Toward the end of his interview on Sunday, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was asked for the best way to recover quickly before playing yet another game on Thursday.
“Don’t be 33,” Olsen cracked.
The fact he has to prepare to play another game in a few days would fall under the category of good problems to have for the 33-year-old Olsen, who was superb Sunday in Carolina’s 42-28 win over Tampa Bay. Olsen scored a touchdown for the third straight game – this time with a one-handed, twisting catch in the end zone – and snagged every one of the six balls quarterback Cam Newton aimed at him.
“I just try to catch em all - like Pokémon,” Olsen said.
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Pokémon’s “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” catchphrase does seem applicable to Olsen. His re-emergence in the team’s offense over the past month hasn’t been as flashy as all those reverses the team runs, but it has been just as important as Carolina preps for a difficult road game Thursday night at Pittsburgh.
Olsen re-fractured his foot in the season opener against Dallas, and initial reports made it sound like he might miss half the season. Panthers fans cringed, remembering that Olsen’s streak of three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons ended in 2017 due to a Jones fracture in his right foot that limited him to only seven games and caused career lows in every major receiving category.
But Olsen didn’t need surgery this time and missed only three games. On Sunday, he looked faster and more confident than he has all year while posting a season high in receiving yardage (76).
“I feel like the last couple of weeks have been like a general ramp-up,” Olsen said. “Getting my legs under me, my ability to get in and out of breaks, to move the way I want to, to cut the way I want to without thinking about it. I knew that was going to take me a little time.”
Gradually, Olsen has returned to form while Carolina’s offense has picked up the pace, scoring 36 and 42 points in the past two games.
“Look at our box score after the game,” Olsen said. “It’s a really long list of guys who touched the ball. ...Our offense is not designed for one guy to catch 12-15 balls. We’re at our best when everybody takes their turn. ...The last three drives for touchdowns in the Philadelphia game (when Carolina overcame a 17-0 deficit and Olsen scored the game-winning touchdown) – that’s the epitome of every guy doing their part.”
Olsen should reap some benefits in the second half of the season, too, because Carolina’s speed on the outside now must be accounted for by defensive coordinators. No longer can you double-team Olsen in the middle of the field – as teams have done on and off for years – without worrying much about paying for it on the edge.
Olsen said Carolina’s current collection of hybrid weaponry on the offense is the most dynamic he’s seen in his eight years in a Panthers uniform, although all that speed does have its downside. For instance, on Curtis Samuel’s 33-yard run on a double reverse Sunday – well, let Olsen describe that one for you.
“Those guys are so fast, they run all over the place - it’s exhausting blocking for them,” Olsen said. “It was a double reverse left. I was blocking. ...So the play’s going the other way. Then all of a sudden, it comes back to you. I tried to get out in front of Curtis. That didn’t obviously go as planned. So I tried not to block the guy in the back, and I ended up just falling down.”
That’s true. While Samuel scored standing up, Olsen tumbled into the end zone while trying to unsuccessfully make a block that Samuel didn’t need. It wasn’t No. 88’s most graceful moment.
The gracefulness would come on the 17-yard TD pass, a play Olsen and Newton had repped in practice against the very same “Cover 2” coverage that Tampa Bay employed. Olsen really wouldn’t be able to create separation on the play, Newton knew, because of the defensive alignment. So the plan was to throw it high and slightly behind Olsen. Either Olsen would catch it, or no one would.
“I got a little twisted around on my feet, so I didn’t spin as fast as I would have liked to,” Olsen said. This meant that instead of getting two hands on the ball he could only get one. Nevertheless, Olsen tipped the ball to himself and caught it falling down. And he did so, the tight end pointed out later, with “non-sticky gloves.”
“I don’t wear the sticky gloves, so you can add that to the story,” Olsen said. “I wear a composite non-stick glove.” He said this is because he doesn’t like the feel of the stickier gloves when they get wet.
Catches with ‘kitchen gloves’
Newton said later he doesn’t care what type of glove Olsen wears, nor about any of the rest of Olsen’s equipment. He just cares about the tight end’s hands.
Said Newton, referring to Olsen by one of his nicknames: “Mr. Reliable – it doesn’t matter what you wear. If he goes out there naked. ... I’m a big fan of Greg Olsen. He’s done so much for me and I just know when that ball goes in the air, he’s coming down with it a high percentage of the time. I don’t care if he wears sticky gloves, un-sticky gloves, latex gloves, small gloves, big gloves, kitchen gloves – he’d catch it.”
Newton does have one more request of Olsen, however. And perhaps this can be accomplished in the second half of this season, given how creative the Panthers have been on offense lately.
Newton has long desired to catch a touchdown pass in the NFL.
“I’d love to get one from Greg,” Newton said. “Wouldn’t that be sweet? That would be ironic, huh?”
Yes it would be. And if the Panthers have that play in their playbook, I believe I know the team they need to save it for: New Orleans.