toughest positions in football and played it with aplomb for two straight weeks.
“I’m just trying to do what I need to do as an offensive tackle, and that’s keep Cam (Newton) upright and blocking for our running backs,” Clark said. “As long as I can do those things effectively, I’ll have a job.”
Having a job is nothing to take for granted, as Clark knows. He didn’t have one this season until injuries bombarded Carolina’s offensive line, including one to left tackle Matt Kalil. His arthroscopic knee surgery means the younger Kalil brother is out at least through Carolina’s first eight games.
In stepped Clark, who is making less than a tenth of Kalil’s salary. Clark has played 134 out of 134 offensive snaps over the past two games, impressing everyone with how quick a study he has been.
“I met him Wednesday; he started Sunday,” Newton said after Clark’s first game. “He played his a-- off.”
Clark, 32, once played tackle for Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos. With all the audibles that Manning called at the line, he had to be ready for anything. Said running back C.J. Anderson, once a teammate with Clark in Denver: “You would assume anybody who played with Peyton Manning should be able to go pick up any offense in the world.”
With the Panthers, Clark is getting a lot of help. Left guard Greg Van Roten, in particular, has talked with Clark before each play and the two have publicly announced who they are blocking at the line to make sure there is no miscommunication.
“That’s how it’s going to be,” Clark said. “We don’t care if you know we’re going at you. … We don’t need to be sneaky. We’re O-line. We’re gritty. We’re grimy.”
With 53 NFL starts before he got to Carolina, Clark figured he would get a job somewhere at some point in 2018. He had three workouts before the Panthers called him and offered what was reportedly a one-year, $915,000 contract. Clark threw some clothes into a suitcase, told his pregnant wife in Houston goodbye and got on a plane.
What is one thing he has learned since he arrived? Clark said it’s about Newton.
“I didn’t know from outside looking in that he works so hard — early mornings, late nights,” Clark said. “I’m here until 7 or 8 o’clock learning the playbook and he’s still here at times. ... He’s really a true leader, man. From the outside looking in, people might not feel that. But I see why he’s the head of this franchise. He’s got the juice.”
Clark doesn’t know everyone’s name yet. When asked about another one of the team’s feel-good stories — defensive end Efe Obada — he first looked at the questioner blankly. Then, after some further explanation, Clark brightened and said “Oh, 9-4!” referring to Obada’s number.
Clark did allow one sack against the Bengals, when Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap circled around him and strip-sacked Newton. The fumble was recovered by Newton, so not much harm was done.
“You can’t be perfect,” Clark said. “You try really hard. ... He got the best of us on one play. But I mean — one out of a million, man?”
Well, not one out of a million. But it was Clark’s only really bad play out of 67 offensive snaps in the Bengals game. And after all the tumult on their offensive line, the Panthers will take that sort of ratio at left tackle any day.