The Carolina Panthers reported for training camp Wednesday on a day so hot that it was natural to think about rest.
Tight end Greg Olsen will be warning his teammates against that thought throughout the 95-degree days in Spartanburg, however. He believes the so-called “Super Bowl hangover” is a real thing. And if the Panthers don’t guard well against the tendency to rest a little on their NFC championship a year ago? Then by mid-October, in Olsen’s words, the Panthers could “find ourselves 1-4 asking, ‘What’s going on?’”
Olsen doesn’t believe that will happen, and as one of the team’s returning captains and best players he intends to be vigilant in watching for signs of complacency. But he has seen a very good team turn into a mediocre one before.
Carolina’s Pro Bowl tight end played as a rookie for a Chicago Bears team that had been to the Super Bowl – and lost it – only months before Olsen got there in the 2007 draft. Then, in Olsen’s rookie season, the Bears didn’t even make the playoffs with much the same cast.
That sort of thing has happened over and over in the NFL. Since the Panthers joined the NFL in 1995, not a single team that has lost in the Super Bowl has even made it back to the big game the next year.
The 2003 Panthers were among those failures. They lost to New England in that season’s Super Bowl and then began the 2004 season even worse than Olsen’s worst-case scenario – not 1-4, but 1-7. Those Panthers ended up recovering a little, but finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs.
Olsen was asked to explain why the Buffalo Bills of the mid-1990s were the last team to lose a Super Bowl and then get back there the very next year on Wednesday.
“From a human instinct perspective, you kind of rest on your laurels,” he said. “We’ve identified that from Day One. ... We’re going to build that platform. If we are not willing to do those things – and we think we are just going to show up Week 1 and rattle off 14 wins in a row like we did last year just because we’re the same guys in the same uniforms – we’re going to find ourselves in a bad spot. That’s just not the way this league works.”
Olsen is entering his 10th season. Training camp is old hat to him. He doesn’t much like leaving his wife and kids for three weeks but understands the benefits of the team traveling 75 miles to Wofford College each year for a bonding session that is low on distraction and high on football.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Olsen said shortly after he reported Wednesday. “I think everyone’s anxious for the season to get started – a new year, a new kind of beginning. We always say Spartanburg is probably the hottest place on the planet for the next three weeks.”
‘A collective effort’
The offensive starters should stay basically intact from a year ago, with the nice exception that wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin should be fully healed from the knee injury that made him miss all of 2015. “We’re fortunate we’re bringing back a No. 1-caliber wide receiver,” Olsen said.
Assuming no injury setbacks, Benjamin will start. In 2014, the only season Benjamin and Olsen played together, each had exactly 1,008 yards receiving.
In 2015, without Benjamin, quarterback Cam Newton was able to spread the ball around beautifully. Olsen had a career-high 1,104 yards, but Newton was able to distribute the ball so well that Carolina also led the NFL in total points.
Olsen expects the Carolina passing game this season to look more like 2015 than 2014, even with Benjamin’s return. “It’s going to be a collective effort,” Olsen said. “We don’t go into a game saying we’ve got to force-feed one guy the ball 20 times like a lot of other teams have to do.”
Olsen, 31, filled his offseason with a number of unique experiences. He was a guest star in an episode of Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” He and center Ryan Kalil took their wives on a quick weekend trip to New York to see the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and meet its creator. His superb charitable foundation continued raising money in a variety of ways for Levine’s Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. He went to Baltimore to work out with Newton and a number of other Panthers receivers and tight ends. During the between-practice volleyball games the teammates played, Olsen smiled and said he was the best player.
Now all of that is over, though, and Olsen is back to doing the hard work that allowed him to do all those things in the first place. Training camp may bore him at times – Olsen knows the plays so well that Newton has mentioned numerous times that the tight end will correct play calls when needed in the huddle – but he understands it is a necessity.
‘We missed our shot’
As for the Super Bowl, Olsen watched it on the plane flight back from California in February and hasn’t watched it since.
“Anybody in the Panthers world would have loved to run it back and start over but that’s not how football works,” Olsen said. “We got one shot. We missed our shot.”
But with a new training camp comes a new season. The Panthers have their first practice Thursday – which will also be exactly six weeks before Carolina plays at Denver Sept. 8 in the NFL’s prime-time season opener.
“Of course that’s what everyone’s going to want to talk about, getting ready for Denver and the rematch of the Super Bowl,” Olsen said. “To be honest with you guys, so much needs to happen between now and then.”
Six weeks to get ready. It doesn’t sound like very much time anymore.