In 2013, the Carolina Panthers went 12-4. In 2014, they went 7-8-1, won the NFC South and won a playoff game at home – man, this feel like a long time ago – against the quarterback depleted Arizona Cardinals.
What went wrong in ’14? The Panthers let wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. go. They told him to go. The move attracted considerable attention. Also, almost in the shadow of Smith, they lost left tackle Jordan Gross. His loss devastated the Panthers.
You’d see Gross work with the younger offensive linemen, which by 2013 was almost everybody, on technique. He worked even with the players that had little chance to make the team.
Gross was good, very good, and we knew that. But I don’t think we appreciated the extent to which his absence would hurt the team.
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This season will be the last for Ryan Kalil, 33, the same age Gross was when he walked. The pending retirement, maybe after this season, maybe not, of linebacker Thomas Davis has attracted more attention than Kalil’s. Linebacker is flashier than center. Setting a pick as an NBA center is flashier than playing center in the NFL.
If this season is Davis’ last, he will be missed on Sundays, on the practice field and in the locker room. So will Kalil. Like Gross and Davis and, until he was jettisoned, Smith, the Panthers are the only team for which Kalil has played.
Kalil is a technician. He’s probably bigger than you are, but at 6-2 and 300 pounds, he’s not as big as most of the players he’s charged with stopping. Like Gross, Kalil leads. Like Gross, he shares what he knows.
Coaches tell you what to do, and I don’t care where John Matsko, the running game coordinator and de facto offensive line coach, stands. Players hear him. Offensive linemen might be understated, but their coaches rarely are.
If the player next to you on the offensive line, or the player you back up, takes time to show you a move or technique, you will especially listen. Kalil knows, he gets it, and he’s proven it. Last season, Kalil was limited to six games because of a neck injury.
I hope he’s healthy this season. Like Davis, Kali is a player you want on the field and in the locker room. A second-round draft pick out of Southern California, Kalil is a player you want to go out in style, which means he’s on the field, calling formations and shifts, protecting the quarterback, opening holes, and doing what he has the last 11 seasons. He’ll be missed.