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‘You’ve played too long to go out like that’: Panthers’ Olsen tries one last comeback

Panthers Greg Olsen is now elder statesman of team

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is now the elder statesman of the team at 34 years old.
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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is now the elder statesman of the team at 34 years old.

Retirement?

Of course Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen thought about it. He had to, really, after seeing both his 2017 and 2018 seasons end on injured reserve due to a broken bone in his problematic right foot.

Olsen, 34, now ranks as the oldest player on the Panthers’ roster, and he says he is “ready to rock” for the 2019 season. But he certainly contemplated retirement after his second straight injury-plagued, substandard season ended last December.

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

That phase didn’t last very long, though, Olsen said. “I think once you make it through that initial pity party, you think you’ve worked too hard, you’ve done too much, and you’ve played too long to go out like that.”

Always prideful in his work, Olsen recited one of his most recent stats with apparent disgust in a separate group interview after a recent Panthers practice.

“Going out with 200 yards would be a tough way to finish,” he said, referring to his 191-yard season in 2017 and his 291 yards in 2018. He missed 16 of a possible 32 games in those years after playing in every single game for the previous nine.

“It’s been a bad two seasons,” Olsen continued. “That’s just the reality of it. It’s been very frustrating. But again, injuries are part of this game. And to go a long time without having to deal with it and then have it all kind of dumped on me at the same time was kind of a real quick change.

“But I’m here now. I feel good…. I haven’t taken as many snaps over the past two years, so maybe that’ll give me a little more juice for this part of my career.”

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen may be the team's elder statesman but he still enjoys the daily grind of the preseason and game.

Newton’s security blanket

The Panthers have had two great tight ends in their 24-season history – Wesley Walls, who made five Pro Bowls while in Charlotte and was just named as one of four new members of the team’s Hall of Honor; and Olsen, who came to Carolina in a trade with Chicago in 2011.

“I used to hold a lot of records with the Panthers,” Walls said with a laugh recently, “until Greg Olsen broke almost all of them.”

The Bears got only a third-round pick from Carolina in return for Olsen and have undoubtedly regretted their decision many times since to trade the tight end in the prime of his career.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, left, joined the team in 2011 just like tight end Greg Olsen did. With Newton as his quarterback, Olsen posted three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2014-16. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Olsen joined the Panthers the same year as a rookie quarterback named Cam Newton. During Olsen’s very first press conference as a Panther, he described the ideal tight end as “kind of a security blanket” for his QB.

Olsen would quickly fill that role with Newton. From 2014-16, Olsen made the Pro Bowl every year and also posted three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons — the first time any NFL tight end had done that.

But Olsen’s standing as an elite NFL tight end has wavered the past two years. Tailback Christian McCaffrey would more aptly be described as Newton’s security blanket now. And while Olsen is fully cleared to participate in practice these days, the Panthers are lessening his offseason workload in hopes of making every step count.

“I’ve just got to stay on the field and hopefully this little bone in my foot doesn’t keep breaking,” Olsen said. “Because other than that, I’m fine.”

Even when Olsen has played the past two years, though, his numbers have dropped considerably (30.1 receiving yards per game in 2017-18 compared to 66.4 yards per game in 2014-16).

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After Ryan Kalil (67), Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis all either retired or change teams following the 2018 season, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) found himself as one of the team’s few remaining leaders over 30. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“We live in a production-based business,” Olsen said. “At the end of my career, when you look back, if I can finish these last years out better than the last two, I’ll be up there with anybody. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Olsen ranks in the top 10 on many of the NFL’s all-time lists for tight ends. He is eighth all-time in reception yardage and needs only 134 yards this year to leapfrog Rob Gronkowski, Jackie Smith and Ozzie Newsome to get to fifth. Olsen is already fifth in receptions among tight ends and eighth in touchdowns.

“I’ve always said there’s a lot more flashy, fun-celebrating (tight ends),” Olsen said. “But when you look at production, I think guys are surprised when you see the names up there.”

A $2.5 million gift

Olsen’s community service contributions to the greater Charlotte area are arguably larger than his ones on the field.

He is a two-time finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Most recently, he and his wife Kara provided Levine Children’s Hospital with a $2.5 million gift from their foundation to help construct a state-of-the-art pediatric cardiovascular and congenital heart outpatient clinic. The Olsens’ son T.J., now 6, was born with a congenital heart defect that required him to have four heart surgeries within the first two years of his life.

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Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, 34, is now the oldest Panther on the roster. Olsen is fifth among all NFL tight ends in career receptions, with 666. Jeff Siner Charlotte Observer file

Of the most recent gift, Olsen said he wanted to make sure that any clinic with his family’s name on it was top-notch. “It took some extra money to house the whole cardiac program,” Olsen said. “That was something we thought we could take on.”

Olsen could fill his time with family, charity work and TV broadcasting (he’s considered a shoo-in for a high-profile analyst role of some sort once he retires). But playing football remains his siren song. His contract runs through the 2020 season and he said the Panthers’ loss in the Super Bowl following the 2015 season still “gnaws” at him.

“I feel like I still have a lot to accomplish in my career,” Olsen said. “The last two years obviously haven’t been the way I’d want to close out a long career… There’s still a lot of things that I’ve set out for 13 years ago that I haven’t been quite able to achieve yet. And I want to go out on my terms -- and feeling satisfied with my ending.”

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.”
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