Scott Fowler

Fowler: If Greg Olsen wants to be part of the Panthers’ future, he better not break his foot again

In the final episode of the “All or Nothing” Amazon Prime documentary on the Carolina Panthers, tight end Greg Olsen began to talk about the frustration of his past two seasons.

“In my 12 years, this has been the worst stretch of football I’ve ever been a part of,” Olsen said. “Sometimes when you struggle as a team, everyone starts to look to the future. And a 34-year-old tight end with a broken foot — twice — may or may not be in the future.”

That is reality in 2019 for Olsen. He enters the twilight of his career attempting to make one last stand on that twice-broken right foot.

Olsen is now the Panthers’ oldest player. Most of his peers — fellow veterans and perennial team captains like Ryan Kalil, Thomas Davis and Julius Peppers — have left the team. One day, Olsen undoubtedly will jump into a TV booth and do extremely well in his second career.

But Olsen doesn’t want to do that yet (he’s under contract through 2020). He’s had a bad taste in his mouth after the past two seasons.

At one point in his career, Olsen played every single game for nine straight years. But he missed 16 out of a possible 32 games in 2017 and 2018.

In 2014-16 for Carolina, Olsen became the first NFL tight end ever to hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark for three consecutive seasons. He hasn’t gotten to 300 yards since.

After playing every game for nine straight years, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has missed 16 of the past 32 games due to breaking a bone in his foot on two different occasions. Jeff Siner

When asked what he wants to do this season, Olsen is prone to answer instead with what he wants not to do.

“I can’t break my foot,” Olsen told reporters shortly after arriving at training camp at Wofford College this week. “That’s really been the only thing that’s ever prevented me from being productive.

“.At times last year, I was very productive … (But) it wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t great running around with a foot half off. If I can stay healthy — specifically, if my foot continues to be as good as it has been the last couple of months — I know what I’m able to do.”

The future looms

Olsen has long been Cam Newton’s security blanket. The two came to Charlotte in 2011 — Olsen via trade with Chicago, Newton via the No. 1 overall draft pick — and quickly realized their connection would be a win-win. Newton has converted innumerable third-down passes because of Olsen’s incredible hands, and Olsen has had the best years of his career because of the trust that the quarterback places in him.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen hug during Day 2 of training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., on Friday. They arrived together in Charlotte in 2011 and combined for three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons for Olsen from 2014-16. Jeff Siner

But the future is coming. The Panthers drafted tight end Ian Thomas in 2018, and he had a few nice moments as a rookie. Chris Manhertz, another young tight end, made a spectacular grab in double coverage Thursday night of a Newton deep ball in Carolina’s first training camp practice. They both are far cheaper options than Olsen.

But when he’s at his best, Olsen can still make a case for being one of the top five tight ends in the NFL. The Panthers won’t easily give that up, nor should they.

There’s a place carved out in Charlotte for Olsen to make this last stand — not because he’s great in the community, not because he’s funny, but because he’s still a heck of a football player. Watch him in practice, even now. The foot will always be a concern, but the hands are as remarkable as they’ve always been.

‘You’re tired of hurting’

Olsen told me recently that he actually considered retiring after breaking his foot again in 2018.

“That’s always your rash decision,” Olsen said. “You’re exhausted. You’re tired of going through it. You’re tired of hurting.”

But then he reconsidered. “I think once you make it through that initial pity party,” he said, “you think you’ve worked too hard, you’ve done too much and you’ve played too long to go out like that.”

Still, there’s no ignoring that Olsen is in the fourth quarter of his NFL career.

During another segment of “All or Nothing,” Newton says of Olsen: “The hourglass is getting low, for even Greg.” And that quote came before Olsen broke his right foot for a second time.

Olsen has put in the work — again — to rehab his injury. He looks like himself — just as he did in 2018 — in training camp.

“I’ve been 100 percent for months now,” Olsen said. “My training’s been great. My offseason’s been great.”

Then he paused for a moment and said his training had been “great last year” as well. What he left unsaid but remained clear is this: There are no guarantees.

If he’s healthy for 16 games, Olsen will likely be second on this Panthers’ team in catches (trailing only Christian McCaffrey) and flirt with 1,000 receiving yards again. But he also has an injury history that is as problematic in its own way as Cam Newton’s shoulder. A tight end who can’t run simply can’t play, no matter if 99 percent of his body feels fine.

“I know what I’m capable of doing,” Olsen said.

He just hopes that this time — for the first time in three years — he has a full season’s worth of chances to show it.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”