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‘Fall into obscurity?’ Greg Olsen hated the idea. Now he’s back, essential as any Panther

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Greg Olsen isn’t one to mope about time lost. This isn’t one of those things where he’s tracking the days, hours, minutes back to when he began unraveling.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t remember.

“This is the furthest I’ve made it into the season in three years,” Olsen said after the Panthers’ 38-20 win over the Cardinals.

It’s true. Olsen, the only tight end in history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, went from that record-setting pace to ... nothing. Each of the past two years, he’s suffered a debilitating food injury in Week 1. Each of the past two years, he missed at least seven games — he’d never missed more than three since his first season in Charlotte in 2011. Each of the past two years, there was pain. There was false optimism, all flushed out when a tiny stinkin’ bone in his foot just wouldn’t heal itself.

Each of the past two years, there was doubt.

“I’ve always felt, if I could just get that foot right, not play with a broken foot ...” Olsen said, his voice trailing off. “You know, it’s hard. I don’t know if you guys know that. It’s hard. Like it’s not ideal to play with your foot busted.

“So I knew if I could get healthy and get back, I knew I could still play. I knew what I could do.”

And let this be known: Olsen had chances to leave. Chances, like plural. There were broadcasting jobs up the wazoo, including the highly coveted “Monday Night Football” job that Jason Witten vacated this offseason when he un-retired. All Olsen had to do was turn in his pads, his playbook and go.

He didn’t.

Sunday was validation of that choice.

Against the Cardinals — who allowed a tight end to gain at least 110 yards and a touchdown in each of their first two games — Olsen looked like the pre-injury version of himself. Now the Panthers’ oldest player at 34, there was no struggling to run downfield or wincing with each heavy-footed step.

It was just normal. And when you’ve been decidedly not normal for so long, there’s no telling how gratifying that feeling is.

“Today, I felt like finally I could run and separate and not be caught in my own head of being in pain. Just go out and play,” Olsen said. “I haven’t had that in a long time. Since 2016, I haven’t played a game where I felt normal. And it’s nice.

“It’s a lot easier to play when you’re not a disaster.”

“Not a disaster” is about the furthest thing from what Olsen was Sunday. He led the team in catches (six), yards (75), touchdowns (two), and even tied for the lead in targets (seven). That’s a vintage performance, and it couldn’t have come at a more essential time.

With Olsen’s longtime friend Cam Newton still nursing an injured left foot, Olsen came trotting out with a second-year undrafted backup quarterback, Kyle Allen. Allen more than proved his competency against Arizona, tossing four touchdowns and no interceptions en route to the second-best passer rating in a game in team history, but you want to know what’s a big help in accomplishing that?

A 6-5, 255-pound security blanket with an affinity for blue beanies.

“That was always kind of the hallmark of my career,” Olsen said. “Just being out there every game and being reliable for the quarterback.”

Which is exactly what he was. Allen went to Olsen early and often, including hitting him for 17 yards on his very first pass of the game.

“Early on, he was a big factor, and it really gave Kyle somebody to find,” coach Ron Rivera said. “But once we got to that position then other things opened up.”

On Olsen’s first touchdown, a 3-yard pass in the third quarter, Olsen didn’t have to do much. Receiver Jarius Wright set a basketball-style pick on a Cardinals defender in man coverage, allowing Olsen to get wide open on the left side of the end zone. “Super easy,” Olsen called it.

But the second one? Not so much. Up 28-20 with almost all of the fourth quarter left to play, Allen had a clear touchdown to Curtis Samuel swatted at the line of scrimmage on second down. On third down, Allen felt pressure, backpedaling to get away from defenders. Then he heaved it all the way across the field, into the back left corner of the end zone — and into Olsen’s arms as he streaked to the pylon.

It was just 3 yards, like the first one, but an entirely different set of circumstances.

“That was a huge play in the game. We needed a touchdown on that, we needed it,” Allen said. “We had the one the play before that got batted down, Curtis was wide open, so it was huge. It’s a third-down play. I think those third-down plays, the red-zone plays, the team that makes more of those plays is normally going to win the game.”

After the game, Olsen joked about ill-fitting clothes the team gave him to travel with. He smiled. That attitude may not seem significant, but considering it was almost gone forever, shouldn’t it matter more?

Through three games this year, Olsen already has 221 yards, more than he did the entirety of the 2017 season. That’s when the foot woes began, when his career longevity first came into question.

Even after rolling his back earlier this season, those questions are gone now. Olsen was listed as questionable for Sunday, but he — and everyone else around this team — knew he’d be out there. If he could, he would.

So why didn’t Olsen take one of those cushy broadcasting jobs? Why put his body on the line? Why risk a third catastrophic injury?

“I don’t know. I really still enjoy doing this,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business left to do. That would have been a sour way to end my career.

“To just fall off a cliff the last two years? Fall into obscurity? That’s not something I was overly excited about.”

But he didn’t. And now, especially as Newton’s status remains up in the air, his role on this team has never been more important.

Olsen’s fine with that. Glad, in fact.

That’s the reason he’s still here, right?

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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