Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday tight end Greg Olsen’s availability for the week depended on an early-week check-up.
So far, so good.
The three-time Pro Bowl tight end was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice as he makes his return from a fractured right foot — the same injury that limited him to a career-low seven games in 2017. The 12 combined games he’s missed over the past two seasons are more than double the five games he’d missed during his professional and collegiate career before last season.
“It felt good to be back out there again,” Olsen said. “I’ve missed more practice in the last 12 months than I have in a long time, but it feels good to be back out there. You realize that you still enjoy it, you still realize how fun it is to prepare for another game, prepare for another team, be out there with the guys.
“I would’ve preferred not to have it in a driving rainstorm, but other than that, I think it was a pretty solid first day.”
For a player accustomed to all the work he can handle on the field, these past two seasons have been a clinic on how to operate off it. His streak of three straight 1,000-yard seasons came to an abrupt halt in 2017, forcing him into a new role for the bulk of the season, mentoring players such as Chris Manhertz and Ian Thomas from the sideline instead of by example.
Rivera said Olsen transitioned seamlessly into a sideline leadership position, displaying the same character Manhertz has seen since joining the team in 2016.
“Greg has always been a leader on and off the field, whether he’s been out there or not,” Manhertz said. “While me and Ian have been filling in the void over the past few weeks, he’s done a tremendous job staying in the loop and helping us. ...He’s been like that since the first day I got here and I don’t see that stopping.”
“It’s been a lot of sideline cheering, a lot of yelling at the referees, a lot of standing up for your guys,” Olsen said. “I’m finally glad that I can get back on the field and do less of that.”
The 12th-year veteran hopes to return to an offense in need of production through the air; Carolina ranks 25th in the NFL in passing yards per game, which should improve with the additions of Olsen and second-year wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
Quarterback Cam Newton said he and the Panthers won’t let the media control that narrative, and even though “the band is back,” it’s still up to the team to make the necessary improvements.
Newton might, however, let Olsen control the huddle.
“He means a lot to (the offense) just as much as (Thomas Davis) means to the defense. He’s a very intellectual person that helps me out with playcalling,” Newton said. “I call him the dictator in the huddle because I really have problems with calling plays, even in year eight. He kind of helps me, and his playmaking ability on the field is just second to none.
“Having Greg back, keeping him healthy along with the talent we already have — it poses a lot of problems for the opposing team.”
By all accounts, Olsen appears poised to return for Sunday’s game at Washington. Rivera said the Pro Bowler was his “typical,” albeit cautious self during Wednesday’s practice, but the team won’t make any assumptions until it can assess how Olsen feels Thursday morning.
Olsen insists he won’t step onto the field until he’s confident he can play up to his standards, but just seeing his favorite target out there again is too appealing for Newton to leave Olsen’s health solely in the team’s trainers’ hands.
This could require additional help.
“When I’m saying my own prayers, I’m going to start saying a prayer for Greg too, because he can’t go out no more,” Newton said. “Just start saying an individual prayer for Greg. Or, I’m going to have my grandma pray for him, because you know she prays a lot. Shout out to Hattie Lou Newton.”
If the band is indeed back as Newton quipped Wednesday, Panthers fans may want to send a quick thank you to Hattie Lou.
Marcel Louis-Jacques: @Marcel_LJ