Tight end Greg Olsen on the Panthers’ hot start (without Kelvin Benjamin!), this weekend’s playoff rematch against the Seahawks and celebrating a very special birthday
Of the five undefeated teams in the NFL, the Panthers may be the one getting the least amount of buzz. Maybe that’s because their four wins came against Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa Bay; or maybe it’s because they’re in one of the league’s smaller markets. But a lack of attention never bothered Greg Olsen, the productive tight end who wasn’t named to a Pro Bowl until his eighth season. As one of the team’s leaders, and Cam Newton’s favorite target, Olsen just wants to keep it going. Next up: A rematch of last season’s playoff game in Seattle. The nine-year veteran talked to The MMQB about this season’s fast start, getting open and a very special birthday last week.
VRENTAS: The Panthers are off to a 4-0 start for the first time in 12 years. Why do you think this team has come together so quickly?
OLSEN: A big part is just finding ways to win. I think in years past we may have played well at times, and then just didn’t close out close games. This year, we have been able to win in different styles: low scoring, higher scoring, offensive, defensive, getting turnovers. When you can win in multiple ways, and not just pin your hopes on one aspect of the game, it gives you more opportunities to win those close games.
VRENTAS: Do you feel like the Panthers are a team that is overlooked?
OLSEN: To a degree, that’s probably true, and why, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s just that people don’t pay a lot of attention to us, we’re not one of the big markets, we’re not one of the flashy teams. But we’re not too concerned about all that. We’re just concerned about our first step every year, which is putting ourselves in a position to win the division and make the playoffs and make a run for the Super Bowl. We don’t need votes; you don’t get points for all that; it’s not the BCS. If you win, you win.
VRENTAS: The NFC South is looking a lot different from last season.
OLSEN: It’s kind of funny. It’s pretty much the polar opposite. Last year, teams were trying to throw away the division, it seemed. Up until the end when we grabbed a hold of it, and it still came down to Week 17 between us and Atlanta. Now this year, both us and Atlanta have gotten off to fast starts and find ourselves in good position. It just shows how tides change in the NFL, and it’s hard to predict which teams are going to be up and which ones are going to be down.
VRENTAS: Your coach, Ron Rivera, said this week that it’s hard not to play the “what if” with wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Do you find yourself having to prevent playing that “what if” game, too?
OLSEN: It’s just human nature when you see him in the locker room, or in a casual setting in the training room and you think, Man, it would be nice to have that big ol’ guy out there. But we are used to it by now, we are used to not having him around. It’s just a reality, and it’s been this way now for a couple months. It’s unfortunate; it’s tough. But the season’s going to go on, and you have to be ready.
VRENTAS: How has the attention you’re receiving from opposing defenses been different without Benjamin out there?
OLSEN: It’s definitely changed. It sure helped having him on the other side, the attention that he grabbed and the coverage plans that other teams have for him. We’ve been playing teams that play a little more zone, but you can tell when you have a guy like Kelvin, or in years past, Steve Smith, out there. Steve Smith was my first real, true No. 1 guy that I could tell a difference when I came here, like, man, this is nice. The safeties are a little wider, those linebackers are a little wider, there’s a little more room to run in the middle of the field.
But we have receivers like Teddy Ginn, Jr., and Philly Brown, guys who can really run, and they bring a whole different element. [Opponents] keep their safeties a little deeper. There are ways that you can use the guys you have to your advantage, and we have really talented guys on the outside who are dynamic and can open things up on the inside. They pay us to find ways to get open and find ways to produce. There’s no excuses, no saying, “Well, they’re keying in on me; they’re doubling me.” That’s not how this game works. I’m expected to go out there and get open and produce for Cam, and you have to do it every week.
VRENTAS: One part of your game that stands out among tight ends is your ability to stretch the field and get big gains. What allows you to make those downfield plays?
OLSEN: When you look around the league, there are other guys who maybe have more catches and whatnot, but we really don’t get a lot of stat-padding catches around here, two to three-yard screens. You’re expected to run; you’re expected to win man coverage; you’re expected to win in space and go up and catch the ball down the field. A lot of our route tree and our expectations [as tight ends] are very similar to what they ask out of the receivers. It’s challenging, but it’s a fun challenge. We’ve been able to have some pretty big plays over the years and that’s just what they ask out of this position in this offense.
VRENTAS: Is there one aspect of your game you’ve focused on for your ninth season in the NFL?
OLSEN: I think the biggest thing for playing tight end in our offense is being prepared to do whatever each play asks. The thing here that makes it a challenge is you could go five or six plays where you are not involved in the passing game, but you are involved in pass protection or run blocking or in the backfield picking up and identifying blitz. Then all of a sudden, it is a key third down, and you are expected to flex out and go win man coverage and convert for a first down. We don’t just look at ourselves as each game we are going to impact the ball only if they throw it to us, we try to impact the game on every play, with or without the ball. The matchups on each play aren’t always in your favor, but you have to find a way to make it work. You might have just run four or five deep patterns and now you have to come back and make a crucial point of attack block on a big defensive end, block Michael Bennett, block these guys [on the Seahawks] we are going to play this week. It’s a constant challenge.
VRENTAS: Who’s one of the toughest players you have had to block?
OLSEN: These guys this week get a lot of recognition and deservedly so. I think the Seahawks are a very talented defense. They have guys at every level who can play. Up front, Michael Bennett, [Cliff] Avril, those guys are as good of outside players, defensive linemen, as it gets. The next level with Bobby Wagner, then the secondary it speaks for itself. These guys are layered with them. It’s definitely a unique challenge.
VRENTAS: Last season ended with a playoff loss to Seattle. Is this week’s game a benchmark to see how different this team is from last year?
OLSEN: You have to be careful this early in the season. Of course we want to go up there and win, and of course it would be a great win for our organization and our team because these guys have been the NFC standard for the last couple years. But you have to be careful putting all your eggs in one basket this early in the season. We want to win this game, yes, but we wanted to win last week and we want to win the next week. That really is the focus you have to have in the NFL. You can’t get up for one game and then take another game for granted. That’s the only way to make it through this long season.
VRENTAS: You used to face Jimmy Graham twice a season. What was your reaction when he was traded out of the division, from the Saints to Seattle?
OLSEN: I’m not going to lie, selfishly, I was happy that we don’t have to play him twice a year. I was surprised. Anytime you see a guy who has accomplished what he has, and been as productive as he has, and is relatively young, you don’t expect to see him get traded. Obviously they thought that was in the best interest for them. Personally, I like Jimmy. I think he is a good player, and I think he has been very productive, and he is learning what is going to be asked of him up in Seattle. I’m sure he will be as productive up there once he kind of gets his feet settled.
Every offense is going to ask different positions to do different things, and sometimes certain skill-sets work with one offense and not the other. But I think for a guy like Jimmy, I think he is talented enough, and he wants to be good, and he wants to do things right. He’ll find his groove up there, and I think a lot of this—I don’t want to call it controversy—but a lot of this chatter will start to quiet down. I think he will find his groove, but hopefully just not this week. I am hoping it’s a few weeks down the road.
VRENTAS: Cam Newton has been running more than ever this year. As a teammate, is that exciting, or do you ever wince seeing some of the hits your quarterback takes?
OLSEN: With a guy like Cam, he plays his game the way he’s played it for a long time. He knows how to handle himself on the field; he knows when it’s time to get down and save the hit, and he knows when it’s time to sell out and get those couple yards or touchdowns or first down or whatever the case is. He can handle himself on the field as well as anybody, so you just have to let him do what he does. He is a unique guy. There aren’t many guys out there his size who can run on the perimeter, run inside and then also play elite-level quarterback. He’s a rare bird, and we’re fortunate that he’s on our side.
VRENTAS: You just completed the raffle for your “Weekend with the 88s” fundraiser with Dale Earnhardt Jr., to raise money for the Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, where your son received care. Any idea how much money you raised?
OLSEN: We are going to announce our winner here in a couple days, and then they’ll be our guest for the first weekend of November, when we play Indianapolis at home on Monday night. We have a consulting company that does all the books, and they’ll report back to us soon how much money we’ll be able to donate to the hospital. This is obviously a cause that hit very close to home, and one that we feel very strongly and passionate about, supporting this amazing hospital and providing care for these children with congenital heart defects. This is just one of the things that we do on an annual basis, and we are going to continue to find ways to raise funds to support these families who need it.
VRENTAS: It’s been three years since your son, T.J., was born with a congenital heart defect that has required four open-heart surgeries. How is he doing today?
OLSEN: He just had his third birthday on Friday. He’s come through with flying colors on a lot of his surgeries and through some of his tough times and he is really doing well. He started school—this is his first year of going to school regularly, and he is finding his stride and doing awesome. Just over the bye week, I brought him into the locker room, and he loved it. He loves football; he’s all about it. So we are extremely thankful and feel really blessed that he has come as far as he has.